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How Billie Jean King Won the Battle of the Sexes, as Told in 1973

4 minute read

The tennis match the world was watching this week in 1973 was a long time coming (and is now the subject of a movie with Emma Stone and Steve Carell, out Friday), but it was over relatively quickly.

The so-called “battle of the sexes” of Sept. 20, 1973, which pitted Bobby Riggs against Billie Jean King, was over in three straight sets and just a little more than two hours. The sex part was, unsurprisingly, the focus of the attention: The pre-show entertainment for the 48 million television viewers included a rousing rendition of the song “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,” and the competitors entered in fitting style, with King carried on a divan by a team of shirtless men and Riggs drawn by a group of the women he called his “bosom buddies.”

But the game was, TIME noted in the following week’s issue, much more of a mismatch in terms of age and athletic ability. Riggs was 55 and King, at the prime of her career, was 29. And the result of that difference was quickly clear, as the magazine noted:

…Then came the main event, a mixed singles mismatch between one excellent tennis player in her prime and another champion pathetically past his. To make matters worse, right at the start the psycher seemed to become the psychee.

As he made his duck-footed appearance before the largest crowd ever to witness a tennis match (30,472) as well as a Super Bowl-size TV audience, Riggs was grim, nervous, almost ashen. Billie Jean was stretched taut also, but it was the tension of a superior athlete fully confident of her capabilities.

Sure enough, though she started out playing as cautiously as Riggs, King took her first service easily. While switching sides, Riggs, still cocky, gave Tennis Promoter Dick Butera 2-1 odds (putting up $10,000). He then ran his best streak of the night, winning seven straight points. The fat cats in the $100 front-row seats, bedecked with signs that read WHISKEY, WOMEN AND RIGGS and WHO NEEDS WOMEN?, sat back and gleefully awaited a rout. It came, but not in the fashion that they or almost anyone else expected. King moved swiftly to the attack. She drove Riggs back to the far corners of the court, whipping him back and forth along the baseline like a bear in a shooting gallery. She fired low volleys at his feet, destroyed his famous lobs, put away almost every shot within reach. “I never could get over her head,” Riggs later admitted. He unaccountably fed her appetite for backhand smashes and volleys; a full 70 of her 109 points were outright winners—shots that Riggs never touched. Time and again he was forced to watch helplessly as Billie Jean rushed the net and slapped the ball past him. Between sets, Riggs‘ son Jimmy, 20, said: “Come on, Dad, wake up.” No chance. Riggs never really got into the game.

In the wake of the match, which all admitted in hindsight should not have really seemed suspenseful, Riggs himself admitted that he had been overconfident about facing a woman and had not prepared for the match. He had spent so much time promoting the idea of the battle of the sexes that he hadn’t really trained for the big day. Posing for a post-match photo, however, he kept up the hustle, asking for a rematch and for a kiss from Billie Jean King for the cameras. But, despite his showman’s patter, she had shown him — or, as one TIME reader put it in a letter to the editor, she had turned a male chauvinist pig into a meek “male chauvinist rabbit.”

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com