By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 12, 1999
It was supposed to be exactly what it turned out to be -- equal parts tennis and carnival.
Billie Jean King's victory over Bobby Riggs "was not about tennis. It was about social change," she said. "It was about changing a way of thinking, about getting women athletes accepted."
The ease with which she beat Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in the Battle of the Sexes, still the most watched tennis match (50-million worldwide on television; 30,472 at the Houston Astrodome), wasn't the point. It was that she won.
She was 29 and had bigger things on her mind than getting onto the court with a 55-year-old hustler who played his role as defender of male chauvinism to the hilt.
It was a different era, the advent of women's liberation. King took the movement into sports.
Riggs had won the Wimbledon singles, doubles and mixed doubles championships -- 34 years earlier. He had walked into a London bookmaker's office on the eve of the tournament, bet he'd win all three titles and walked away from Wimbledon with $108,000 from the bookie. He had won the 1939 and '41 U.S. Open titles.
More recently, Riggs had made a name for himself by becoming one of America's more sexist men, putting down women's tennis in particular and women in general. And here was the hustle of a lifetime -- man vs. woman.
King was ranked No. 2, and in 1973 she had matched Riggs' three Wimbledon crowns, the only other player, man or woman, to achieve the feat. She had won five Wimbledons and three U.S. Opens.
The match was anticlimactic, over almost as soon as it began. Technically it meant nothing -- yet it meant everything to an entire gender, serving to shatter the psychological myth that limited women's aspirations.
It was a $100,000 winner-take-all affair. King and Riggs also were guaranteed $75,000 apiece for ancillary rights to the promotion.
As a brass band blared marching music, King made her entrance in a gold litter, a la Cleopatra, carried aloft by four muscular men. Riggs rode in a golden rickshaw pulled by a harem of six showgirls.
They exchanged prematch gifts. Riggs gave King a gigantic candy sucker. She gave him a baby pig.
Riggs insisted on a best-of-five match rather than the best-of-three that women usually play. "Women can't play three-out-of-five sets," he said. But King knew better. She was 26 years younger, and this wasn't man vs. woman. It was age vs. youth.
The moment King saw how aggressively Riggs was attacking, she decided to run him ragged.
In the first set, Riggs couldn't even get his racket on 26 of King's 34 winners. He double-faulted at set point. He had said he would jump off a bridge if King beat him. After that set, a publicist for women's tennis handed out invitations to "The Bobby Riggs Bridge Jump."
By the midpoint of the second set, Riggs was obviously tiring, withering under King's favorite shot, the running crosscourt backhand. Her father, Bill Moffitt, at 55 the same age as Riggs, shouted "Go, baby, go!" after every point she won.
King broke to open the third set and went up 4-2. By then, Riggs was experiencing hand cramps. He didn't know King had leg cramps. "It was a combination of nerves and just all that running," she said after the match. "When I felt the first twinge I said, "Oh, God, not now -- not this close.' I was really worried." But a quick calf massage relieved the pain.
At 5-3, King twice failed to put Riggs away at match point. But a double fault by Riggs gave her a third chance and this time it paid off when he hit a high backhand volley into the net.
King flung her racket into the air. Riggs leaped over the net and embraced her, saying, "You were too good." It had taken her 124 minutes to alter the course of history.