Bobby Riggs vs. Billie Jean King

1973: la n.2 del tennis mondiale e un campione di Wimbledon in ritiro (© Corbis)

1973: No.2 of the court and a Wimbledon champion in retreat (© Corbis)


The battle of the sexes

Exceeded half a century of life, Robert Larimore Riggs, detto Bobby, could see before him the looming retirement. His triumphs tennistici remained confined to a distant past, gave him very little consolation in the mirror now that loomed a thick mesh of wrinkles. Wimbledon champion, on 1939 was a winner of the singles title, doubles and mixed doubles. The Second World War had not stopped her turning professional with the American Professional Singles Championship which he won two years in a row, on 1946 and in 1947, and then confirmed again in 1949.

Contemptuous of the workouts but with a natural talent able to save it in all circumstances, was similar to those smart students but listless, who always get away with acuteness and gab. He was constantly in need of new ideas for his victories, which led him to pursue a career as a punter. With variant, questionable, to become the object of his bets. He admitted, afterwards, to have won a fortune betting on himself at Wimbledon.

Anyhow, those days were over. Bobby Riggs could no longer take the field with all the usual glorious beer mugs. As soon as the spotlight on him had died, had said goodbye to the competition. It was not the type to stay behind the scenes, rent pretendeva the Ribalta, and against the younger players had no chance: was the arrival on the pitch of tennis players such as Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzales to push him to retire.

Riggs negli anni Quaranta

Riggs in the forties


The racket hanging on a nail for twenty years, then, at least up to that ruthless comparison with the mirror step in the fifty. His best game Bobby had yet to play, I was fully aware. He decided to return to the scene, as long as there was a worthy opponent to face him. The younger players were unwrapped, the abysmal difference in age would have destroyed the departing. The chi, the unpredictable choice: would play against a woman. And not just any, claiming, across the network, the best champions of the time: Billie Jean King e Margaret Court. Following the betting favorite art, Riggs began giving away a check of thirty-five dollars for the winner. That, from his point of view, could not have been anyone but himself. Behind this gesture masked the desperate need for a man to live up despite his age, although the challenge appeared in a very different role: a battle between the sexes for supremacy in the sport.

The Mother’s Day Massacre

The initiative appeared to Billie Jean King for what, actually, era: the antics of a sample forgotten that aims at any cost to return to the limelight. Dismissed the matter leaving shine through all its worth: «We have nothing to gain by», cut short.

Ben diverse fu, instead, the reaction of the Court, first player in the standings and only won all four Grand Slam titles in. From his pedestal felt unbeatable, so identified in that challenge an easy opportunity to feed his glory, deigning little consideration of the strong social implications that would ensue. Bobby Riggs faced the 13 May 1973 a Ramona, in California, the day of Mother's Day. The incident became known as The Mother’s Day Massacre a defeat so withering as to leave no trace. La Court venne battuta in soli 57 minutes and two sets of game Riggs, afterwards, appeared with his haughty grin on the front pages of Sport Illustrade and Time Magazine. Indeed, it had not been a confrontation in order to demonstrate a gender equality, but only a challenge between two people imbued with glory, both too confident of winning.

Bobby Riggs e Margaret Court  (© AP Photo/Wally Fong)

Bobby Riggs e Margaret Court (© AP Photo/Wally Fong)


La Court era una fervida credente, faithful follower of a Protestant church, and mother; little interested in the battles for women's rights. Took up the challenge on a personal level and, similarly, the consequent defeat. He would soon be forgotten by collecting more successes, including a record number of victories – sixty-two – al Canal sludge.

That defeat burned from King, pentitasi suddenly that she had accepted the challenge. He told Margaret that this would not be a game of tennis, ma un circo, nevertheless, it was keen to wish her good luck. And he added: «Do me a favor, Margaret. Battilo».

The request for Billie Jean was the same that echoed in the minds of all women who challenge that looked like a pathetic sexist presumption. Probably not the Court took the matter in Riggs and saw a rival as many, rather, even less valid than others in line of seniority.

Billie Jean instead recognized in that defeat a setback collective. And she was unwilling to accept.

For years he fought because they were paid tennis players as men and debacle Margaret seemed to scupper its protest actions. He was on board a plane to Honolulu when he learned the news. The decision was immediate: gave up the trip and returned to the ground to beat Bobby.

A rematch social

Riggs, dazzled by the lights again trained on him, did not wait more than a second challenge. The fact that the King had recanted his refusal the imbaldanziva, not to mention that she herself had beaten Margaret Court the previous year. The prospect of a second victory, to emphasize the first, I entusiasmava.

Meanwhile bother to assert its position in front of the press, making statements capable of upsetting public opinion at the time: «The place of women is in bed and in the kitchen, in this order ». It called itself a chauvinist pig. Indeed, it was simply a stage animal, incurably afflicted with delusions of leadership.

While he was waiting around to ferment the match, Billie Jean was preparing to fight his crusade in defense of women's rights. Only the previous year had been approved by the Nixon Title IX, a law that banned gender discrimination in schools and sports. The King wanted to fight for this and for all the women who, in America in the seventies, for equal work were paid less than men and often relegated to lower crafts. For women who were forbidden to have an abortion and even make decisions about their own person. Guided by these aims had founded the Women's Tennis Association of which he was the first president, e il WomenSports Magazine. She had been the first woman to earn one hundred thousand U.S. dollars in just one season, an unprecedented, which would have had a major impact in the road to emancipation.

The match between Billie Jean and Bobby had strong resonance in the media. The day of the event over 30.472 spectators gathered the Astrodome in Houston, in Texas, despite the mind-boggling prices imposed on tickets. Who could not attend in person kept her eyes fixed on the TV screen; opinions are divided, that victory had turned into a popular bet.

La battaglia dei sessi Astrodome di Houston, 20 settembre 1973  (© AP Photo)

Astrodome in Houston, 20 September 1973 (© AP Photo)


Riggs had bothered to prepare well for his theater, also planning a grand entry on the playing field. On Thursday evening, 20 September 1973 showed up wearing a jacket “Sugar Daddy” a canary yellow color and reached the meeting place aboard a rickshaw pulled by golden girls in skimpy clothes. Billie Jean da fu non meno: followed him in a carriage adorned with colorful plumes, vestita of modern Cleopatra, accompanied by an escort of dudes on the football team at the University of Houston. A fight for equal rights gave the whole idea of ​​a carnival parade; but, while Riggs was left overwhelmed by the flash of photographers, The King was very clear his goal.

Imposed a strategy of attack surprising the opponent: playing from the baseline forced Bobby to a style serve-and-volley that he was not congenial. Billie Jean had studied carefully the challenges between Riggs and Don Budge to seize the weak point of the rival. The challenge ended in three sets out of five, with landslide victory 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 della King.

A match ended, Riggs jumped the dividing and congratulated her, sussurrandole: «I underestimated you». The reconciliation, however, was only temporary because, after being closed in his hotel room for over four hours, Bobby at the press conference asked the revenge. The King was not going to support him: «There is nothing to prove».

The argument of match fixing

The resonance of the event that gave rise to the inevitable vociferarono gossips about a rigged game. A golf instructor, Hal Shaw, claimed to have heard a conversation between Riggs and the Mafia in which the tennis player agreed to be missed if in return were paid off gambling debts. Bobby always denied his involvement in certain business. Retorted sharply: «Many people, especially men, are not happy when a woman wins. He does not like and then you make up stories».

Years later, the son of Riggs, Larry, confirmed that his father in the past had relations with the Mafia. The defenses, however, arguing that at the time any man involved in the entertainment world had no such ties. Billie Jean, of course, not approved any of these reconstructions, rather, argued that, during the game, there was in his eyes and movements of the full Riggs will to win. «We must accept the fact that he had a bad day», ended with diplomacy 'just as he had when he played against Bobby Margaret».

Billie Jean King durante la partita dei sessi  (© AP Photo)

Billie Jean King during the game between the sexes (© AP Photo)


That the King was a hasty solution to sum up a debate that will last; certainly not for her, that he had had no bad days, at least on the playing field. In most stormy life was, rather, his decision to fare outing destroying a stable marriage with the lawyer Lawrence King, known in college. Matter made public at a press conference, leaving Mr. King somewhat stunned, on the other hand at all intimidated about having to face a new battle. Its role, always on top, in defense of social equity, and was awarded in a survey of the magazine Seventeen of 1975 the title of "most admired woman in the world." He had beaten even Golda Meir.

A peer reconciliation

Bobby Riggs was unable to completely repent because the humiliation, despite stinging defeat, that game would be delivered to the memory of posterity. After all the spotlight again turned on his person, maybe the network of wrinkles in the mirror had seemed a little more acceptable, more dignified.

His relations with the King were maintained good, Forgotten any divergence, had always been in a certain sympathy for each other. He died at seventy-seven suffering from prostate cancer, l’ultima frase che disse a Billie Jean, in a telephone conversation, was: «Be’, we did. We really made a difference, not?».

His goal had always been to the bottom: make a difference, on the stage, rise above the lines. His idea would have had no history, would be reduced to a masterpiece of presumption, without the intervention of Billie Jean, who transformed it into a vehicle of social communication. The self-esteem of all women took a leap when the racket Billie has dealt the final blow. The flicker of the ball has scored a class win.

Alice Figini
© All rights reserved


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