King: We need to work together

Updated: September 20, 2005, 11:52 AM ET
By Cynthia Faulkner | ESPN.com

Editor's note: This story originally ran on Sept. 20, 2003, the day that marked the 30th anniversary of the historic Battle of the Sexes match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. On Wednesday, we are revisiting the event.

Thirty years later, wherever Billie Jean King goes, people still ask about it. King vs. Riggs. The Battle of the Sexes.

Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King raises her arms after defeating Bobby Riggs, rear, getting ready to jump over the net.

"When I walk out the door, if I'm going to be in the public, I know I'm probably going to hear it, a Riggs-King story," King said recently.

"They say a lot of things. They get angry with me because they lost money. They get happy with me because they won money. They tell me how it changed their life."

The match that was played on Sept. 20, 1973, and it crystallized on the court the battle between the sexes being played out across the country. At the time, King likes to remind, a woman couldn't even get a credit card in her own name without her husband's signature. It was assumed that you were a Mrs. or a Miss -- the term Ms. had yet to be coined -- and it was accepted that a woman would take her husband's last name -- no hyphen.

A lot of women said it helped their self-esteem," King said. "For the first time they actually asked for what they wanted and needed, for the first time in their life they may have asked for a raise that they thought about for 10 years and never had the courage at their job to ask for, and they did ask. Most of them say they actually got the raise, things like that."

The legislation that would promote equality for women in academics and sports -- Title IX -- had been passed only the year before. King's biggest fear was that a loss by her in this match would give its foes the ammunition they needed to repeal the law.

When Margaret Court lost to Riggs on Mother's Day that year, King said she knew Court was finished as soon as she curtsied to him. King never forgot facing Riggs would be a fight. She prepared by practicing with other men and came into the match aware of the pressure.

"I think I felt a humongous amount of responsibility that I had to win that match to help further women, women's tennis, women's sports, to help women and to help men understand that we should be working together," King said.

But she also knew that that the crowd of 30,472 and TV audience of nearly 50 million were expecting entertainment. She agreed to promoters' request to arrive on litter carried by garishly clad men. She presented Riggs, who readily acknowledged being a male chauvinist pig, with a piglet.

In the end, she came away with a straight sets victory 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

"Most of the men in their late 30s or 40s, probably 40s now, will come up to me and tell me how it changed their life," King said. "I call these men the first generation of men of the Women's Movement. They come up to me and tell me how it changed their life for all time. Now they have daughters, and they're bringing up their daughters very differently than they would have otherwise. They said they really insist that their daughters have equal opportunities with their sons."

Recently when honored as an inductee at the U.S. Open's Court of Champions, King bowed her head as the late Bobby Riggs was mentioned. King said she talked to Riggs before he died in 1995 and he told her he was pleased at what they did together. They made a difference.

"I know it helped tennis," King said. "Men's and women's tennis got TV contracts the next year. In '74 we had an explosion of participation because of it. We had our biggest growth in '70s ... we got to be about the eighth most popular sport in the '70s. It was a pretty exciting time, I must say."

In addition to helping the grown of tennis, King said it also helped women's sports grow. Equality is a cause she's dedicated her life to, and she's concerned that it still hasn't been achieved.

"Title IX is 30 years old and we're starting to go backwards on that," King said. "We still make 133 million dollars less in scholarship money every year we receive that. It's phenomenal how some of the public thinks the men are really getting hurt by all these different things.

"The men are definitely having to share the sandbox with the girls. But that's life, that's the way it goes. Believe me, if the girls had 100 percent of the sandbox, everybody would be screaming why the boys don't get to participate. So, we need to be equally vocal when its our gender, which has always been discounted."

Parity is something King kept in mind when she founded the World Team Tennis league where points are earned equally by the players no matter what their sex.

"When a little girl or little boy comes out to watch that they see the cooperative spirit and make sure they see a level playing field," King said. "I want to instill that, so they think it's normal for us to be working together."

She hopes more people will join the cause.

"We need men as allies and women as allies," King said. "We need to be together in trying to help women's sports and trying to help women. Men need to be helping; women need to be helping themselves."

Cynthia Faulkner is the tennis editor for ESPN.com.

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