The Battle of the Sexes in the Age of Serena
Billie Jean King and Serena Williams' tennis gender wars share a strange link: controversial legend Margaret Court.
Billie Jean King’s Battle of the Sexes against Bobby Riggs on September 20, 1973, and Serena Williams’ 2018 US Open Final battle against umpire Carlos Ramos are two occasions when tennis went beyond the sports page. They inspired heated discussion about what gender equality truly means and how far we still have to go achieve it.
Margaret Court connects these moments. She is—on pure numbers—the most accomplished individual in tennis ever, female or male. Yet today only a hardcore tennis fan would be able to recite her resume. Many don’t know the name at all… and a good percentage of those who do know it wish she would finish fading away already.
The greatest winner the sport has ever seen, it’s the cruelest of ironies that Court’s most lasting contribution to tennis was the humiliating defeat that paved the way for the sport’s most famous match.
This is the strange yet essential role Margaret Court played in the Battle of the Sexes and the controversial part she plays in tennis to this day.
The Aussie Amazon
Margaret Smith was born on July 16, 1942, but she seemed like she came from the future of tennis. At 5’9″, she could look down on many top male players, including fellow Australian icon Rod Laver. This size was complemented by force. The New York Times ran an article in 1970 titled “Mrs. Court’s Strength Adds to Net Skill.” The Tennis Hall of Fame describes the “Aussie Amazon” as “perhaps the fittest player on tour, her strength and endurance buoyed by weight, circuit, and cardio training and running sand hills.” Much as the Williams sisters would do decades later, she utterly overpowered the competition.
And Margaret overpowered them almost immediately, winning the Australian Open in 1960 when she was only 17. The other majors quickly followed, with titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. She completed a career Grand Slam in all three events just before she turned 22. And with her marriage to Barry Court in 1967, she acquired the perfect tennis name to pair with those physical gifts.
Court and her sport would soon undergo major changes. Court began to have children and periodically retire. Tennis entered the Open era in 1968 as pros were allowed to compete along with amateurs at Grand Slams. Yet Court continued to win, even as another player established herself as a superstar.
“I Wanted to Use Sports for Social Change”
Looking purely at their individual numbers, Billie Jean King is a true tennis great but not in the same class as Court. (She’s quite a bit shorter too, standing under 5’5″.) Starting in 1966, King won 12 Grand Slam singles titles, plus another 16 in doubles and 11 in mixed doubles for a total of 39.
Impressive, but nowhere near Court’s 24 singles, 19 doubles and another 21 mixed doubles—a staggering 64.
Court also took the head-to-head matchup, 22-10.
But King saw beyond her own play. Of all the remarks Bobby Riggs made mocking women, this one may have bothered King the most: “Women play about twenty-five percent as good as men, so they should get about twenty-five percent of the money men get.” In fact, the gulf could be even greater—King was spurred into action when a tournament wanted to adopt an 8 to 1 pay ratio. She was one of the Original 9 in 1970, a collection of nine players who risked being banned from Grand Slams to compete for better pay at the Virginia Slims Invitational. Its success paved the way for King to found the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973 and serve as its first president.
Of the Original 9, the other eight were Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Judy Dalton, Kerry Melville Reid, Julie Heldman, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon and Valerie Ziegenfuss.
You may notice one star’s name is absent. Court generally avoided social issues. That was for the best, as one of the few times she spoke out came in 1970 when she declared: “It is a tragedy that politics has come into sport, but if you ask me, South Africa has the racial situation rather better organized than anyone else, certainly much better than the United States.”
Yet when Court agreed to play Bobby Riggs, she briefly made herself the face of the movement for women’s equality. And in less than an hour, she did a staggering amount of damage.
The Battle Begins
Riggs was a former #1 tennis player, but by 1973 the 55-year-old’s glory days were decades in the past. His peak was in the 1930s and ’40s. Desperate for publicity and a payday, he sought to play an elite female player. He initially aimed for King, dubbing her, “The sex leader of the revolutionary pack.”
King recognized that beating a man in his 50s would achieve nothing for women’s tennis and a loss would be devastating.
So Riggs went to Court. She agreed for $10,000. Court only made $7,500 for winning the US Open in 1970.
King tried to convince Court of this challenge’s significance: “You have to win this match. You have no idea how important this is.” She publicly expressed her concerns too, telling the press: “Our reputation is at stake, and I’m afraid Bobby will win. Here is an old jerk who dyes his hair, waddles like a duck and has trouble seeing. We have nothing to gain.”
The Mother’s Day Massacre
May 13, 1973. That was when Riggs met 30-year-old Court in Ramona, California. (It’s in San Diego County.) Riggs was decades removed from a good career—Court was still near the prime of a truly great one. She could look down on him in every sense—he stood only 5’7″.
Riggs correctly realized he was no match for Court physically, so he made it psychological. He told her: “Do you realize, Margaret, that this is the most important match ever played? Just think how many women are counting on you.”
Then in just 57 minutes Riggs destroyed Court: 6-2, 6-1.
This was a mental victory, not a physical one. Riggs essentially lobbed the ball back, counting on Court to make mistakes rather than generating winners himself. Former men’s #1 Pancho Segura offered some analysis during the match and correctly asserted that Riggs was “softballing Margaret to death.” He added, “Margaret hasn’t been able to realize it yet.”
After the match, Court conceded Riggs rattled her: “I’m not used to such a slow pace. Bobby kept changing his pace and breaking my rhythm. I got off to a bad start and never recovered.”
Riggs had already envisioned his next move: “Now I want King bad. I’ll play her on clay, grass, wood, cement, marble or roller skates. We got to keep this sex thing going. I’m a woman specialist now.”
Riggs joked about men being four times better than women. He was on the money: He won 12 games to Court’s three. The most accomplished player in women’s tennis history had been obliterated by a loudmouth who hadn’t played professionally for years.
Now King had no chance but to go into action.
Bobby Gets His Battle
While it drew a fair amount of attention—John Wayne actually showed up in person—Court v. Riggs was mostly viewed as an oddity. The Billie Jean King match was big time. Held at the Houston Astrodome, over 30,000 fans attended and estimates suggest as many as 90 million people watched on TV.
The money had grown too: Winner take all for $100,000. This was misleading, as the players had been guaranteed at least $75,000 from event revenue.
While feeling incredible pressure, King chose to embrace the madness of the event and not get rattled. She shrugged off Riggs cheerfully spouting observations like: “I like women. I like them so much, I think every man should own two.” King has championed the 2017 movie Battle of the Sexes as “99 percent right.” Conceding it altered some details for dramatic purposes, she believes it was always accurate to the way the events felt.
And yes, King was indeed carried on to the court by four shirtless men who held up her throne.
Once on it, Billie Jean did what Margaret could not: Beat Riggs. Indeed, she destroyed him 6–4, 6–3, 6–3.
Did Riggs Rig It?
Riggs loved to gamble, quipping, “The second-worst thing is betting on a golf game and losing. The worst is not betting at all.” Having beaten Court so thoroughly, it was a shock when King overwhelmed him. Unsurprisingly, there are rumors Riggs threw the match. All parties involved deny it. Riggs in particular insisted the loss was due simply to overconfidence on his part, having crushed Court so completely.
There are two major reasons to think the Battle of the Sexes was on the level:
-Winning would have guaranteed Riggs additional glory, attention and, yes, money. Why would a hustler as clever as Riggs have thrown away future paydays?
-If you watch Court-Riggs, you don’t see Riggs win so much as Court lose. (Indeed, she is so horrific at times it seems like Court might be throwing the match.)
Whereas King kept her composure and recognized time was on her side—a 55-year-old, male or female, can only run with a 29-year-old for so long.
Thus Billie Jean King scored a victory for women everywhere, one still celebrated today. (I have a three-month-old daughter and can report Billie Jean has already made appearances in two books given to our child.)
Riggs was gracious in defeat. He and King developed a friendship and spoke the day before his death in 1995.
In the wake of the two Battles of the Sexes, Court continued to do what she usually did: Win. She claimed the 1973 US Open and didn’t fully retire until 1977.
And in retirement she and Billie Jean King would once again find themselves facing off.
“Tennis Is Full of Lesbians”
Court is now a Pentecostal minister. As such, she has repeatedly engaged in what can only be termed homophobia. Examples? Her declaration: “Tennis is full of lesbians because even when I was playing, there was only a couple there, but those couple that led took young ones into parties and things.”
Her insistence that transgender identity is the “work of the devil.”
And her criticism of the openly gay player Casey Dellacqua for starting a family. (In response, Dellacqua tweeted simply: “Margaret. Enough is enough.”)
In this clip, Court speculates that homosexuality is a conscious decision individuals make.
Court has been a particularly outspoken critic of same-sex marriage. While her efforts weren’t terribly effective—Australia legalized it in 2017—they did cause her to go head-to-head with an old rival yet again.
King was outed in 1981. Yet she largely ignored Court’s remarks on sexuality until 2018, when she said Court’s name should be removed from her arena at the Australian Open: “I was fine until lately, she says so many derogatory things about my community. I personally don’t think she should have her name [on the arena] anymore. If you were talking about Indigenous people, Jews or any other people, I can’t imagine the public would want someone to have their name on something.”
Which brings us to the 2018 US Open.
How Court Connects to a New Controversy
Historically, the US Open has a comparatively good record on gender. In 1973, it was the first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money with the men. ($10,000 in 1972, it was bumped up to $25,000.)
Wimbledon would not offer equal prize money until 2007.
Yet many thought 2018 proved there is still a long way to travel. This won’t delve too deeply into Naomi Osaka’s victory over Serena Williams and the three code violations given to Williams by the chair umpire—it’s received plenty of coverage already. But it’s worth noting two responses to the controversy.
King was mostly on Serena’s side: “The rules are what they are, but the umpire has discretion, and Ramos chose to give Williams very little latitude in a match where the stakes were highest. Did Ramos treat Williams differently than male players have been treated? I think he did.”
Court has been generally supportive of Serena’s run at her record, albeit in a slightly passive-aggressive way: “It’s so much easier for players today to do what they do. She hadn’t played for about three months before coming here, and it easier to do these things… But she’s playing very well, and records are made to be broken.”
On the umpiring, however, Court was decidedly not on Team Serena and offered a very different take than King: “I don’t think it would have mattered if it was a men’s match or a women’s match because we’ve seen with [Serena] that when she’s under pressure these things happen… I don’t think it has anything to do with sexism.”
This is a valid enough opinion. But critiquing a fellow champion for their behavior “under pressure” when you imploded during your most famous match takes some stones. It’s another reason why—for all her achievements—Court is often ignored. While coverage of the US Open frequently mentioned that Serena was looking to tie the Grand Slam record as a mother, they often failed to note that the record was held by Court, who had won after giving birth herself.
A Tale of Two Legacies
“Billie Jean has been my ultimate inspiration and taught me so many things about being a champion and staying a champion,” Serena proclaimed in 2013, paying tribute to the King.
Serena, like every tennis player, should feel grateful every time she checks her bank account. Thanks largely to equal prize money at Grand Slams, she has career earnings of over $86 million. Not counting endorsements.
Compare that to golf. The richest first prize in women’s golf is $900,000 for the U.S. Women’s Open. The men’s U.S. Open pays the winner $2.16 million. All four men’s majors have a top prize of more than $1.8 million. Indeed, there are currently more than 40 tournaments for men with a top prize over $1 million or greater. Which is why the LPGA money leader would struggle to crack the men’s top 50.
In tennis, the women’s #1 would currently be #3 on the men’s side, just ahead of Roger Federer.
King and Serena are uniquely transformative figures in sport—Court likely could have never matched their impact. But she may feel a twinge when she looks at her Australian contemporary, Rod Laver. Unlike Court, most of Laver’s stats haven’t stood the test of time. Once generally accepted as the greatest male tennis player ever, it becomes increasingly difficult to make this argument as Federer (20) and Rafael Nadal (17) leave his 11 Grand Slams very much in the distance.
Yet Laver is still celebrated, even beloved. Witness the creation of the Laver Cup, pitting Team Europe against Team World. It’s already seen renowned rivals Fed and Rafa coming together as a doubles team.
Don’t expect a Court Cup any time soon.
Court has stated she happily pays a price for her views. But should Serena pick up two more Slams and put her permanently in the rear mirror, even the Aussie Amazon may one day flip on the radio, hear Elton John’s #1 hit (and tribute to Billie Jean) “Philadelphia Freedom” and wonder what might have been.
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