09.10.134:45 AM ET

Looking Back at Billie Jean

A new PBS documentary charts the tennis great’s activism on and off the courts and her role in the legendary Battle of the Sexes 40 years ago this month.

Another Grand Slam season has come and gone, with Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal respectively taking home their 17th and 13th major titles as the U.S. Open singles champs. The finals were ferocious matches to behold: Rafa ground rival Novak Djokovic down with his relentless forehands, while Williams lost a grueling and windy 70-minute second set to Victoria Azarenka before rallying in the third to crush her competition. With the Open’s winning pot of $2.6 million (along with a $1 million bonus), Williams also became the first woman to top $50 million in career earnings—almost twice as much as the next wealthiest player, her sister Venus, whose total stands at $28.8 million.

The prize money—not to mention the aggressive and muscular style of play popularized by the soeurs Williams—has made women’s tennis into a gladiatorial sort of spectacle these days, a far cry from the prim and flimsy midcentury game. The sport’s transformation can be traced back through greats like Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, but tennis’s first real female firebrand—the first one to throw tantrums and work the media and demand, loudly, that women should get paid as much as the men—was a shaggy-haired ’60s chatterbox named Billie Jean King. She was the premier player of her day, netting 39 Grand Slam titles—including three straight Wimbledon victories in ’66, ’67, and ’68—and leading the push for women’s tennis to go pro. And yet the match she’s best remembered for took place not on the gramineous greens of the All England Club or the red clay courts at Roland Garros, but under Houston’s cavernous concrete Astrodome. It was a televised circus of a game, against an over-the-hill Woody Allen lookalike and self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig. It was the talk of 1973. It was the legendary Battle of the Sexes.

Now, 40 years on, in our Lean In moment, the showdown between King and onetime Wimbledon victor turned aging hustler Bobby Riggs has been enjoying something of a renaissance. It’s been subject to parodies—during the U.S. Open quarterfinals, comedians Jason Biggs and Rainn Wilson faced off in a slapstick “Battle of the Sexes rematch” against lady tennis legends Monica Seles and Chris Evert—and to wild conspiracy theories, including allegations that the match was fixed by the Italian Mafia. Somewhat less sensationally, the Battle of the Sexes and its trailblazing heroine will appear on PBS as part of the American Masters documentary series on Tuesday night. The biopic assembles a star-studded cast of King friends and fans, including Hillary Clinton ("She was someone we were rooting for, almost a girlfriend”), Valerie Jarrett (“She was transformative … for women in general”), and Elton John (“She’s a crusader”). It also gives ample screen time to King herself, as she ruminates on her love of the game and relives the heated atmosphere surrounding the ’73 match.

King was born to play a sport, any sport. A child of ’50s middle-class Americana—her father was a firefighter and jock who played college ball with Jackie Robinson; her mother, a homemaker who sold Avon on the side—she grew up idolizing her athletic dad, who “believed in me as much as my brother,” King said, and who encouraged both his kids to be active. (“It wasn’t like the girl got one shot and I got five,” remembered King's brother, Randy Moffitt, who went on to become a pitcher in baseball’s major leagues.) Still, King knew that as a young woman, “I had very few opportunities in sports. I didn’t have American football We didn’t have professional basketball. We didn’t have anything for us.”

Then one day in fifth grade, as King likes to tell it, a friend’s casual invitation changed her world. The pal, a country-club kid, asked her to hit up the tennis courts for some fun. “What’s tennis?” King asked. “You get to run, jump, and hit a ball,” the friend replied. “My three favorite things,” King said. The Moffitts weren’t wealthy enough to send Billie Jean to private lessons, but she discovered that a nearby public park offered free tennis clinics and attended them religiously. She worked some odd neighborhood jobs to buy herself a new racquet. Soon thereafter, she announced at dinner, “Mom, Dad, I’m going to be the best player in the world.” Her brother and father didn’t doubt it. “When she made her mind up to do something, it was going to get done,” Moffitt said. Her mother was more dubious—“she always thought I should get married and have two or three kids,” King said—but “my dad was the one who said, ‘She’s got the dream ... You’re going to have to let her go.’”

It didn’t take long for King to rocket from dream to reality. At age 15, she had her Grand Slam debut. Three years later, in her second-ever singles appearance at Wimbledon, she trounced the top-seeded Margaret Court, who was still going by her maiden name of Smith and would later play a pivotal role in the run-up to the Battle of the Sexes. By 1964 King made it to the Wimbledon semifinals, and a year later she faced off against Court again in the U.S. Open finals, settling for a narrow defeat. But the 21-year-old Californian did not like to lose. When she botched a shot, she’d hurl her racket to the ground and huff off the court. She’d argue with the umpire, talk back about the calls, and throw her hands up in agony. If she did win—as at Wimbledon in her three-year rout in the late ’60s—she was hardly demure; typically she tossed her racket high in the air and whooped with glee. “You were playing her temperament as well as her game,” Court said. “I have a quick temper,” King agreed. “Probably I wasn’t as feminine as they’d like me to be.”

Indeed, the public seemed to hope she’d quiet down and act more ladylike. “The game is possibly not so attractive today,” said Davis Cup player Bobby Wilson at the time, “with the emphasis on some of the girls like Billie Jean King, who charge around the court very much like a man.” The press called King “too fond of herself” and questioned whether her nascent career would ruin her marriage. “I used to get really ticked off because they never asked the boys that,” King said. “Everything was about, is your husband OK? What’s right for him? Get your Mrs. Degree and settle down and have kids.” The husband in question, a fellow Golden Stater named Larry, was begrudgingly supportive—after all, King’s under-the-table prize money paid for his law school—yet “I started to realize that girls didn’t have the power,” King said. “I decided I was going to spend the rest of my life dedicated to fighting for equal rights and opportunity. I knew that tennis would be a platform if I could become number one.”

King’s growing social consciousness put her right in step with the times. It was the era of Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, and The Feminine Mystique; a time for women’s libbers, “sisterhood,” and college girls abandoning their bras and calling for revolution. “The feminist movement was really starting to happen,” King said. “Obviously that had to have an influence on me.” And she was starting to see how the boys’ club ruled her own game. When Wimbledon allowed its players to go pro in 1968, King—the female singles champion—took home £750 in prize money. The male winner, Rod Laver, raked in a cool £2,000—almost 300 percent more than King. “I didn’t have any idea we were going to get different prize money,” said King. “I thought it was totally unfair.”

Since the women played three sets to the men’s five, many critics countered that an equal pot was a ridiculous request. But players like French Open champion Nancy Richey called foul on that logic. “The issue to me was, can we draw as big a crowd as the men? And if the answer is yes, then we deserve the same amount of prize money.” Meanwhile, the pay gap continued to grow—reaching 12 to 1 in some tournaments. “We were in big trouble if we wanted to keep playing tennis,” King said. “Forget the money—just to play.” A group of top female competitors banded together to brainstorm—and one of them just happened to be Julie Heldman, the daughter of the founder of World Tennis magazine. Gladys Heldman had a deep Rolodex and an influential mouthpiece in her publication, which in its heyday was a kind of Vogue for tennis enthusiasts. She rounded up some heavyweight sponsors, including Virginia Slims cigarettes, and crafted an all-women’s pro tour. The reigning U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) objected and threatened to boot out any gal who signed up. “Can you imagine never being able to play Wimbledon again?” King said. “Or the U.S. Open?”

The women were rattled, and several, including Court, decided to pass on the invite rather than rock the boat. But nine players ultimately “crossed the line”: seven Americans and two Aussies, including Heldman, the memorably named Peaches Bartkowicz, and King. The athletes agreed to sign $1 contracts to play the circuit. “We weren’t sure about our destiny,” said King. “But I’ll tell you one thing, we knew it was now in our hands, for the first time. In our hands, not somebody else’s.” The stars worked to drum up crowds for the games, even flagging down cars to hand out tickets, while Virginia Slims coordinated a marketing blitz and sent the women to charm the press. The first match, in Houston in September 1970, offered up $7,500 in prize money to the victor. By the next year, the tour’s numbers had swelled to 40 players, and King took home a whopping $100,000 in winnings that year, spoils from 29 events. The president called to congratulate her. The USLTA, enraged and envious, set up a rival women’s tour. King felt vindicated. “There is nothing better for a human being,” she said at the time, “than to get paid for playing the sport well.”

The women were on top of the world—and their bravado soon stirred up a sniveling ex-star who sensed there was publicity in bashing the female-empowerment trend. By 1971 Bobby Riggs was a washed-up gambler and tennis has-been three decades away from his three Grand Slam singles wins. Desperate for some attention and a quick infusion of cash, he started loudmouthing about the lackluster talent of the lady players and challenging the top-seeded women to a show match. “Girls play a nice game of tennis, for girls,” Riggs boasted, “but when they get out there on the court, with even a tired old man, they’re gonna be in big trouble.” He also riffed off of the anti-feminist backlash percolating in the cultural undercurrent: “American women are the most privileged group of all time in history, and they’re still not satisfied,” he said, promising the game would help empower “enslaved” U.S. males. “We gotta stop those women right now.”

A new PBS documentary charts the tennis great's  activism on and off the courts and her role in the legendary Battle of the Sexes 40 years ago this month.

At first, King showed little interest in Riggs’s louche lures. She had bigger fish to fry—and secretly, she worried about the fallout if she happened to play a bum game. “My gut reaction was no, because what do I have to gain by it personally?” she said. “If I win, I’ve beaten a 55-year-old athlete ... If I lost, I thought, this will give everybody a chance to weaken the [new Title IX] law ... I was scared to death and didn’t want to give them any excuse. I didn’t want anybody to have any reason to say you girls—you women—don’t deserve it.”

Not every female player was so concerned with the big-picture implications of a win or loss. King’s old rival Margaret Court—in her prime at age 30, with 62 Grand Slam titles under her belt—decided to take Riggs up on the offer. They would play for $35,000 in prize money. But the demure Court was not cut out for psychological warfare and hardly expected the press onslaught that Riggs orchestrated before the event. When the match started, she set the defeatist tone by curtseying to Riggs across the court and accepting a chivalrous bouquet of roses from her competitor. As the rowdy crowd thumped and cheered for Riggs, Court became rattled. She made some rookie mistakes. Before long, Riggs had won the match, and Court’s female colleagues were bemoaning the loss as “disastrous” for women’s tennis.

Still, King continued to resist a head-to-head with the pint-size opportunist. “I did not even have time to think about playing Bobby Riggs in a match. What we were doing off the court was so demanding. I was totally overwhelmed,” she said. Indeed, 1973 was shaping up to be an incredibly busy year for King. At Wimbledon, she’d lobbied her fellow players in secret to successfully form the Women’s Tennis Association, in order to press for more equality on the court. She’d also managed to win her fifth Wimbledon singles title, a record for a woman at the time. Behind the scenes, life was even more chaotic—King had realized that she was gay and had started a clandestine affair with her secretary, Marilyn Barnett. “I was leading this dual life,” she said, terrified that the press would pick up on her homosexuality. And yet the idea that she might be able to “help social issues move forward” if she defeated Riggs lodged in the back of her mind. “As time went on, I started to think I had to play Bobby.”

Eventually, King accepted Riggs’s challenge and showed him up front that she was no Margaret Court. “I love pressure. You can try to psych me all you want,” she told Riggs on national television. “When you get out on the court, all the talking in the world isn’t going to help.” When Riggs pulled his usual buffoonery—going on Johnny Carson to say that he liked women “real good in the bedroom [and] kitchen” and calling himself “a gladiator ... for all the males all over the world”—King just rolled her eyes. “This is the atmosphere of a prize fight,” one sportscaster commented to the duo. “Yeah, that’s exactly what it is,” King sneered. When Riggs shit-talked, King served it right back. “Never bet against Bobby Riggs, especially when there’s big money involved,” he bragged. “He hustles off the court, I hustle on the court, and that’s where it matters,” she replied. They staged photo ops comparing the size of their biceps, while Riggs hammed it up in velour tracksuits with bevies of starlets. ABC offered up big money to air the match, and the Astrodome won a massive bidding contract to host it. “She’s psyched out already. She’s coming apart at the seams,” Riggs gloated.

Instead King was quietly making sure not to underestimate her opponent. For all his campy charades, Riggs had been a formidable champion in his time. A week before the showdown, King retreated into solitude, to hone her mind to a “take no prisoners” place and train like a warrior. “I didn’t know the odds, but I’m sure Bobby did,” she said. Meanwhile, seemingly everyone in Hollywood and the pro-sports world had flown to Houston to see the bloodletting up close. Bookies took monster bets on the outcome. Just before the show, King went to the bathroom and heard a group of women praising Riggs’s chances. “They thought he would win,” she said. “Thanks a lot for being so loyal,” she chastised them. Even her colleague Chris Evert had publicly placed her money on Bobby. “I knew I’d be remembered the rest of my life if I won or lost this match,” King said.

Before a boisterous crowd some 30,000 strong, King took to the court in a snug blue and white tennis dress. Riggs appeared wearing a yellow poncho with the words “Sugar Daddy” emblazoned on the back. The match started; they would be playing best of five. King hit the first point wide. Then the second one. She kept making simple errors. Riggs pulled ahead, three games to two. “Whoever won the first set was critical,” King remembered thinking. “I had to win this first set.” She steadied her mind and eked out a narrow 6–4 victory with a spectacular set point. Riggs “thought Billie Jean was going to roll over like Margaret rolled over,” said King’s husband, Larry. “And all of a sudden, he realized it wasn’t going to happen. He had to go out and beat her.”

During the second set, Riggs started to rally, but King relied on her wicked backhand to slice the balls deep down the baseline. King took the second set 6–3. Riggs was seriously in trouble. The men in the crowd began to scream his name. King quickly built a lead in the third set and reached match point at 5–3. She served, Riggs returned it, and she lobbed it straight into the net. After a long rally, King reached match point again. Riggs hit a hard serve, King returned, and then it was Riggs’s turn to fumble; running in close, his backhand hit snagged in the net. King threw her raquet in the air in jubilation. Riggs vaulted over the net to congratulate her. “I underestimated you,” he said. Female spectators flooded the court in glee. Sure, it was a silly match—but King and the other ladies knew that, somehow, it mattered. “I wanted people to respect women a lot more,” King said. “If this match did that, then I’d be happy.”

While Riggs’s name and fame quickly faded to history, King went on to a storied doubles career. Along the way, she continued to press the big tournaments to provide equal prize money to women—all of them now do, with Wimbledon being the last to join in 2007. (King also became an early role model for gay athletes, after she was outed by her former lover Barnett in 1981.) In the 1990s, she also met two sisters playing the amateur circuit, vivacious and powerful girls by the names of Venus and Serena Williams. They have carried King's torch forward into a new generation of big personalities and thrilling play—and the spectators have Billie Jean to thank for that.

A new PBS documentary charts the tennis great's  activism on and off the courts and her role in the legendary Battle of the Sexes 40 years ago this month.