Tennis legend Billie Jean King said today in an interview on “This Week” that she felt like her historic “Battle of the Sexes” with Bobby Riggs was “life and death,” and dismissed recent allegations that Riggs threw the match 40 years ago, so he could win a bet.
The match, which took place in September 1973, is seen as a milestone for gender equality in professional tennis.
King was 29 years old during the famed showdown against Riggs, a 55-year-old former Wimbledon champion and proud male chauvinist. King, who holds 39 Grand Slam titles and 20 wins at Wimbledon, was a vocal advocate for equal pay for women in tennis.
She initially refused to play against Riggs, who was well known as a tennis and golf hustler, but King said she changed her mind after Riggs easily defeated Margaret Court, the top female player at the time, in a less publicized “Battle of the Sexes” match.
“I knew at that moment. I had to play him,” King said. “I thought we were on our way, we were changing things for women, and I wanted that to continue.”
King knew that a win against Riggs would be a win for feminism and equality, but a loss, she said, could set the movement back.
“Emotionally, I felt like it was life and death,” King said.
More than 50 million viewers watched as men from Rice University’s track team pulled King onto the court in a chariot. Her arrival was grand and her subsequent win seemed easy.
Riggs eventually jumped over the net to give King some well-earned credit.
“He said, ‘I underestimated you,’” King remembers.
However, a man claiming to have overheard Riggs before the match has stirred up controversy, saying that Riggs threw the match to win a bet. King dismissed the accusations.
“People are upset I beat his butt, that’s why,” King said.
Despite the initial rivalry and recent controversy, King said she respected Riggs and considered him to be one of her heroes.
“I stayed in touch with Bobby. The night before he passed away I talked to him,” King said. “He said, ‘We did make a difference.’”
The impact they made can be seen not only in tennis, but across the sports world. The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y., is named in her honor and King says that female athletes today are living the dream.
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