‘Battle of the Sexes’ resonates 40 years later

The name itself struck an antagonistic tone: ”Battle of the

Sexes.”

From Bobby Riggs’ chauvinistic crowing to the entrances worthy

of the Roman Colosseum, the imagery was conflict, war.

Billie Jean King prefers to remember how that tennis match

”brought everybody together.”

”Everybody had parties,” she recalled during the U.S. Open

this month. ”You had the fraternities and sororities having

parties together. You had suburb parties where men and women were

together – betting against each other, but it brought them

together.”

”These people are together,” King added, ”whether they like

it or not.”

Friday is the 40th anniversary of a 29-year-old woman’s

straight-set victory over a 55-year-old man in front of more than

30,000 fans. Often the participants in culture-tilting moments look

back later and say they never realized at the time how big it would

be.

Not King on Sept. 20, 1973. She knew exactly what she was

getting herself into at Houston’s Astrodome.

”I knew how important it was,” she said. ”I did know. I felt

it. I knew it the moment I said yes to Bobby.”

King dreaded the repercussions for women’s causes if she lost.

She remembers saying then: ”It’s going to touch the emotions of

our preconceived ideas about gender and the culture we live

in.”

When Serena Williams won this year’s U.S. Open, she earned a

total of $3.6 million in prize money – same as men’s champ Rafael

Nadal – and became the first woman to surpass $9 million in a

season and $50 million in a career.

”The Battle of the Sexes” was the glitzy, gaudy symbol of

gender equality, but 1973 marked some very concrete steps – with

King right in the middle. This year is also the 40th anniversary of

the founding of the Women’s Tennis Association and equal prize

money at the U.S. Open.

Wimbledon didn’t adopt equal prize money until 2007.

A day after her win, Williams reflected on the fight from the

1970s through the 2000s.

”It’s amazing,” she said. ”It means so much because people

like Billie Jean King and Venus who stood up to Wimbledon – `We

want equal prize money’ – to all the pioneers who helped me get

this paycheck. What’s so beautiful about it is in 10 years, women

are going to be making so much more money, it’s going to be even

better opportunities for females out there. It’s not going to stop

here.”

In 1982, Martina Navratilova became the first woman to earn over

$1 million in a season; two years later, she topped $2 million.

When Steffi Graf retired in 1999, she had won nearly $22 million

in her career.

The WTA was founded a week before Wimbledon in 1973. King would

win the women’s singles and doubles and mixed doubles titles

there.

”I actually played a little tennis that year,” she

reminded.

When the tournament started, King said, ”I remember feeling

happy because I knew we had the WTA. I felt lighter, happier.”

By the end, she was exhausted even walking to the net to shake

hands, the years of struggle weighing her down.

The battle was won. The battle goes on. Last month, ESPN aired

allegations that Riggs threw the match. King called the story

”ridiculous.”

Reminiscing about the events of four decades ago, she can’t just

talk about tennis, can’t just talk about the past. Someone quoted

King a stat about the number of women in government in Afghanistan

compared with the United States; she wanted to look it up to see if

it was true.