UP   |  September 15, 2013

The battle of the sexes that changed women's tennis

The Up panel explains how tennis star Billie Jean King changed the U.S. landscape for women 40 years ago this week, why she was such an interesting champion for women in sports, and the battle of the sexes that made it all.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> well, last sunday at the billie jean king national tennis center in new york city , serena williams , the world's top female tennis player , claimed her fifth u.s. open title. she takes home a record $3.6 million in prize money . the same amount that rafael nadal pockets for the men's championship the next night. even though both matches feature the top players in the world, nearly twice as many americans tune in to watch the women 's final than the men's final. four years earlier in 1973 , margaret court and john newcombe take home checks of $25,000 each. a lot less money than $3.5 million, but they at least get the same amount. that's because of the previous year's winner. billie jean king , the player whose name would one day grace the site of the u.s. open . billie jean king earned $15,000 less than nastasi for winning the 1972 u.s. open . she got $10,000 to his $25,000. and billie jean king said if the prize money wasn't equal by the next year, by 1973 , she would not be playing. she didn't think other women would be playing either. what she said, it worked. at that time, there is no wnba, no danica patrick , no u.s. women 's soccer team playing under the lights at the rose bowl , in front of 100,000 people, there is only billie jean king , demanding equal pay for equal work at the u.s. open . and no small achievement when a married woman can't open a credit card in her own name. in 1970s , billie jean king convinces her colleagues to form a players union , a wta, the women's tennis association . she's part of the first tour of tennis tournaments for women players, sponsored by virginia slim cigarettes. sometimes she and the other players would show up and there wouldn't be any tennis balls at the arena. they would have to hand out tickets on the streets, sometimes even stopping cars. billie jean king starts women 's sports magazine, and the women 's sports foundation, an organization devoted to promoting athletic opportunities for women . billie jean king also sets out to prove that women who play tennis can be just as talented as the men are. meet bobby riggs , a retired tennis pro, former wimbledon champion, he's 55 years old, and he is an admitted, a proud male chauvinist. 1973 , bobby riggs beats u.s. open champchampion, margaret court , in an exhibition match . the cover of " sports illustrated " gloats never bet against this man with his picture. bi billie jean king wants to take that bet. the battle of the sexes to take place at the houston astrodome , the most famous construction since the pyramids. 90 million people in 37 countries around the world tune in to watch that. and in a career where billie jean king would win 140 career titles, 39 grand slams , a career that would also see her get presidential medal of freedom , where billie jean king is remembered for most is how she changed the american landscape for women 40 years ago this week.

>> mrs. king trounced riggs in three straight sets last night, it wasn't much of a contest. riggs had said over and over he would psych out mrs. king, but mrs. king ran her 55-year-old opponent ragged with overheads and passing shots. and when it was over, riggs had just enough energy to jump over the net. billie jean savored her victory at court side and her fans across the country did the same.

>> well, the two men in my family left me alone with the match after we saw how it was going to go and watched bonnie and clyde . i loved every minute of it.

>> he said women should stay pregnant or something, didn't he? they should be kept home and kept pregnant. i mean, you know, i'm glad a woman beat him.

>> and i want to bring many selena roberts, and we have mike pesca , national desk correspondent and sports reporter for npr and susan ware, author of the book "game, set, match." thanks for coming here. i guess -- i'll start with you, selena, maybe just set the stage, take us back to 1973 , take us back to what women 's sports was like, what the atmosphere was like in 1973 and how this battle of the sexes that played thought week, how it fit into that.

>> billie was the perfect face for a new shade of that revolution. i think that when people think about the women 's movement back then it was very hard-line, it was very visceral and very angry at times and billie really, and i think gloria steinem said this over and over , she brought a different face to the movement. she brought the face of someone who would smile and the face of somebody like bobby riggs and who would, in so many different ways ask for the same thing, equal pay , equal treatment , but it was coming from a different voice. it was coming from a girl next door . and i think that's what she did. she empowered the movement by broadening it, by getting it out of the hard line and into the mainstream and this was a perfect vehicle for her to do so, to take on a guy, a bit of a huckster, to play along in many ways, to laugh when he would say absurd things, and then to go and beat his butt. and that's what she did.

>> so, susan, in 1973 , billie jean king is 30 years old, she's a very accomplished tennis player, but tell us who is billie jean king in 1973 , what does america see, who is she?

>> they're seeing her mainly as a tennis player. she's also a tennis player who embraced and linked her career with the women 's movement. i think what we need to remember is that in the early 1970s , the women 's movement was a topic of great conversation and confusion for a lot of americans. and what is so interesting about her is that she's able to link her desire to be the number one tennis player and to improve things for women 's professional tennis with her own career. and people really are seeing her on the tennis court , but they're also seeing her against a backdrop of this new social movement called feminism which is just sweeping the country.

>> she -- so bobby riggs wins the -- the first battle of the sexes and bobby riggs and " sports illustrated " puts him on the cover and then he wants to play against billie jean king . she doesn't want to participate in this match, right?

>> she knows she has to do it. there was a sense of so much riding on this match. i think it is hard for people who didn't actually watch it live. i remember watching it. and just being on the edge of my seat. and i watched a tape of the whole match recently, i was still on the edge of my seat. i was afraid she wouldn't win.

>> she said, i thought it would set us back 50 years if i didn't win this match. but, mike, tell us -- the other side of this too is the bobby riggs character. and we play the clip of him taunting billie jean king and sort of a colorful guy, how much of this was -- was he acting like a male chauvinist, trying to make money off of this or is this how he was?

>> he was a huckster, a carnival barker and great theater. the thing about this match, you don't have to know how to keep score in tennis , if someone explained it to you, you got it immediately. that's why it was great theat, cut through everything and riggs played it perfectly. there was a story that suggested maybe he threw the match, the mafia got to him, i don't know about that. the facts of this as we understand them really tell this story of america and they tell this story -- everything about this seems like an anachronism, you watch the tape, there are cops in the background smoking inside the astrodome, like this is such a different time, but if she had lost, and she knew this, this is why she was appalled margaret court took that gig, if she lost, who knows what would have happened. pt barnum would have won? the guy who is a self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig wins? it would have been crazy.

>> in terms of the tennis , margaret court is not able to beat bobby riggs . i look at the scores, wasn't that close. and billie jean king plays and she crushes him. what was the difference in the game. what did she exploit?

>> i think margaret wasn't prepared for what style of game that bobby was going to have. he was throwing up a bunch of lobs, wouldn't give her a pace to hit against. she was used to a much more intense match and let's face it, margaret was taking it because it was good money. she wasn't taking it because she wanted to say something about feminism. she was not. she was very much not a feminist feminist. she was out there and she made a little bit of money and bobby was going to do his things. she wasn't prepared for the dinks and the dunks where as billie watched that match, knew what the plan was and was prepared and let's face it, bobby, the whole week leading up to the match, he was out every night, he was loving being bobby riggs and all this stuff. billie was focused on the match, prepared for what the -- the junk he was going to throw and she had a great strategy, to run him around the court. run that 55-year-old guy ragged and beat him at his own game. i think she was prepared, she went to that and that's why it is really a farce to think he threw the match.

>> there say bit of a recent story, you looked into this too, can you speak to that about what you've --

>> absolutely. the espn story was relying on the 40-year-old recollection of a 79-year-old man who said i heard something that bobby was going to throw the match for money because he was in dechlt t debt. if he was in debt, he was going to win the match, declare his debts. secondly, after billie jean king , if he had won that match, the promoter for the entire match was trying to set up chris evert for a winner take all. there was no way -- it was a huge industry to keep beating women . there was no way he wanted to lose that match or he was going to throw that match because the upside to him was so great. and after that match, anyone who saw bobby riggs , his best friend, sat there with him, he was staring straight into space, he was in an ice tub, he was mortified he lost. there is no way that was a thrown match.

>> and there is also -- we'll take a break here, i'll pick this up on the other side, reading about the relationship in the later years is interesting too. i want to ask you about that and talk about the evolution of women 's sports since the battle of the sexes .