Last week, we published a story looking back at Billie Jean King’s decisive and historic triumph over Bobby Riggs in 1973’s famed Battle of the Sexes. Even almost a half century later, it remains a landmark victory for both women’s and LGBTQ athletics.
In researching that piece, Outsports managing editor Dawn Ennis reminded me that there was an earlier, oft-forgotten “Battle of the Sexes” match that served as a prelude to King/Riggs. This particular match was a big day for fans of tennis history. And an even bigger one for fans of schadenfreude.
On Mother’s Day of 1973, four months before he ever set foot on a court with BJK, 55-year-old Bobby Riggs challenged another giant of women’s tennis to a one-on-one match...
At the time, Court was less than three years removed from winning the 1970 Grand Slam. So it was a big deal—bigger than she realized—when she accepted what appeared to be a one-off squash match against a middle-aged caricature like Riggs for a $10,000 payday.
As Selena Roberts recounted in The New York Times, Court first revealed news of the match to King on a shared elevator ride. King was aghast, bluntly telling her rival, “Margaret, I’m just going to ask one thing of you: You have to win this match... No, I mean it. You have to win this match. You have no idea how important this is.”
King couldn’t get through to her. Despite being rated the world’s number one tennis player of that time and one of the most decorated female athletes on the planet, Court had purposely distanced herself from the burgeoning feminist movement and viewed her match with Riggs as nothing more than a harmless gimmick. The risk of how a loss might reflect on the image of female athletes everywhere didn’t enter into the equation.
Worse yet, Bobby Riggs had devised a two pronged plan of attack to win the day. Leading up to the match, he turned full-on heel, assailing the prim and proper Court with bizarre smack talk like “She plays like a man, I play like a woman.”
Just before the match on May 13, 1973, Riggs startled Court by presenting her with a bouquet of red roses.
Riggs then said he hoped his gift might “soften her up.” While Court kept up the pretense of smiling graciously, all she could think in response was “Nasty little man...”
And after setting up full-time residence in her head, Riggs figured out how to get Court out of her game during the match. As The Oregonian’s Douglas Perry recounted, “Riggs fed her course after course of garbage: lobs, dinks, blob balls, drop shots, funky spins.” The result was a lopsided triumph for The Misogynist: 6-2, 6-1. It quickly became known as “The Mother’s Day Massacre.”
Riggs concluded the “massacre” with a patronizing pat on the back as he followed Court off the court.
She had not been prepared for either his junk shots or his jibber-jabber.
As soon as word of the result reached Billie Jean King, she knew what she had to do.
Writing in The Times, Roberts conveyed her determination in that moment:
“Billie was beside herself. She knew Margaret’s loss would not only be used to undermine the fight for equal pay on the tour, it would also provide an easy caricature for political cartoonists. She marched through the terminal, incensed and motivated. ‘That’s it,’ she thought, ‘I’ve got to play him.’”
Riggs, for his part, publicly challenged King: “I want her, she’s the Women’s Libber leader.” Well, he got what he wanted. And, as it turned out, way more than he could deal with.
There’s a bit of poetic justice about Margaret Court choking mightily on a national stage and having to rely on one of the greatest LGBTQ athletes of all time to come to her rescue so that no one would remember it. Billie Jean King resoundingly defeated Riggs and went on to become one of the biggest legends in tennis history.
Now, whenever Margaret Court makes the news, it’s for stories like claiming that the Blood of Jesus is going to protect her church from coronavirus. When it couldn’t even help her beat a 55 year old with a dye job.