Forty years ago this week, Billie Jean King wiped the court with Bobby Riggs, the self-described “male chauvinist pig,” in one of the most watched tennis matches in history. Before Venus beat Serena, before Gabby Douglas won the gymnastics gold in 2012, before Brandi Chastain ripped off her shirt on the soccer field, Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes.
Just one year after Title IX mandated equal funding for women’s sports teams, King’s victory was considered a triumph for women around the world. Here’s a look back at TIME’s coverage of the historic match.
Riggs tooted his own horn in the Sept. 10, 1973 TIME cover story the week before the match:
“Billie Jean King is one of the all time tennis greats, she’s one of the superstars, she’s ready for the big one, but she doesn’t stand a chance against me, women’s tennis is so far beneath men’s tennis, that’s what makes the contest with a 55-year-old man the greatest contest of all time. I went to Wimbledon this year to watch her play, I wasn’t scared before, but after watching the girls at Wimbledon I may even be overconfident. You may want to ask me if I have a game plan for Billie Jean. I don’t need a game plan. I’ll let her start something and I’ll finish it. I have such a vast assortment of tennis weapons in my arsenal that I can handle anything she can throw at me. I’ll psych her out a little bit. I’m psyching her out already, she won’t admit it but I can see her coming apart at the seams already …”
In the same issue, TIME caught up with King as she prepared to take him down:
King is not merely the seasoned pro who has won five Wimbledon singles titles and two at Forest Hills. She is not only the grit player who serves, rushes and smashes as if life hung on every point. She is also the arm and brain of women’s tennis, the rebel who broke some of the sport’s prissy traditions and made the revolution work. Like it or not, King personifies the professional female athlete that Riggs loves to taunt.
That puts King in a difficult spot. To be the sisterhood’s standard bearer in Riggs’ circus is to accept a cup she would rather pass. She acknowledges that “the only reason I’m playing him is because Margaret had to go out and play like a donkey.” So she is out to avenge Riggs’ humiliation of Margaret Court after all, and that rankles. “I mean, if I beat him, what merit does it have? Big deal. But I don’t want to lose to this guy. I don’t want to lose to anybody—but Bobby Riggs? Ugh.”
Bobby has to win because his mouth has put him way out on the line; Billie Jean must avenge the legions of women in chains, real or imaginary, who consider Riggs a male of supernaturally loathsome porcinity. With the possible exception of a nude tag-team wrestling match pitting Burt Reynolds and Norman Mailer against Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer, it is scarcely conceivable that any other single athletic event could burlesque the issue so outrageously. A Las Vegas casino is chartering a plane to fly in show-biz folk and high rollers. Ms., the feminist magazine, plans a charter flight to make sure that Billie Jean does not lack for rooters deep in the heart of Marlboro country.
Why the timing was right for this particular breed of spectacle:
Five years ago these superheated matches could not have happened, and five years from now they would not mean anything. But Riggs, properly overaged and frivolous, came along at the confluence of two phenomena: the rise of Women’s Lib and the country’s need, more desperate than ever, to be entertained. Watergate, inflation, shortages—the catalogue of ills is dispiriting to contemplate. Some buffoonery and sex offer a welcome change. In Riggs the public (as well as television and the press, which get as tired of depressing news as anyone else) found just what it needed. Not a hero on the order of Rockne or DiMaggio, certainly, but different moments need different kinds of celebrities.
Riggs was a particularly obnoxious breed of blowhard:
“After Billie Jean,” he says, “it’ll be hot-and-cold running women, it’ll be the Super Bowl or Rose Bowl of tennis, the Riggs spectacular once a year—the best woman player of the year, that’s the one who’ll have to play Bobby Riggs.” He has also raved about crashing the Virginia Slims tour (“How will they keep me out? Do they want to be called female chauvinist sows?”). He wants to run this opera bouffe all the way, until he is 75 or 80. And that, gentlemen and ladies, is what is known as hustle.
But Billie Jean taught him a lesson, and the October 1st issue recounted Rigg’s clobbering in painful detail:
The fat cats in the $100 front-row seats, bedecked with signs that read WHISKEY, WOMEN AND RIGGS and WHO NEEDS WOMEN?, sat back and gleefully awaited a rout. It came, but not in the fashion that they or almost anyone else expected. King moved swiftly to the attack. She drove Riggs back to the far corners of the court, whipping him back and forth along the baseline like a bear in a shooting gallery. She fired low volleys at his feet, destroyed his famous lobs, put away almost every shot within reach. “I never could get over her head,” Riggs later admitted. He unaccountably fed her appetite for backhand smashes and volleys; a full 70 of her 109 points were outright winners—shots that Riggs never touched. Time and again he was forced to watch helplessly as Billie Jean rushed the net and slapped the ball past him. Between sets, Riggs’ son Jimmy, 20, said: “Come on, Dad, wake up.” No chance. Riggs never really got into the game.
Thanks, Billie Jean. You’re a team player, even when you’re playing singles.