The True Story Behind Billie Jean King’s Victorious “Battle of the Sexes”

Smithsonian sports curator Eric Jentsch offers a look at her legacy beyond the legendary match

Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) right before the famous match in Battle of the Sexes. (Fox Searchlight)
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“I underestimated you” were the first words former Wimbledon winner Bobby Riggs said to the tennis champion Billie Jean King in 1973 after she defeated him in front of 90 million viewers worldwide. It’s a serious mistake for any athlete to underestimate their opponent in any match in any sport, let alone when she’s the number one ranked female player and you’re playing in your own drummed-up spectacle of a match, the Battle of the Sexes. In the context of the fierce debate surrounding gender roles—then and now—his words serve as a reminder to never underestimate a determined woman.

The new film from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the directing duo who made the award-winning Little Miss Sunshine, is a biopic of the legendary star King (played by Emma Stone), which centers on her famous match against former Wimbledon triple-crown winner, Riggs (Steve Carell). Smithsonian.com invited Smithsonian sports curator Eric Jentsch, deputy chair of the National Museum of American History’s division of culture and arts, to preview the film Battle of the Sexes and discuss King’s enduring legacy.

While tennis champion Billie Jean King is best known for beating Riggs, her accomplishments are substantial—from winning 39 Grand Slam titles to being ranked number one in women’s tennis six times. Among numerous honors, she was the first female athlete awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which she received from President Obama in 2009. Beyond her personal achievements, it seems hard to overstate how much King changed the sport itself, from elevating tennis as a profession to advocating for gender equality in pay and recognition.

As Jentsch explains, even before the Riggs match, “one of her major initiatives was to make professional tennis a legitimate enterprise, and have the U.S. Open, Wimbledon and the French Open, actually be professional events.” Previously, these competitions were operating on a basis of “shamateurism”: players were labeled as amateurs without financial incentives when most of them were professionals being paid under the table. Pushing against this pretense brought about the “Open era” of tennis, where the professionals could participate and competitions introduced tournament purses to pay them.

The year 1968 marked the first time Wimbledon winners were awarded prize money, but “it didn’t even dawn on me that [women] would get less,” said King. Yet, as the women’s singles winner, she received £750, while her male counterpart, Rod Laver, was paid £2,000. Determined to get to equal pay, King found herself without the support from the male-led United States Lawn Tennis Association (now United States Tennis Association). It was clear that female players would have to fight for equality on their own.

So they did. As Jentsch explains, in “a defiant attempt for the players to take some ownership and fight back against the lack of equity that was in the traditional tennis establishment,” King created a breakaway circuit of major female tennis players. The “original nine” signed a symbolic $1 contract with publisher of World Tennis Magazine, Gladys Heldman (played by Sarah Silverman). They started organizing tournaments, sponsored by the Virginia Slims tobacco company, which famously marketed to young women of the era with the tagline “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) was one of the "Original 9," a group of female tennis players who started their own circuit to protest pay inequality. (Fox Searchlight)

On the circuit, the female players battled the idea that women’s tennis wasn’t popular and that couldn’t bring in sales and audiences. While the timeline of the founding is collapsed in the film, the tour served as a precursor to the founding of Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, the first year that Wimbledon offered equal pay to both sexes. It would however take decades, until 2007, to get all four majors to award equal prize money to male and female athletes.

Alongside the fight against pay disparity, King was combatting stereotypes that female tennis players were not as skilled as their male counterparts, an idea trumpeted by the gleefully chauvinistic Riggs. A former Wimbledon champ with a gambling problem, he had been playing stunt matches for years, trying to get back in the limelight and, with his proposed "Battle of the Sexes" match, he ingeniously capitalized on contemporary debates about gender equality.

Onscreen, the sexist Riggs seems to exaggerate his beliefs, but it’s made clear that they are shared by many men, including those who ran the Tennis Association. In real life, as depicted in the film, male tennis promoters and executives held incredible power over the fate of women’s tennis and used those same outdated beliefs to denigrate King and her peers.

Initially, King didn’t want to participate in the Battle, but after top-ranked player Margaret Court (played by Jessica McNamee) lost to Riggs in the “Mother’s Day Massacre,” King felt it was necessary. Not only had the loss given fuel to Riggs’ sexist insults, she was worried about what effect the diminishment of women’s tennis might have on Title IX. The legislation, passed only a year earlier and still the subject of debate, was essential to women athletes receiving scholarships and equal opportunities. “Billie Jean King is a very far thinking person who sees the big picture,” explains Jentsch. “She wasn't alone in seeing Title IX’s importance, but she really understood it would mean a lot for female athletes in the future.”

“I feel the true story is much more fascinating and Billie Jean King's (above, today) heroism is much more real," says the Smithsonian's Eric Jentsch. (Wikimedia Commons/KingEnterprises)

Explaining her reasoning behind accepting Riggs’ challenge, she later said, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s [tennis] tour and affect all women’s self-esteem. To beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me. The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.”

The film recreates the outrageous spectacle of the match, which is among the most widely watched sports events in history. Jentsch says King used the medium to get her message across. “Obviously Billie Jean King understood that live television was a way that really impacted people,” he explains. “Getting a mass audience to all watch the same thing at once, it would be a powerful forum for the symbolism of the match.”

Meanwhile, behind her very public advocacy for women in tennis, King was also coming to terms with her sexuality. While she’d been in a heterosexual marriage since the 1960s, she came to realize she was a lesbian and began an affair with a woman. In 1981, King was outed by that then former lover in a lawsuit and over the course of 24 hours, she lost all her endorsements. While the film covers King’s initial self-discovery, it doesn’t have time to go into the nuances of her romantic relationships and the storyline ends before the betrayal of her outing.

This painful public event labeled King the first lesbian professional athlete. While she was somewhat forced into this position, it’s still one she’s championed by advocating for LGBTQ rights and paving the way for other athletes. Even still, there remains a stigma: in 2013, when basketball player Jason Collins came out, he became the first male player in the four professional sports (baseball, basketball, hockey and football) to do so. 

A trailblazer for tennis, women and the LGBTQ community, each chapter of King's life is an epic story in its own right, worthy of retelling and cinematic treatment. Over its two hours, the film places the Battle front and center, and volleys between the opponents’ personal lives in the buildup to the match. King’s fight for better pay and her evolving sexuality are given equal time with the effect Riggs' gambling issues had on his marriage and his hope that the match would be a way to regain his past glories and, he assumed, a large payday. 

While he enjoyed the film, Jentsch feels its overall “light touch was sometimes a disservice to the risks King was taking.” And by focusing on the personal relationships, the film didn’t fully develop the historical context and conflicts of the era that dominated the fractured country. “For the purpose of storytelling, they reduce some of the most authentic and complex motivations,” he says. “I feel the true story is much more fascinating and her heroism is much more real, based on the circumstances in which she stepped up.”

Female athletes and women in general have certainly “come a long way” from the egregious discrimination that dominated the 1960s and 70s. But in the past few years, as blatant sexism again rears its unfortunate head, in tennis and beyond, it’s clear there’s still quite a way to go. 

The tennis dress that Billie Jean King wore for the Battle of the Sexes is among the collections of the National Museum of American History. It is currently not on view.

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