ENJOY THE GAME
YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, BUT YOU GET TO SERVE TWICE
April 21, 2021
The 1960s and 1970s rivalry between Margaret Court and Billie Jean King was an era-defining clash that produced some of the finest tennis of its time. It has since become more than just a match on the court—a very public battle of opposing ideologies.
That tennis played an enormous role in the progression of feminism and LGBTQ rights in the 1970s, especially in the US, might seem odd if you don’t know the story. But indeed, women’s tennis superstar Billie Jean King opened many doors and pathways for both; she played a huge role in the mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ athletes and the community more broadly, and her uncompromising game uplifted women’s sports from prevailing perceptions of them as inferior to men’s. But of course, fifty years after King began her activism, the struggles of female athletes are hardly over—just think of Megan Rapinoe and her outspoken and unwavering advocacy for equal pay for female athletes.
Billie Jean King in 1974
The 2017 film Battle of the Sexes brought an important event from the history of tennis to today’s audiences, namely the 1973 matches between Margaret Court and Bobby Riggs and the follow up-between King and Riggs. (A third “Battle of the Sexes,” officially called “Battle of the Champions,” took place in 1992 between Martina Navratilova and Jimmy Connors.) Riggs was a top men’s player in the 1940s, ranked number one in the world three times during his career, which saw him win six major titles. In 1973 he was a fifty-five-year-old retired pro and self-described chauvinist, gambling addict, and provocateur. Riggs claimed that the women’s game was so inferior that even a male player in his fifties could beat any of the current top female players in their twenties and thirties. He proceeded to challenge and defeat Court, then the female number one and twenty-five years his junior, 6–2, 6–1. The game was later called “The Mothers-Day Massacre.”
Bobbie Riggs at the second “Battle of the Sexes,” September 20, 1973
Riggs subsequently challenged any female tennis pro to step forward and play him. King, then twenty-nine and the number two in the world, had previously rejected challenges from Riggs, but she agreed to play him now. She convincingly quashed his assertions about the inferiority of women’s tennis in a best-of-five match 6–4, 6–3, 6–3, after coming from behind in the first set. About fifty million people in the United States and ninety million worldwide were watching—it remains the largest audience for a televised tennis match in history.
For King it all meant much more than the publicity stunt Riggs was interested in, and it was also more than just a tennis match. It was a big step forward for women’s tennis and an even bigger step for the women’s liberation movement. She later said: “I thought it would set us back fifty years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”
Battle of the Sexes, (2017) staring Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobbie Riggs
The perhaps even more profound battle had started long before, in 1962, when unseeded eighteen-year-old King (then known as Billie Jean Moffitt), playing her second-ever Wimbledon singles match, stunned top-seeded Court (then known as Margaret Smith) 1–6, 6–3, 7–5 in the second round of the tournament. Today both are consistently ranked among the top female players of all time; Court is considered the best ever, and the numbers speak for themselves: she won 192 individual titles (including 24 Grand Slam titles, more than Serena Williams or Steffi Graf, both usually referred to as the best female players in the history of the sport). In comparison, King won 129 individual titles (including 12 Grand Slam wins).
King’s only win over Court at a Grand Slam tournament at the 1968 Australian Open
King and Court faced each other another thirty-one times, with Court winning twenty-two of the matches. They met in the finals of five Grand Slams, of which King won only one, a 6–1, 6–2 victory at the 1968 Australian Open. They ruled female tennis for more than a decade, though Court dominated more. She finished with 24 majors to King’s 12.
Their most memorable match took place at the Wimbledon final in 1970—a remarkable event for several reasons. First there was the astonishing score of 14–12, 11–9. King saved six match points before losing, the longest women’s final in Wimbledon history in terms of games. It was the first Grand Slam final to ever be televised in color, heralding the moment when women’s tennis was for the first time taken seriously by the media. It marked a shift from wooden rackets and white balls to aluminum rackets and yellow balls, and with that from a game of tactics and position to one of power and strength.
Court played with an ankle problem that required the injection of painkillers, and King had a knee ailment that would need surgery a few weeks later. Court had the most powerful serve of any female player at the time, using her entire body to maximum effect, with a strong knee bend and a hammer-hard arm rotation. (Her extreme fitness permitted her to return to pro tennis three times after having children, although after her third child was born in 1975, her career had only two years remaining.) The 1970 final was Court’s third Wimbledon title, her third major tournament of the year, her fourth consecutive major title, and her nineteenth major singles title overall. She became the first woman to complete a career Grand Slam in the Open Era. Court’s reach at the net was extensive, inspiring King to call her “The Arm.”
Court aka “The Arm” defeating Billie Jean King in the singles final at Wimbledon in 1970
King was in many respects responsible for the evolution of women’s tennis on a large scale. She founded a tennis union and a magazine focusing on women’s tennis; she rightfully demanded equal pay for female players; and she stood up for women’s rights (and, later, gay rights) in public like no other female athlete ever had before. Without King, many other women’s tennis champions might not have had the careers they did. Martina Navratilova consistently cited King as a role model.
In 1970, King was one of nine female tennis players, with support from World Tennis magazine publisher Gladys Heldman, who sought to alleviate the massive inequalities in prize money between male and female players. The result of their efforts was the formation of the Virginia Slims Circuit (later the Women’s Tennis Association), sponsored by fellow Hall of Famer and Philip Morris chair Joseph Cullman. The nine players embraced the catchy slogan “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” King’s second gutsy declaration came after she won the 1972 US Open, where her purse was $15,000 less than men’s champion Ilie Nastase. King proclaimed that if the prize money was not equal the following year, she would not play and suggested that other women players follow her lead. And indeed, thanks in great part to King, in 1973 the US Open became the first of the four majors to award equal prize money to the men’s and women’s champions.
Court stayed in the limelight following her career as a tennis pro, but for completely opposite reasons. She became a conservative Christian and made many enemies over time thanks to her outspoken opposition to same-sex marriage and homosexuality. A big controversy erupted in 2013, when several tennis players called for the renaming of Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne in response to Court’s recent comments in the Sydney Morning Herald. Court, a founder of and Pentecostal minister at Perth’s Victory Life Centre, called trans women “problematic” in a sermon: “Because we are living in a season . . . even that LGBT and the schools—it’s of the devil, it’s not of God.” “Children are making the decision at seven or eight years of age to change their sex . . . no, just read the first two chapters of Genesis, that’s all I say. Male and female.”
In 2017, Navratilova, who came out in 1981 and married Julia Lemigova in 2014, called Court a “racist and a homophobe” after Court announced a boycott of Qantas Airways over its chief executive’s support for same-sex marriage. Navratilova has been the most outspoken critic of Court and suggested that Margaret Court Arena be renamed after Evonne Goolagong Cawley, an Indigenous Australian winner of seven Grand Slam events. “It is now clear exactly who Court is: an amazing tennis player, and a racist and a homophobe. Her vitriol is not just an opinion,” Navratilova wrote in an open letter. “She is actively trying to keep LGBT people from getting equal rights. She is demonizing trans kids and trans adults everywhere.”
In 1984, after turning forty, King stated that tennis had always been her primary passion and that she would have liked to know where she would stand in the history of the sport without having been so outspoken and active in the feminist and LGBTQ movements: “My only regret is that I had to do too much off the court. Deep down, I wonder how good I really could have been if I [had] concentrated just on tennis.” Yet I would never wish for a world that hadn’t known King as a role model off the court. Elton John dedicated a song to her in 1975 called “Philadelphia Freedom” (named after a tennis team King had been a member of during that time). Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz paid tribute to King on numerous occasions in his famous comic strip. And over the last twenty years, King has continued to operate in the public eye, striving for social justice and making cameo appearances on TV shows such as Law and Order, Ugly Betty, Fresh off the Boat, and, to the joy of many, The L-Word.