Why the 'Battle of the Sexes' still matters

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By Holden Walter-Warner

One of the most pivotal moments for gender equality and sports is finally getting the Hollywood treatment.

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Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, loosely depicts the famous tennis match pitting Billie Jean King against Bobby Riggs in 1973, an event that still resonates today. 

Images from the famous tennis match tell us why that's the case.

The context

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Bobby Riggs was seen as chauvinistic, at best. He challenged Billie Jean King - 26 years his junior - to a winner-take-all match to be played at the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973. To ensure a fair fight, a prize of $100,000 was placed on the table. The match was set to air on ABC for the enjoyment of a national television audience.

Both competitors expected victory to come their way.

The Arrival

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For a national television audience, there had to be a spectacle. Pomp and circumstance defined the circus-type atmosphere before the match; King entered the court like she was the queen of Egypt, while scantily-clad models surrounded Riggs during his own entrance. There was even a presentation of gifts, with Riggs giving King a Sugar Daddy lollipop and King giving Riggs a piglet.

Riggs even wore a Sugar Daddy jacket at the start of the match.

But then, things became competitive.

the match

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At first, things went as expected. Riggs broke King in the fifth game of the set to go up 3-2. He made it a point to show that he wasn't trying his hardest, trying to draw laughs from the crowd of more than 30,000. But King fought back and eventually broke back as well, taking the first set 6-4.

Riggs realized that King meant business and began to play a much more aggressive serve-and-volley game. King was in control though, sending shots left and right, tiring out the 55-year old Riggs. She took the next two sets 6-3 and 6-3 to win the match in straight sets.

With that, the celebration was on for King

the aftermath

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For King, the victory was validation - both for her and for women athletes as a whole. Her win was instrumental in continuing a journey she and other women had already begun that eventually resulted in the creation of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), the top female tennis circuit in the world.

For Riggs, the loss was devastating and unbelievable. He reportedly locked himself in his hotel room for several hours after the loss. He demanded a rematch, only to be rebutted. He was even accused of fixing the match to pay off gambling debts, allegations of which have been disproved.

The need for many to rationalize King's victory (and Riggs' loss) spoke volumes about why the flashpoint was so important in discussions of gender and sports going forward.

The other battles

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King's win is the most famous "Battle of the Sexes," but two more matches actually received the same billing. The first came four months earlier, when Riggs beat Margaret Court easily by a score of 6-2, 6-1. That victory set the events in motion that would lead to the match with King.

Almost two decades later, Jimmy Connors would take on Martina Navratilova, one of the greatest female tennis players of all-time. The first set was close, with Connors taking it 7-5, but he dominated the second set for the win, 6-2.

The future

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There hasn't been a serious "Battle of the Sexes" match since 1992, but there have been friendly exhibitions between some of the most well-known male and female tennis players in the world. There have also been challenges.

In recent years, both Andy Murray and John McEnroe have suggested that they would be willing to take on Serena Williams in a serious match. A match against Murray would pit together two of the best players in the entire world, while a match against McEnroe would more closely resemble King's victory, at least in terms of the age gap.

Perhaps a Hollywood blockbuster will be just the impetus needed for another memorable "Battle of the Sexes."

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