The truth about Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs

Can we put this John McEnroe – Serena Williams debate to rest?

Maybe McEnroe was exaggerating when he said Williams is the greatest female player ever, but “would be ranked like 700th in the world” if she played on the men’s tour. Maybe she would be ranked higher or maybe not, however, many feminists and feminist sympathizers (if there is such a thing) got their britches in a gather claiming McEnroe is sexist.

I wouldn’t say McEnroe is any more sexist than Williams herself. She has admitted in the past that she couldn’t compete against the men, and she seemed to be okay with that.

In an interview she did on Late Night with David Letterman in 2013, the host began to approach the subject by recalling the tennis matches that took place between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in the early-1970s.

“I can remember Billie Jean King, what a tremendous athlete…and there was a guy named Bobby Riggs, who was a tennis player and a hustler, he was always finding ways to make money, and silly things, and he challenged Billie Jean King to a tennis match. They had it in the old Houston Astrodome, it was enormous,” Letterman said. “As I recall, this Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean, my memory is, that she crushed Bobby Riggs. What would happen if something like that occurred today?”

“Well, actually it’s funny because Andy Murray, he has been joking about myself and him playing a match, and I’m like ‘Andy, seriously, like are you kidding me?’ cause for me men’s tennis and women’s are completely almost two separate sports,” Williams said. “If I were to play Andy Murray, I would lose like 6-0, 6-0, in five to six minutes, maybe 10 minutes.”

Letterman seemed shocked by that and said, “Honestly, really?”

“It’s a completely different sport,” she said again. “The men are a lot faster, they serve harder, they hit harder, it’s just a different game. I love to play women’s tennis. I only want to play girls because I don’t want to be embarrassed. I wouldn’t do the tour, or Billie Jean, any justice, so Andy stop it. I’m not going to let you kill me.”

In 2013, Murray, of Scotland, won four of the 19 tournaments he entered and finished the year ranked 4th in the world.

Sure, Serena Williams would crush me in a tennis match, in fact even Paul Williams would, but would she ever beat a top-ranked player on the men’s tour? We may never know.


There are some details about what was billed the “Battle of the Sexes” that seem to have been lost in all this discussion of late.

Before taking on Billie Jean King, Riggs saw an opportunity to both make money and to draw attention to the sport of tennis, when at the age of 55, he came out of retirement to challenge Margaret Court, the world’s top female player, to a match.

He claimed the female game was inferior and that a top female player could not beat him, even at his age. Riggs and Court squared off in a May 13, 1973, Mother’s Day match in Ramona, California. Riggs used his drop shots and lobs to keep an unprepared Court off balance. He won easily, 6–2, 6–1 and was soon on the cover of both Sports Illustrated and Time magazine. The match was called the “Mother’s Day Massacre.”

King had previously turned down Riggs offer to a match, but after Court lost to him, King accepted the challenge. On September 20, 1973, the two met in the Houston Astrodome, in a match that King won, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3 for the $100,000 winner-take-all prize.

According to extensive research by the ESPN program Outside the Lines, Riggs, a habitual gambler, took advantage of the overwhelming odds against King and threw the match to get his debts to the mob erased. This would confirm the suspicions held by many of Riggs’ peers, including Don Budge.

It wouldn’t have been the first time he bet on himself. As he admitted in his 1949 autobiography, Riggs wrote that he bet $500 on himself to win all three Wimbledon championships in 1939: the singles, doubles and mixed doubles. He won all three, and made $105,000 on his bet.

To his death, in 1995, Riggs held the secret of whether King beat him fair and square, or if he truly threw the match for the gambling winnings. We will never know for sure.