On This Day - 20th September

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Battle of the Sexes

In tennis, "Battle of the Sexes" is a term that has been used to describe various exhibition matches played between a man and a woman but most famously, the term is used for a nationally televised match in 1973, held at the Houston Astrodome, between 55-year-old Bobby Riggs and 29-year-old Billie Jean King which King won in three sets. The match attracted massive attention and was viewed by an estimated 90 million people around the world. King's win is considered a milestone in public acceptance of women's tennis.

Riggs had been one of the world's top tennis players in the 1940s; he was ranked year-end World No. 1 three times and had won six major titles during his career. After he retired from professional tennis in 1951, Riggs remained a master promoter of himself and of tennis. In 1973, he opined that the female game was inferior and that even at his current age of 55 he could still beat any of the top female players.

Following his win over Margaret Court, Riggs taunted all female tennis players, prompting King to accept a lucrative financial offer to play Riggs in a nationally televised match in prime time on ABC that the promoters dubbed the "Battle of the Sexes". The match, which had a winner-take-all prize of $100,000 was held in Texas at the Houston Astrodome on Thursday, September 20, 1973.

Rigg v King

King entered the court in the style of Cleopatra, on a feather-adorned litter carried by four bare-chested muscle men dressed in the style of ancient slaves. Riggs followed in a rickshaw drawn by a bevy of models. Riggs presented King with a giant Sugar Daddy lollipop, and she responded by giving him a squealing piglet, symbolic of male chauvinism. Riggs was given $50,000 to wear a yellow Sugar Daddy jacket during the match, which he took off after three games. Riggs also placed many bets on and invested a lot of money in the match.

King, who also competed in the Virginia Slims of Houston during the same week, won in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. In the first set, she fell behind 3-2 when Riggs broke her serve. In a 2015 interview, she said that most people do not remember that she was initially behind in the first set, and it looked bad for her in the early going. At this point, King realized that she "had to win" given the importance of the match, and broke right back and again in the tenth game to close out the set. She had learned from Court's loss and was ready for Riggs's game. Rather than playing her own usual aggressive game, King mostly stayed at the baseline, easily handling Riggs's lobs and soft shots, making him cover the entire court as she ran him from side to side and beat him at his own defensive style of play. After quickly failing from the baseline, where he had intended to play, Riggs dropped his comedic effect and showed a more serious demeanour, as he was forced to change to a serve-and-volley game.

The match had an audience of an estimated 50 million in the U.S. and 90 million worldwide. The attendance in the Houston Astrodome was 30,472; as of 2012, it remains the largest audience to see a tennis match in the United States.