I had mixed emotions upon hearing that the match Thursday night between Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams had broken the world record for largest tennis crowd.
It’s great for the sport, no doubt, that 35,681 fans piled into King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels. Even greater that Serena so graciously stepped in to replace Justine Henin, who had to withdraw with an arm injury that will also keep her out of the US Open next month.
But as a native Houstonian, it’s sad to see my beloved Astrodome wiped out of the record books, particularly when the previous record crowd of 30,492 fans saw the historic 1973 Battle of the Sexes between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King.
By 1973, BJK had already won some significant battles both on the court and off of it. She had already racked up 10 Grand Slam singles titles, and had been the driving force for a women’s professional tour (the WTA) and the breaking down of the amateur/professional split that ushered in the Open Era in 1968. In 1973, King was 29 years old, while Riggs was 55, and had won Wimbledon in 1939, then been ranked No. 1 in the world in 1941, 1946 and 1947.
He was also a self-proclaimed hustler, betting on himself against seemingly superior opponents and odds, even winning an exhibition match once while using a frying pan for a racquet.
In 1973, he announced that men were so superior to women athletically, that an older player like himself could defeat the top women’s players in the game.
He backed up his claim by thrashing Australia’s Margaret Court 6-2, 6-1 in California on Mother’s Day. He had previously challenged King, who refused, but Court’s loss got her juices flowing.
With an estimated 50 million people watching on TV throughout 37 countries, King and Riggs’ entries into the Dome would have rivaled today’s professional wrestlers.
Having learned from Court’s mistakes – not knowing that the older Riggs would use lobs and drop shots to win points – King played a defensive match and sent her opponent running from one side of the court to another, defeating him in straight sets 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Ironically, it would not be their last match ever, nor even of 1973. Just two months later, Riggs was a guest star on an episode of “The Odd Couple” appropriately entitled “The Pig Who Came to Dinner.” After losing a bet to Riggs, Oscar and Felix challenge Riggs to a ping-pong match to win back their possessions. After they try and fail to intimidate him by wearing Billie Jean King masks, the real King appeared at episode’s end to beat Riggs herself.