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Friday, Sept. 20, marks the 40th anniversary of the historic Battle of the Sexes match between Billie Jean 
King and Bobby Riggs.

Photo credit: AP

Long before the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team brought women’s sports into the spotlight in 1999, before American boxer Marlen Esparza was the first to qualify for the first women’s Olympic boxing event in 2012, and before Venus Williams fought for equal prize money at Wimbledon, Billie Jean King was single-handedly setting the foundation for women’s equality in athletics.

Forty years ago, on Sept. 20, 1973, King accepted a challenge from Bobby Riggs, tennis’ self-described “male chauvinist pig,” for a Battle of the Sexes match that would go down as one of the biggest and most watched sporting events in history. King, then 29, defeated the 55-year-old Riggs in straight sets 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 before a sellout crowd at Houston’s Astrodome and some 90 million worldwide television viewers.

Only a few months before the match, Riggs had mercilessly defeated Margaret Court in the first Battle of the Sexes 6-2, 6-1. That’s when King decided to accept Riggs’ match challenge.

"I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match," King later said. "It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self esteem."

Indeed, King’s win proved monumental for female athletes. That year, the US Open was the first major to offer equal prize money for men and women. In addition, the Women’s Tennis Association was formed, as was the Women’s Sports Foundation, which helps facilitate athletic opportunities for women. It was a critical point in time for female athletes, one that King believes was a turning point in the social acceptance of women in sports.

"In the '70s we had to make it acceptable for people to accept girls and women as athletes," King told ESPN.com. "We had to make it OK for them to be active. Those were much scarier times for females in sports."

Who would have thought that a tennis match would have such a significant and historic impact? Today, on the 40th anniversary of the Battle of the Sexes, the results of King’s efforts are seen in the fact that Grand Slam champions, whether male or female, are awarded equal prize money. Her pioneering movement advanced not only women’s tennis, but all women’s sports across the board.


 

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