Battle of the Sexes Dress
I knew all about Bobby [Riggs]; he was one of my heroes. I thought he got a bad deal in getting enough attention for what he deserved, because right at the sweet spot of his career was the Second World War. And I felt bad for him, but I respected him because I love my history. I knew every champion. I’d watched everything. I read everything I could on him, but when Margaret [Court] lost [to Riggs], I had to play him. I didn’t want to play him; I had to play him.
I didn’t know [I was going to win]. Two months out, or six weeks out—whenever we announced it—I’m very anxious, not happy. I start visualizing, start thinking about it, started thinking about anything that could go wrong, how I would stay calm and focused. And I have to visualize everything. I just love visualization. And then I would think about getting a bad line call. I’m thinking the Astrodome has gotta be high, but I went out to the Astrodome the day before the match. I went up in the stands. I looked at how the court was structured and how it was put down and what direction on the baseball field. I knew there would be no wall behind the court, so the depth perception was gonna be shocking, but I knew whatever it was for me was going to be for him as well. We’d never played against each other—so I knew I’d never hit a ball against him, but neither has he hit a ball against me.
I never think [that I’m going to win] when I’m in a match. It’s one ball at a time. One ball at a time. Anything can happen. [When I won], he jumped over the net and said, “I underestimated you,” and we put our arms around each other. I told him before the match, “I’m only going to play this once, because this is about history, and it’s about equality; it’s not about the money.” He finally understood that at the end of his life.
The “Battle of the Sexes” was a major event in my house. My father was an enormous tennis fan and player, and Billie Jean King was a hero. For me, as a kid, the Martina Navratilova/Chris Evert dominance and rivalry was more germane, but Billie Jean was the icon of breaking through.
Because I was in my teens I could not have articulated it, but having spent a lifetime examining roles of women and general de facto implicit gender bias, it absolutely struck me then, the hubris and the insult of [Bobby Riggs] saying, “You are the No. 1 ranked, world’s greatest female tennis player, and I’m kind of a washed up hack. I’m going to sit in a chair, and I claim I can beat you.”
It just was so amazingly deprecating and maybe fun and couched in spectacle and good for the sport, but, at the same time, it gave me an unsettled feeling. I think even not being able to articulate it and not being educated in the words and language of feminism at that time, I still recognized something that really didn’t feel good. As a woman, it was an important lesson to recognize that feeling later in my life, many times over.
I do remember watching the “Battle of the Sexes” live, and I remember, first of all, being in awe of the Astrodome as a venue and just the vastness of the futuristic spaceship that it was at that time. More recently, I recall the reenactment of it through film. It really reinforced that era for me and the value it has. I also have gotten to know Billie Jean, and we work with her on her Women’s Sports Foundation. So now knowing her and how much of a pioneer she has been in many facets of sport and in society is really unique.