The irrepressible Billie Jean King

People of my generation will remember Billie Jean King well. Not only was she a terrific tennis player, winning a bucket load of titles and dominating the sport for a decade, she was also a tireless fighter for women’s equality in sports and elsewhere and was instrumental in getting the major tennis tournaments to give equal prize money for both the men’s and women’s contests. She was one of the most colorful players in the game.

They will also recall the match she had with Bobby Riggs. Riggs had been a top men’s player, reaching #1 ranking as late as 1947. He kept taunting women that even though he was much older than the top women players, he could still beat them, proving that men were superior and women’s tennis did not need to be treated equally. So a match was arranged between him and Margaret Court, the top player in 1973, but Riggs, then 55 years old, was able to beat her, partly by successfully playing mind games with her and putting her off her stride.

King, who had earlier declined to be taunted by Riggs into taking up his challenge, felt that she needed to defend women’s tennis and put an end to Riggs’s gloating, so agreed to play in what was billed as the Battle of the Sexes. She was mentally tough and not only trounced him in straight sets in the men’s format best-of-five match, she even outplayed him at the mind games.

King has a bubbly chatty personality that made her eminently entertaining to watch and listen to. She was interviewed by Stephen Colbert on the 40th anniversary of her match with Riggs and doesn’t seem to have changed a bit. She even manages to put him off his stride, something that he normally does to his interviewees.

It was a delight to see her again.

The Colbert Report
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(This clip aired on September 9, 2013. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)


  1. says

    Yes, she was marvelously entertaining. I think Billie Jean and Jane Fonda are the only ones I’ve seen do that to Colbert. By the way, when I watched the match so many years ago, and as soon as Billie Jean made her entrance in that sedan chair, I knew that she was not going to be caught in the mind games. She was out-Riggsing Riggs.

  2. A Hermit says

    Watched it the other night; my favourite bit is when she describes her first day at a tennis club at the age of twelve or thirteen, looking at all the white faces and wondering “where’s everybody else?!”

  3. AsqJames says

    Isn’t she fantastic!

    she was also a tireless fighter for women’s equality in sports and elsewhere

    There was a documentary film released earlier this year about the King-Riggs match called “Battle of the Sexes”. In this interview about it King says that she was motivated to become the best player in the world because of her belief in equal rights, that she decided if she could just become #1 maybe people would listen to her a little bit.

    She also talks about being 11/12 years old (so this would be in the mid-50s), noticing that everyone involved in tennis was white, and wondering where everyone else was. That’s quite a remarkable observation for anyone that young to make, but for a member of the privileged class to make it is even more admirable.

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