Starting today, moviegoers can see Emma Stone take on Steve Carell in the cinematic version of the 1973 Battle of the Sexes. During the much-publicized tennis match, women’s world champion Billie Jean King roundly defeated former men’s world champion Bobby Riggs 6–4, 6–3, 6–3, collecting a $100,000 purse and striking a momentous blow against sexism in sports. In anticipation of the new film, five women’s sports leaders shared their memories of the historic match and its impact with Excelle.
Nancy Lieberman, 1976 Olympic Medalist and Sacramento Kings Assistant Coach
For basketball player Nancy Lieberman, who was 15 in 1973, a female athlete facing a male opponent seemed normal.
“By that age I was always playing against men,” she said. “I was playing in Harlem at Rucker Park. I was playing in my schoolyard against guys all the time.”
But seeing a woman of King’s caliber on TV was new. “What struck me about the match was that Billie was so much more athletic than Bobby,” Lieberman recalled. “It was obvious she was far superior as an athlete. To see a woman competing at that level was really cool.”
Three years after the Battle of the Sexes, Lieberman became the youngest Olympic basketball player (male or female) to win a medal with Team USA. Not until then did she fully grasp the symbolism of King’s win.
“As I got older I started to understand the responsibilities that I had as a female athlete because of things that Billie had done,” Lieberman said. “She helped start it; my generation was to continue it.”
Peachy Kellmeyer, International Tennis Hall of Famer
Peachy Kellmeyer, the first full-time employee for the Women’s Tennis Association, had a front row seat to the Battle of the Sexes. Sort of. She and several players who were competing in the Virginia Slims of Houston tournament that week actually sat right on the court as spectators.
King’s superior focus was evident from the moment she entered the Houston Astrodome, Kellmeyer said. “How she was in such control with all that was going on and all that was on her shoulders, that’s what amazed me. The woman is truly a legend.”
When King triumphed, the thrill was epic. “You just felt that a battle had been won,” she said.
Yet everyone had to go to work the next day, Kellmeyer noted. That included King, who continued to serve as a celebrated leader in the subsequent decades and today.
“She set the bar, and she set it very high,” said Kellmeyer.
Deborah Antoine, CEO, Women’s Sports Foundation
Earlier this year, Deborah Antoine took the helm of the Women’s Sports Foundation, the educational and advocacy nonprofit founded by Billie Jean King. But on Sept. 20, 1973, Antoine was a senior in college, crowded around a tiny black-and-white TV with her roommates.
Watching King best Riggs, Antoine said, empowered her to question the gendered expectations she was living in. Why, for instance, had she been a cheerleader in high school, rather than a basketball or tennis player? Why, too, she wondered, was she in a relationship that would lead to a small-town life when she’d long dreamed of becoming a New Yorker?
Antoine ultimately broke up with her boyfriend, moved to New York and later took up tennis herself.
“For most of us there’s no [one] moment in time where your life changes, but there are moments that come together with other moments,” she said. “Here I was in the middle of my student teaching semester and watching [the match] just caused me to rethink my life. I saw how you didn’t have to be who people wanted you to be.”
Roz King, Senior Tennis Champion
As a working nurse who was also pursuing a master’s degree, Roz King did not get to watch the Battle of the Sexes. But she still felt the weight of what she called an “in-your-face turning point.”
“Some of the men I knew, they of course weren’t that impressed with the whole thing,” she said. “[But] the women that I knew, we talked about it for weeks and weeks and weeks. It was encouraging, it was uplifting. It made you feel like in your little world, whatever you were doing, you could take some heart.”
King said that Billie Jean King’s victory represented more than just a call for gender parity in athletics. It spoke to other issues being raised by women and minorities, such as job and housing discrimination.
“It was someone making a stand about equality. That was a central issue in my life in the ’70s,” said King, who at the time was the only African-American woman in her nurse practitioner training program.
King completed her degree and later advanced into management. She took up tennis more actively after retirement and has racked up a long list of victories, including the women’s 80 titles for singles and doubles at the recent USTA National Indoor Championships.
Sara Fornaciari, Sports Attorney and Marketing Executive
For Sara Fornaciari, the Battle of the Sexes heralded the start of her own trailblazing career in tennis. After having doors slammed on her as a would-be sports writer based on her gender, Fornaciari accepted a marketing position with sports management firm Proserv, which worked primarily with tennis players. She would be joining a staff of five male attorneys and five female secretaries just weeks after the match.
“The whole thing was coming into serious crescendo in my life,” Fornaciari said. She recounted watching with her parents in Baltimore, “being so nervous, because to me it meant everything to think that women would get this positive publicity.”
Over the next few years, while working at Proserv, Fornaciari attended law school at night and became an agent to tennis greats such as Tracy Austin and Pam Shriver. She noted that she had no female role models or mentors in sports law. “You can imagine how much I personally looked up to Billie Jean and those (early stars).”
[More from Excelle: Who could win a Battle of the Sexes today?]