9/20/2006

The 33rd Aniversary of the Most Overrated Sporting Event in History

On this day in 1973, Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in the widely hyped Battle of the Sexes in the Houston Astrodome. Almost everyone assumes it was a landmark for women athletes, and it was, to a degree. But the event was not nearly as monumental as it is made out to be.

King was thirty, and the number two ranked player on the women's tour. Riggs was fifty-five, a good twenty-five to thirty years past his prime. If something similar happened today - say, Maria Sharapova or Justine Henin-Hardenne thrashing John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, or Jimmy Connors - would anyone be remotely surprised? Most top-flight female athletes should be better than male athletes, even the best, who are two decades or more removed from their peaks. King's defeat of Riggs was no upset, even if it did pave the way for Title IX and the growing equality of women in sports.

But here is the part that gets consistenly overlooked, even ignored. As I mentioned, King was the number 2 female player in the world. The number one player was Margaret Court, also thirty. On Mother's Day 1973, Riggs played Court in a less-hyped Battle of the Sexes in California. Here's what gets forgotten: Riggs defeated Court that day, and rather handily at that, 6-2, 6-1. In fact, the resultant publicity from that match led to Riggs' much-hyped battle with King, hype which overinflated the importance of the match. While King's win was an important landmark for the acceptance of female athletes, it proved absolutely nothing from a pure sporting standpoint.