Legends tour is measure of progress for women King, here tonight, recalls impact of '73 win over Riggs

May 20, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Billie Jean King sat in a Harbor Court Hotel suite looking over the Inner Harbor, reminiscing and marveling at how far women have come in the work place, as well as in sports.

King, in town to do volunteer work with Moveable Feast in Towson and promote tonight's Virginia Slims Legends Tour event at the Arena, thinks her victory over the late Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes" 25 years ago this September has had a lot to do with it.

"It's seems like yesterday," said King, 54, of the match she won. "Those memories are in my mid-brain, where emotions are stored. Intellectually,it was a long time ago. Much has changed from that time to this for women."

In 1973, women earned 69 cents on a dollar. Title IX had just been passed the year before. And it was in 1970 that she and eight other women's players broke away from the United States Tennis Federation and started the first Virginia Slims Tour for women. Before that, women played for expenses only and sometimes for nothing.

She remembers all that. And she remembers Riggs trying to get her to play him. She said no for three years. But after Margaret Court played, and lost badly, to Riggs, King felt she had no choice.

"It was important," she said. "It wasn't about tennis. It was about the women's movement. I couldn't believe Margaret lost to him that badly. People would always think, 'Girls get nervous. They can't handle the heat.' And Bobby was going on and on about how women should be barefoot and in the bedroom. I desperately wanted us to be accepted."

But when she overheard two men talking recently and one told the other, "My son could never go to West Point or Annapolis, but my girl, she's an athlete, she should go," she smiled to herself. "Those dads think it's normal that their daughters might want to go to a military academy or play sports and that they should," she said. "The thoughts now are that girls deserve the best, instead of being discounted. I think beating Bobby Riggs was part of the process of getting to this point."

Riggs, once the No. 1 player in the world, was a hustler. He liked to bet and he knew how to promote.

"It just felt like life or death to me," she said of the match.

Telegrams poured in before the event, increasing the pressure.

"It was like knowing you had one moment in time, one bout your whole life to do something that really mattered, and I was afraid."

She needn't have been. She won in three straight sets. The scores? She can hardly remember now. "It was so definitive many people watching thought it was fixed," she said.

"It wasn't fixed, believe me," said King, who will be coaching Team Navratilova tonight and tomorrow at the Arena. "Why would it have been? What would have been the point? I had said, 'I'll never play you again, if I lose to you or beat you.' If it had been fixed, we would have had a rematch. I would have taken the $3 million offer to play again. I didn't. It was a one-time only deal and the focus was on people realizing women could compete equally."

Legends Tour

What: Virginia Slims Legends Tour

Where: Baltimore Arena

When: Today and tomorrow, 7 p.m.

Tonight's matches: Pam Shriver/Virginia Wade vs. Rosie Casals/Martina Navratilova; Evonne Goolagong/Wade vs. Casals/Wendy Turnbull; Chris Evert/Goolagong vs. Zina Garrison/Turnbull; Evert/Shriver vs. Garrison/Navratilova.

Tickets: Range from $25 to $50.

Call Ticketmaster at 410-481-SEAT.

Information: 410-296-2929.

Pub Date: 5/20/98

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