Number 5: Billy Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs.
This is a rivalry of an entirely different sort. Billy Jean King is the mother of ladies professional tennis. She performed this duty with dignity, style, and considering the circumstances, a set of brass balls. She challenged the status quo, and against some big odds and no little controversy, started the Virginia Slim Circuit.
By contrast, Bobby Riggs was not exactly the quintessential champion. He was a number one in the world and held that spot for three years, but it was his personality, intellect, and propensity for the ridiculous that separated him from his peers. Bobby was one of the early stars of professional tennis prior to the Open Era, with a game that was tricky deep and strategic. An inveterate gambler he bet $500 dollars on himself to win men’s singles, doubles, and mixed doubles in the same year at Wimbledon. He won - making what amounts to $1.5 million in today’s dollars by doing so.
Yet in the midst of all his hi jinks, what he did for the sport, and what puts him firmly in the history books, was to challenge the top women players to a match of the sexes. Riggs wanted to play Billy Jean King and made a huge show of being a chauvinist, and thus parlayed this gimmicky match into a world event. At first Billy Jean turned down the match, so Bobby challenged Margret Court who accepted. Margret Court was considered by many to be the greatest women player of the era and indeed still holds the record for Slam wins (24), but in her match with Riggs, Court failed miserably, losing 6-2, 6-1- much to Bobby’s consternation- he wanted a good match.
Being Bobby he immediately challenged Billie Jean King with a Mohamed Ali affectation, "I want Billie Jean King. . . . I want the women's lib leader!" This time Billy Jean King accepted and the event was called the "Battle of the Sexes." In the end, King beat Riggs in three straight sets. It is said that Riggs was glad she did. They played in the Houston Astrodome to a sell out crowd of over 30,000 and another 50 million people watching on TV. It is still considered one the greatest sporting events ever.
What it did for tennis and particularly for ladies tennis is what makes this rivalry important. This was the early years of professional women's tennis, a time when Billy Jean and the other players were struggling for acceptance and credibility. In the eyes of the general public and sponsors, this match raised acceptance and awareness of women's tennis to an eventual level equal to men. Not only has the women’s game become as popular as men, it has reached a financial parity as well. Tennis is the only sport that has achieved this kind of equality, and it has much to do with Billy Jean King - they don’t name arenas after anyone - and an old chauvinist pig named Bobby