The Battle of the Sexes Part 2 – Making Sense of the Mother’s Day Massacre

As mentioned previously, Bobby Riggs beat Margaret Court 6-2, 6-1 on Mother’s Day 1973.  Margaret Court won the Australian, French, and US Opens in singles and doubles in 1973.  Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in 1973.  Margaret Court had a career 2-1 head-to-head advantage over Billie Jean King.  Confused?

Winning Really Ugly

This Selena Roberts article helped me to understand how Court and King could have such different results versus Riggs.  Margaret Court was beaten by Riggs in large part because he played unorthodox tennis. Riggs hit soft shots, hit drop shots, hit lobs, hit slices, hit trick shots, took pace off of the ball, and basically lured Court into over-hitting.

The crazy/ingenious aspect of Riggs’ soft-balling tactic was that most people assumed a male player would try to use power as a comparative advantage.  Instead, Riggs asked Court to over-hit.  She obliged.  Anyone who has played an unorthodox opponent, knows it can be frustrating.  Anyone who has ever played a pusher, knows it can be frustrating. Anyone who has ever played a trick shot artist, knows it can be frustrating.  Riggs rolled all three approaches into one strategy for a match.

I can attest to playing some unorthodox opponents and struggling the first or second match.  I can also attest to that fact that after a few looks my results tended to improve dramatically.  I might win or lose in 3 sets the first match or two and then start winning 6-2, 6-2 regularly.

All week, tales of how she had dismantled Tony Trabert’s power in practice had circled the grounds. But that, Bobby believed, was the wrong preparation. She should have been practicing against a beginner. 

Court took the Bait and King Did Not

Margaret Court trained against Tony Trabert a few times heading into her match with Riggs.  Court handled Trabert who was 12 years younger than Riggs because both she and Trabert played straight-forward tennis against one-another.

King has said on multiple occasions that she sought to give Riggs no pace and make his older legs generate all of the power in the match.  King has also said that Riggs losing had everything to do with him being 55-years old when they played.  King and Riggs thought about how to diffuse a specific opponent ahead of a prize-fight type match.

The Folklore of Match Fixing/Tanking

Did Riggs lose on purpose?  That question still floats around.  Having not lived through the events, I have a limited perspective.  Personally, I don’t think he tanked.  I think King attacked Riggs’ age and legs.  This led to her victory.  Even if I am right, I kind of like the sense that some mystery still surrounds the match.  With the perspective of history behind us, the match is best seen as a spectacle and moment in social history.  It was not primarily a sports story.  In that sense, a little mystery helps keep the story popping up and that is paradoxically good for tennis.  If it was just a 1973 straight set demolition in Houston, who really cares today?


The next installment of my trilogy will deal with other matches between men and women since King d. Riggs.    Finally, I will review the movie.



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