“Complete Awe”: What It Was Like to Be On the Court at the Battle of the Sexes

Remembering the historic match.

By Kathleen Kemper  | Posted September 24, 2017 | Fortune

I was there on September 20th, 1973—the Battle of the Sexes, when 29-year-old Billie Jean King made history defeating self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs. I was an assistant tour director for the Virginia Slims Tennis Tour at the time, and I watched the match sitting on the court, just 15 feet away from King.

I remember being in complete awe of the whole affair. We knew the world was watching—though at the moment, we didn’t see the real stakes. However, looking back 44 years later, it’s clear that King’s win didn’t just change sports: it changed society as a whole.

In the moment, it was easy to get lost in the pomp, media frenzy, gender-baiting banter, and circus-like atmosphere surrounding the match. When King walked onto the court, she wore a couture Teddy Tingling dress with a blue sequined collar and her signature blue suede shoes. The outfit reminded me of a story she told about when, as a young girl, she had tennis shorts on at a tournament and was told to get out of a photo because she did not have a skirt on. It was moments like those that drove King to want to be the best in the game, so that she could change the rules.

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“Pressure is a privilege,” King would often remark. She performed at her best when the weight of the world was on her shoulders. She had such a belief in her own greatness and ability, juxtaposed with an unexpected humility—always confident, never arrogant. She was quick to admit to her flaws and make fun of herself.

Her confidence was contagious. King was a role model in my life. Seeing her rise and succeed beyond the sphere of tennis made me feel I could do the same. It was her ambition that showed me that I could be a tennis player and coach, but also pursue leadership and implement change where I saw a need for it.

It’s no surprise to me that King’s triumph is on display today in a star-studded film. Her story is one that should never be forgotten. While we’ve progressed since that 1973 match, women are still paid less than men for equal work. The United States of America has still never had a woman president. And just last month a senior engineer at Google, one of the biggest and most successful companies in the world, posted a memo to colleagues alleging that women are biologically worse at certain tasks than men—much in vein of Riggs’ taunts at Billie Jean.

When those facts start to weigh on me, I think back to that match point at the Astrodome in Houston and I have great hope for our future. She won.

Kathleen “Coach” Kemper is the founder and CEO of the Institute For Education, a non-profit headquartered in Washington, D.C.

About the author

Coach Kathy Kemper, known as “Coach” to many, is Founder and CEO of the Institute for Education, a non-profit foundation that recognizes and promotes leadership, civility, and finding common ground, locally, nationally, and in the world community.

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