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Tennis Takes Center Stage

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The 1970s was a boom decade for tennis.  Interest in the sport grew by leaps and bounds and proved to be a national phenomenon by the end of the decade, and yielded one of the ‘70s most talked-about stunt events.

Trend-watcher Terran Palmer-Angell suggests popular tennis books and the availability of more matches on television helped drive the ‘70s tennis boom.   Timothy Gallwey’s “The Inner Game of Tennis,” published in 1974, connected psychology with sports for the first time.  A professional circuit increased the visibility of tennis, and like golf in the 1960s, a recreational country club sport suddenly became accessible to the masses.  All that was left was the emergence of young American stars like Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors, creating a telegenic coupling of sports and romance.

But any consideration of tennis and the 1970s must include the “Battle of the Sexes” featuring retired professional Bobby Riggs.  Riggs had dominated the sport in the 1940s, winning 6 major titles.  A literally tireless promoter of the sport, Riggs decided to challenge the game’s top female performer, Australian Margaret Court, to a duel on Mother’s Day, 1973.  Riggs won easily, and achieved what he never did during his years as a top competitor: winning cover stories in both Time and Sports Illustrated magazines.

Riggs turned his victory over Court into a taunting diatribe against all female tennis athletes.  Only a few months after being launched into the limelight, he coaxed Billie Jean King into another winner-take-all match, this one to be held with over-the-top Vegas-style hype in the Houston Astrodome.

Ultimately, King’s study of Riggs’ playing style, and the fact she was 26 years younger than Riggs, led to a lopsided loss for the tennis promoter-turned-male chauvinist villain.  The match proved to be a media-driven success, grabbing a television audience of 50 million viewers in the United States.

The legacy of the match turned out to be more profound than either competitor imagined. Title IX, mandating gender equality, was passed in the United States in 1972.  King’s win came the very next year, and propelled women’s athletics into big time sports entertainment status.

Riggs fell into depression and fought rumors that he lost intentionally, even taking a public lie detector test to prove he didn’t throw the biggest tennis match of the 1970s.

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