How Billie Jean King won the Battle of the Sexes & met her true love

When Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs in 1973’s Battle of the Sexes, a young South African player followed the game on radio, not knowing that her tennis hero would one day be her love match

26 November 2017 - 00:00 By SUE DE GROOT
RALLY Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Riggs re-enact the arm-wrestling in the movie 'Battle of the Sexes'. In 1973 King won 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
RALLY Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Riggs re-enact the arm-wrestling in the movie 'Battle of the Sexes'. In 1973 King won 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

On a summer's day in 1967, the world's No1 woman tennis player happened to stroll past an outlying court at Ellis Park, where an 11-year-old girl was smacking a ball to her father. Billie Jean King, 23 years old and in Johannesburg to defend her South African Open title, stopped to watch volunteer ball girl Ilana Kloss send her dad scrambling to return a volley.

Fifty years later, Kloss recalls that meeting with vivid clarity.

"Billie walked onto the court and said to my father: 'Would you mind if I hit a few balls with her?' She hit with me for about 10 minutes and afterwards she said to my mom and dad: 'Your daughter is really talented; here's the name of my coach, and here's my address, and if there's anything I can do to help, let me know,'" Kloss said in a phone interview.

"That day I decided I was going to be a professional tennis player ... I knew it was what I wanted."

Neither King nor Kloss could foresee that within two decades they would become life partners.

At the time it was just another example of King's determination to make talented young players believe they were good enough to be taken seriously.

King kept up a correspondence with Kloss and helped her get sponsorship from Wilson. Their paths crossed again in 1972 at Wimbledon, where King took the women's singles title and Kloss, aged 16, won the junior trophy. The following year Kloss turned professional and became South Africa's youngest No1 player to date.


The year 1973 was also a defining one for King. She took the triple crown at Wimbledon, winning the women's singles, the women's doubles with Rosie Casals and the mixed doubles with Owen Davidson.

But the tennis set remembers 1973 as the year King formed the Women's Tennis Association, demanded and got equal pay for women at the US Open, and beat Bobby Riggs, former Wimbledon champion and grandstanding chauvinist, in a breathtaking exhibition match that was one of the most-watched televised sports events in US history.

Dubbed the Battle of the Sexes, this highly publicised spectacle took place at the Houston Astrodome on September 20. It was watched by a crowd of 30,000 at the stadium and 90-million TV viewers around the world. King was 29 and at the top of her game. Riggs was 55 and out of shape, a relentless self-promoter who swore he could still beat any woman.

Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs arm-wrestle at the announcement of their $100,000 winner-take-all tennis match in 1973.
Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs arm-wrestle at the announcement of their $100,000 winner-take-all tennis match in 1973.
Image: Getty Images

Battle of the Sexes is now a Hollywood blockbuster starring Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Riggs. The film captures the symbolic importance of the match in the war for gender equality, as well as its personal significance for the contenders.

Riggs needed the attention and money (the winner took $100,000) to feed his gambling addiction, but the movie suggests that his macho attitude was mostly a front and he may in subtle ways actually have wanted to promote the goals of women.


The real misogynist of the piece is painted as Jack Kramer (played by Bill Pullman), who stubbornly resisted the idea that women tennis players deserved the same respect and recognition as men.

In 1970, King had demanded that Kramer, who ran the Pacific Southwest Tennis Tournament, raise the pay for women competitors - at the time they were receiving just 15% of the prize money that was given to men, despite the fact that the women's final attracted as many spectators as the men's. Kramer refused. King and eight other top-ranked women players walked out of the tournament.

Represented by the formidable Gladys Heldman, founder of World Tennis magazine, they started the Virginia Slims tour, funded by a cigarette manufacturer. The film addresses the incendiary issue of tobacco sponsorship by having Heldman (played by Sarah Silverman) say to the players: "You do the tennis and I'll do the smoking."

I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win. It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self esteem
Billie Jean King,

King and Kramer continued to lock horns. Three years later, she threatened to call off the Battle of the Sexes game if Kramer was allowed to be a commentator, saying that he was biased against women. The TV network removed him.

For King, there was a lot more than a sporting victory at stake when she faced Riggs across the net. "I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win," she said at the time. "It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self esteem."

Kloss, who followed the match on radio in South Africa, says: "It was as much about the message as the money. It was about tennis as a global sport in which men and women are equally important. People all over the world were watching; it was such an opportunity for Billie and Bobby to be able to send that message."


The match continues to resonate. "I'm not sure anything can top Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs," Venus Williams said in 2015 when someone suggested that the Williams sisters' US Open showdown was just as exciting.

Williams, also mentored by King (both are UN global gender-equality ambassadors), took the baton and helped convince the organisers of Wimbledon and the French Open to award the same prize money to male and female winners.

Battle of the Sexes is not only about equal rights for men and women. It is also a love story that reveals the extreme prejudice of the times. While winning Grand Slams and campaigning for gender parity, the staunchly private King was in a conflicted relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett, who accompanied the women's team on tour. The need for secrecy became painfully obvious when Barnett sued King for palimony in 1981. The publicity generated by the lawsuit forced King to publicly admit to the affair, which cost her most of her sponsorship.

Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss.
Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss.
Image: Supplied

King's husband Larry (not the talkshow host) stood by her and they remained on amicable terms even after their divorce a few years later. She and Kloss have been together ever since.

The film ends after the 1973 match, but read in the context of what has happened since, it is even more poignant. The real love story was yet to come, as were giant steps towards equal acceptance.


In 1974 King founded the Women's Sports Foundation, "dedicated to creating leaders by ensuring all girls access to sports". This followed her 1973 creation of World Team Tennis, a co-ed professional league in which men and women compete equally. Kloss became involved in WTT in 1985 and in 2001 took over from King as CEO.

"We all stand on the shoulders of the generations that came before us," says Kloss. "Billie did so much to change things for all of us. For example, this year at the US Open, Sloane Stephens won $3.7-million [R51-million]. Billie played professionally until she was almost 40 and in her entire career she won less than $2-million in total. But Billie always says she's thrilled that players today are living her dream. She knew she wasn't doing it for her own era."

Kloss says the film speaks of all the goals towards which she and King continue to strive. "It's pretty simple," she says. "Our foundation is for men and women because we're all in this together and that's the way we want the world to look. We just want everyone to be treated with equal respect. It has been an incredible journey for me, for more than 30 years, to be with a person who looks at the world the way Billie does. She sees the best in everybody. She's the love of my life."

• Battle of the Sexes opens in South African cinemas on Friday


Arthur Ashe visits Soweto in 1973.
Arthur Ashe visits Soweto in 1973.
Image: Getty Images

Two months after the Battle of the Sexes, in November 1973, US tennis starArthur Ashe became the first player of colour to compete in the South African Open.

Despite critics who advocated boycotting South Africa as the most powerful form of protest, Ashe had made it his personal crusade to gain entry to the contest because he believed that his presence on the court would help expose the hypocrisy of apartheid.

Ilana Kloss, who was 17 at the time, thinks Ashe made a difference. “It was a huge deal,” she says. “We didn’t even have television yet, but Arthur Ashe brought the world to South Africa and I do think he helped change things . . . For me, growing up in a time of  apartheid made it even more important to have someone who made you believe in a better future, who showed you how things could be.

"What Arthur and Billie envisaged in terms of equal respect for everyone continues to be so important, but we always have to keep fighting for freedom and equality. We can’t ever take it for granted.”