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The Racket of Justice

Billie Jean King achieved athletic glory and shaped the feminist movement with a Wilson Autograph

In 1973, 55-year-old tennis player and self-professed “male chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs wagered that he could defeat any woman player—namely tennis’ 29-year-old queen Billie Jean King, who had won 10 major singles titles and a Wimbledon championship. King accepted Riggs’s challenge and a televised spectacle dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes”—the subject of the namesake 2017 film starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell—ensued. On September 20, 1973, an estimated 90 million people watched King pummel Riggs, beating him 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 and, along with the 1972 anti-discrimination law Title IV, sparking a surge of women in sports.

Almost 45 years later, the match remains a historic touchstone for the feminist movement. And while MCPs may be far from extinct, Billie’s court continues to win out when it comes to tennis memorabilia. On December 6, Bonhams will auction the Wilson tennis racket King used to beat Riggs that day, valued between $100,000 and $200,000. By comparison, a collectible Bobby Riggs racket, reportedly in “good condition,” recently surfaced on Craigslist.; the asking price was $65.

The tennis racket used by Billie Jean King during the Battle.

The tennis racket used by Billie Jean King during the Battle.

Beyond being a symbolic lynchpin in athletic history, the racket literally promoted women in sports. After holding onto it for nine years, King auctioned the instrument off in 1982 to benefit the Women’s Sport Foundation, which she founded following the match. “Certainly it’s a sports item but to me the more important aspect of this is the cultural significance of that match,” says Bonhams’ Darren Sutherland. “There’s a quote from President Obama telling King that watching the match when he was 12 changed the way he raised his daughters. I think that’s more significant.” Fittingly, a portion of the proceeds of the auction in December will go towards King’s Women’s Sports Foundation.

The model itself, a Billie Jean King Autograph made with wood, leather and catgut, also recalls King’s role as a trailblazing female brand-ambassador. The year following the Battle, King earned $1 million in endorsements from Colgate toothpaste, Sunbeam hair curlers among other brands. However, King lost those deals when she came out as a lesbian in 1981, and in 1983 she retired from competition.

The Battle remains as relevant as ever given women in tennis’ ongoing fight for an equal playing field (Serena Williams earns tens of millions less than Roger Federer in endorsements). Until then, Riggs’s lesser auction lot is a consolation prize. “We haven’t heard from the Riggs estate,” says Sutherland.