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In ‘Battle of the Sexes,’ Billie Jean King was undefeated

The 1970s tennis star was a trailblazer in more ways than one

Earlier this month, Sloane Stephens looked at a check for $3.7 million, her prize for winning her first Grand Slam tennis title: the US Open. “That’s a lot of money,” the 24-year-old Floridian said.

Invisible to the eye, but clear and indelible just the same, Venus Williams’ fingerprints dotted that check.

In recent years, Williams, who won two of her seven Grand Slam singles titles at the US Open, led the charge to have women’s compensation equal men’s at Grand Slam tournaments. Indeed, Stephens’ US Open winnings did match Rafael Nadal’s for triumphing in the men’s draw.

During the tournament, Stephens, who defeated Williams in the semifinals, called her “our leader.”

But as much as Williams has done to promote the women’s game and champion equality in pro tennis, she has followed in Billie Jean King’s footsteps.

Before Williams and her sister Serena were born, King led the march toward equal pay and recognition for women’s tennis. In the 1970s, she founded the Women’s Tennis Association, which became the principal organizing body in women’s tennis.

King has been a mentor to the Williams sisters and other young tennis players. She’s also been a Hall of Fame tennis player, with 12 Grand Slam singles titles among her many triumphs.

And once upon a time, King defeated Bobby Riggs, a tennis champion of the late 1930s and 1940s and a gargoyle of hot air and self-promotion.

Dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes,” the Sept. 20, 1973, tennis match was really a battle in the continuing struggle that women have waged for equal rights in America.

Riggs, the P.T. Barnum of tennis, turned his exhibitions against women into media circuses, where he was always in the center ring. Before playing King, he had defeated Margaret Court in May 1973.

At 5-foot-9, strong and agile, the 30-year-old Court towered over her sport. During the 1960s and 1970s, she won multiple Grand Slam tournaments in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. Court holds the all-time record for Grand Slam singles titles, 24, including three in 1973.

Nevertheless, Court often battled an additional opponent in her matches: her emotions. And it was an ill-prepared and rattled Court whom Riggs beat, making good on his boast that, at 55, he could beat the best female tennis players of the 1970s.

So it was left to King, 29, to beat Riggs in Houston’s Astrodome in a contest that was watched by 90 million more people on television around the world. And she did.

On Friday, a movie chronicling that tennis match will be released: Battle of the Sexes. It stars Oscar winner Emma Stone as King. Steve Carell, a fan favorite for his roles in TV shows such as The Office and movies such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, stars as Riggs, who some believe lost his match to King on purpose.

But in 1973, the man Carell plays in the new movie was not a favorite for those who championed equality for women. To them, Riggs, who died in 1995, represented the ossified notion that it was, indeed, a “man’s world.”

In real life, the impish Riggs and King became friends. Perhaps the private Riggs differed greatly from the public huckster so many people loathed.

Furthermore, King’s victory over Riggs wasn’t the only challenge she faced. Although married to her husband, Larry, at the time of the Riggs match, she felt drawn to women.

In 1981, an unsuccessful palimony suit brought by a female former associate forced King to publicly discuss her sexuality. King continued to compete on the pro tour but lost endorsements worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ultimately, King came out as a lesbian and became an advocate for gay and lesbian civil rights too.

Since then, LGBTQ athletes have competed on the pro tennis tour, including Amélie Mauresmo, a two-time Grand Slam singles winner.

Black Americans have long looked to black sports stars and their triumphs to prefigure a more fair and equitable society.

But as King’s life shows, people who stand up for what’s right become examples for future generations, no matter their race, gender or sexual orientation.

Like Williams, King is a leader for all people seeking to move themselves and the nation to higher ground.

In 1973, King won the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match for us all. If the movie Battle of the Sexes captures King’s strength and resolve in the face of Riggs’ bombast and trickery, I say pass the popcorn.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.