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King's Battle of Sexes win over Riggs resonates 40 years later

Billie Jean King speaks to fans on March 12, 2013 in Indian Wells, California
Billie Jean King speaks to fans on March 12, 2013 in Indian Wells, California.

Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in the legendary tennis "Battle of the Sexes" exactly 40 years ago Friday, serving notice of a new era dawning.

Before 30,472 people at the Houston Astrodome, still the largest crowd ever to watch a US tennis match, a 29-year-old King beat 55-year-old Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, in a victory hailed in 1973 as a triumph for women's equality.

"My life is about equal opportunities for boys and girls, but women are so far behind, so it has taken up more of my time," King said last month in interviews to commemorate the upcoming anniversary.

It was 40 years ago when the US Open began offering equal prize money for men's and women's players -- something every Grand Slam event does now -- and this year also marks the 40th anniversary of the WTA Tour, which has championed the women's empowerment message that King took to new levels.

"What this 40th anniversary has really been about is to understand the journey," WTA chairman Stacey Allaster said. "She took the world on her shoulders. It was just incredible."

Riggs, who died in 1995 at age 77, had beaten Australian Margaret Court, who owns a record 24 Grand Slam titles, 6-2, 6-1 in May of 1973, playing up comments that women's tennis was inferior and no top woman could defeat him even at age 55.

But King outplayed Riggs in the Texas showdown, ignoring the hype and hoopla around the promotion to silence his rants.

"Battle of the Sexes challenged the question of 'why?' with 'why not?' Empower yourself to pursue your dreams. That's my vision," King tweeted on Friday, in addition to thanking Riggs and the promoters and organizers who helped make the matchup become a cultural event.

"One of the most pivotal moments in sports history," retired US men's player Brad Gilbert tweeted.

American tennis player Billie Jean King is seen in action at Roland Garros stadium on June 4, 1972
American tennis player Billie Jean King is seen in action at Roland Garros stadium on June 4, 1972 during the French Open.

"Remember it well. Huge impact on generations," said retired two-time teen US Open winner Tracy Austin, who was only 10 when King beat Riggs.

King still pushes for equal treatment for women in areas of the world where limitations remain a part of their everyday life.

"We have a long way to go, but I think women's tennis is such a great leader not only in women's sports but for all women globally," King said.

"Equal prize money is the message, not the money. It's the message that we send through that word 'equal.'"

Among those to congratulate King on the anniversary day via Twitter were singer Elton John, endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, US Presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett and tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, who said, "40 years ago today, equality rocked the world."

US tennis player Jamie Hampton tweeted, "Thank you Billie Jean King for the opportunities that I have today and will have tomorrow."

US teen tennis standout Alison Riske added, "Thanks 2 queen of 10s 4 ur undying devotion 2 the game we love & 4 fightin 4 the future of women."

King is still fighting.

"It's very important for women to keep pushing forward, because it's important that young boys and girls see us as strong," she said.

"We know how to compete, we know how to lead, we have the passion every day, the fire in the belly, just like the guys every day.

"It's getting better, but (it won't be proper) until girls have the same opportunities that boys do in sports or any other field of endeavor.

"Sports are a microcosm of society. We have a long way to go, women. We just do."