On This Day

  • September 20 down the years

King silences Riggs

Billie Jean King won the battle of the sexes match © Getty Images
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1973
High camp rather than top tennis as Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs. Winner of all three titles at Wimbledon back in 1939, by now Riggs was a forgotten man outside tennis. What can I do to get back in the limelight? I know, cast some silly aspersions on the standard of women's tennis. So here he was, claiming he could thrash the best of them - and he was 55 years old. The women should have yawned, smiled in pity, and ignored the old publicity seeker. Instead they took the bait. Margaret Court took him on in May of this year - but she was the wrong player to be defending women's ability in this kind of pantomime. Famously nervous on big occasions, she was thrashed 6-2 6-1. Riggs could hardly believe his luck - even more so when Billie Jean decided she had to put the record straight. A real bonus for the old fraud: more money in the bank as well as added time in the limelight. So they met today at the Houston Astrodome, in a freak show with all the trimmings. Riggs entered the arena in a rickshaw drawn by scantily-clad girls, King on a high chair carried by bodybuilders dressed like ancient slaves. King presented Riggs with a live piglet ('cos he was a male chauvinist'). Riggs gave her a giant lollipop for being a sucker. Oh please. The match itself didn't last very long. King was made of angrier stuff than Court, and Riggs was weaker than she expected: no big serve, a feeble backhand. He did break serve to lead 3-2 in the first set, but King broke straight back and went on to win 6-4 6-3 6-3. The crowd of 30,492 was the biggest for any tennis match until 2010. Cue snide remarks about what Americans will spend their money on. But the match mattered a bit. It raised the profile of the women's game, and yes maybe of women in America. As King said, 'Women could not even get credit cards in 1973. I mean, it's pretty scary.'

2000
In the swimming pool at the 2000 Olympics, Australia's Michael Klim had set a world record on the opening leg of a relay ( September 16). But in today's final of the 100 metres freestyle, he could finish only fourth - which was about what was expected, strange as it sounds. Bronze went to the USA's Gary Hall Jnr, who went on to win two Olympic golds at 50 freestyle. And the two favourites were veteran Russian superstar Aleksandr Popov, who was the defending champion from the last two Olympics, and Holland's Pieter van den Hoogenband, who'd broken Klim's world record the day before, a feat overshadowed by an eel called Eric. In today's final, Klim led at halfway but was overhauled by Van den Hoogenband, who won the race easily. Popov, only sixth at the turn, took the silver. Van den Hoogenband emulated him by retaining the title in 2004.

1913
A seminal tournament in American golf. The most important in their history. It showed that their players could beat the best at last. The US Open was first staged in 1895, when it was won by a golfer from the Isle of Wight. No-one born in the USA won it until John McDermott in 1911, and he did it again the following year. But none of the top British players were making the Atlantic crossing any more. The great Harry Vardon had popped over to win the event in 1900, with another member of the Great Triumvirate, JH Taylor, finishing second. Now Vardon was back to reclaim the colony. He travelled to Brookline in Massachusetts with big-hitting Ted Ray, who'd won the British Open the previous year and finished second this time. Lined up against them were McDermott, who came eighth, and a young Walter Hagen, who went on to win 11 Majors but finished equal fourth here. The top three all shot 79 in the last round and 304 in total, leading to a play-off between the two overseas stars - and a beaky young American playing in his first major. Francis Ouimet was only 20 years old, but that was twice the age of his caddy Eddie Lowery! And although he was young and unknown, he had some local knowledge: born in the town where the tournament was held. The play-off was tight for the first nine holes, which all three covered in 38, but Ouimet showed no signs of cracking. He took a two-shot lead at the 12th and was one ahead with two to play. The 17th hole decided the match. Ray was out of contention after taking six at the 15th, and now Vardon found a bunker. He got out and made five, but Ouimet played a superb second shot then made an 18-foot putt which gave him a three-stroke lead going into the last. Vardon bunkered himself again, and Ouimet won by five strokes. He was the last golfer before 2003 to win the first major he entered ( July 20). At the following year's Open ( June 19), Ouimet finished 26 shots behind Vardon! He found his right level by winning the US Amateur in 1914 and 1931, but he'd opened a door for American professionals...

...who proved how good they were in 1981. This was the second time golfers from outside the British Isles played in the Ryder Cup - and they still weren't ready for it yet. Two years earlier, the USA had won by six points ( September 16). Today they won by nine. Europe were five points behind before the final day, and they won only two of the twelve singles. They were good wins - Nick Faldo over Johnny Miller and Howard Clark over Tom Watson - but there were defeats for Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, and Sandy Lyle. The USA didn't lose the Cup between 1957 and 1985 ( September 14).

1969
Lillian Board's greatest race. Two days earlier, she'd won gold in the 800 metres at these European Championships, but two French girls had broken the world record in the 400 on the same day, and one of those had beaten Board into second place at the Olympic Games in 1968. There were many who believed Board had switched to the 800 to avoid Colette Besson. In fact it was a move forced by injury, and today the British girl was ready for the rematch. All four British girls, in fact, especially the two who'd finished last and second-last in the individual final. Running the opening leg, Rosemary Stirling lost ground on Bernadette Martin, and France put their ace on the second: individual champion Nicole Duclos. Sure enough, she ran 50.9, faster than her new world record, to Pat Lowe's 52.1. But Janet Simpson matched Lowe's time to make up ground on Eliane Jacq, and Board took the baton only just behind Besson. Then the Olympic champion blew it. She'd lost the individual Final by going out too fast, and now she reached halfway in a whirlwind 23.6, only a fraction slower than her fastest time in a 200-metre race. Suicide tactics that almost worked. Board came back at her in the home straight, but only inch by inch. Besson held on and held on - until Board passed her on the line. The teams shared the same time, smashing the world record with 3 minutes 30.8.

1963
Peter Craven died in a freak accident during a speedway race. When the leader's engine failed, Craven swerved to avoid the fallen bike and hit a trackside fence. The year before, he'd won the world title for the second time and the first since 1955. He was the last world speedway champion from Britain until 1976.

1942
Gunder Hägg of Sweden was kept out of the Olympic Games by two World Wars, so he set about earning fame (and generous expenses) by breaking world records. Today in Gothenburg, he set two in the same run, his ninth and tenth in nine races spread over 81 days. His 13 minutes 32.4 seconds broke his own world record for three miles, and he became the first runner to go under 14 minutes for the 5,000 metres: 13:58.2, bettering the previous best by more than ten seconds.

On the same day in 1975, Emiel Puttemans of Belgium also set a world record in the 5,000 metres. He ran 13 minutes 13 seconds in Brussels to shatter the previous best set by Lasse Virén six days earlier. Virén had beaten Puttemans into second place at the 1972 Olympics ( September 10), with a British runner winning bronze.

Still in track and field, way back in 1879 the astonishing Lon Myers became the first runner to go under 50 seconds for the 440 yards and the slightly shorter 400 metres - despite losing a shoe! Myers was 5ft 8in and weighed only a fraction over eight stone. Thin to the point of worrying people who saw him with his vest off, he ran with his arms down by his sides and a deceptive lope. He set ten world records at 440 and 880 yards and it's said he sometimes trained by playing poker all night while eating nothing but apples. He nipped over to London to win the AAA 440 yards in 1881, trotting home in 48.6 despite slowing down while he beckoned his main British rival to make a race of it! Today in New York, Myers ran on a track which was 352 yards in circumference and rectangular in shape with rounded curves. His shoe split and flew off the track, but he still clocked 49.2 seconds, breaking the 11-year-old world record by more than a second. His last official world record was 48.8 in 1885.

1939
Vera Menchik won the world chess title for the last time. Born in Moscow of a Czech father and British mother, she was Vera Stevenson by now, having married the subscriptions editor of a British chess mag. Until 1950, she was the only world champion women had ever known, having won the inaugural tournament in 1927, then another seven, plus two matches against Germany's Sonja Graf. Today Graf finished second to her again in Buenos Aires, where Menchik was more dominant than ever. She won 17 games and drew the other two, finishing with 18 points, two ahead of Graf. Then the War got in the way, Menchik died in 1944, and there wasn't another female world champion until a tournament in Moscow which began in 1949.

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