The Battle of the Sexes

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

20 September

Billie Jean King plays Bobbie Riggs at tennis, 1973

On this day in 1973, a retired 55-year-old male tennis pro who had won Wimbledon in 1939 took on one of the timeless champions of women’s tennis, then in her absolute prime. The media hoopla surrounding this tennis match at the Houston Astrodome cannot be overstated. It is still regularly described as “the most watched tennis match in TV history” which can’t still be true, but nevertheless gives an idea of the interest. Riggs, a showman, gambler and wielder of a huge shit-eating grin, had shown a master’s command of media manipulation – throwing down the gauntlet to any woman in the world to play him. Women’s number one Margaret Court was first to pick up the glove. He beat her, surprisingly easily. Which forced Billie Jean King, who actually didn’t want to get involved, to come out of her corner and take on Riggs, in the name of all women. Riggs kept coming – “Billie Jean King is one of the all-time tennis greats, she’s one of the superstars… but she doesn’t stand a chance against me, women’s tennis is so far beneath men’s tennis.” History records that King did in fact whup Riggs’s ass. And she did it using the oldest trick in the book – she made him run all over the court. Being 55 might give you guile and a tough hide but it’s doubtful it’s ever improved anyone’s lung capacity.

The Battle of the Sexes (2013, James Erskine)

Co-produced by Billie Jean King, this documentary about the famous Riggs v King match in 1973 is actually far more than that. It also tells the story of Billie Jean King and a gang of other female players – the “Nine” – who broke away and set up a tour of their own, in an attempt to win prize-money parity with the men. This is almost as fascinating a story as the Riggs v King match, not least because it has been slightly airbrushed from official tennis history, a serious slice of meat in an entertaining sandwich about a game that didn’t really mean THAT much in real terms, though symbolically it meant everything. The documentary’s other strength is to remind us what an alien country the early 1970s were – feminists burning bras, male chauvinism (even the term) still rampant, the hairstyles, the clothes, the fact that a cigarette brand, Virginia Slims, provided sponsorship for King and her breakaway tour. A bit of history, a lot of cultural context, served up nicely with a tennis match between an old ham and a young tornado. Fabulous.

Why Watch?

  • A great showman versus a great strategist
  • Marks the change in the way sport was rewarded
  • A reminder of Billy Jean King in her prime – lithe, girlish, confident, brilliant
  • In spite of the rivalry, King and Riggs enjoy each other’s company – it’s infectious

The Battle of the Sexes – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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