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Billie versus Bobby – how one tennis match changed history

Reviewed: Battle of the Sexes.

New Statesman
Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973. (Photo: ESPN)

Battle of the Sexes

Dir. James Erskine and Zara Hayes

It was the 20th of September, 1973, when twenty-nine year old Billie Jean King took on fifty-five year old former Wimbledon champion and chauvinist extraordinaire Bobby Riggs in the Houston Astrodome.  A live audience of 30,000 and a televised audience of 50 million tuned in to watch the match, arranged off the back of Rigg’s boast he could beat any “girl” in the game – simply by virtue of being a man. "The Battle of the Sexes”, as it was billed, acquired epic proportions. It became the demonstrable challenge to male supremacy not only in the sport, but in life – with bespectacled Billie Jean (an outspoken feminist and key player in the Women Liberation Movement) as the harbinger of equality. It was agreed the match would be played to a man-sized five sets. King won in a straight three.

This new documentary, directed by James Erskine and Zara Hayes, presents the event (still the most watch tennis match of all time) within the wider context of social upheaval, sexual rights and the struggle for gender equality.

Crafting tension and pace from archive match footage - much of it readily available on YouTube - takes talent, and the interlacing of vintage b-roll, interviews and reenacted racket-thwacking is artfully done. At a trim seventy minutes, the plot builds briskly.  Pre-match publicity is convivial enough - the pair publically exchange threats to “scrape” each other “off the court” - but it’s clear this is no PR stunt. Riggs had previously challenged and beaten former World No. 1 Margaret Court, which he touted as a triumph over all womankind. “I had to win this match” King recalls. “I needed to shut Bobby up”.

Bobby Riggs presents himself readily for caricature: a buffoon and a small-time hustler, we see him sporting ‘sugardaddy’ warm-up jackets and spurting ludicrous sexisms from between his sideburned jowls. Riggs was a notorious bet maker and nurtured a gambling habit that cost him his marriage. He popped 450 vitamin pills a day, and hosted giggly over-the-nets with model and starlets.

“The male is king, the male is supreme,” he told ABC News. “I’ve said it over and over again and I still feel that way. Girls play a nice game of tennis for girls but when they get on there on a court with a man, even a tired old man of 55, they’re gonna be in big trouble”.

Troublingly, Bobby was cartoonish but still acknowledged. He voiced the fears of men across America – that female empowerment spelled the end of sex, hot dinners, poker nights and “duck hunting weekends with the boys” (Bobby’s words). Free the women and men will be “enslaved”, Riggs argued, shackled to routines of shared childcare and household chores, watching their manhood fade away like a muscle car pulling out of the driveway.

The rise of women’s tennis was an affront to the status quo. Erskine and Hayes simultaneously reconstruct the story of the Original Nine – a breakaway cohort of female tennis players who abandoned the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) in rebellion against entrenched inequalities. The Nine argued fiercely in favour of equal prize money for female players who, at grand slams, were sometimes awarded just a quarter of men’s winnings.

Lead by King, the nine approached Gladys Heldman – then editor of World Tennis magazine and the most powerful woman in the industry – to help organise an alternative tour. With American cigarette brand Virginia Slims secured as sponsors, the women famously signed $1 contracts and founded the alternative Virginia Slims Circuit. USLTA promptly banned them from all future events.

What came next is recalled as a kind of On the Road with rackets: over packed cars, empty wallets, camaraderie. The group played nineteen tournaments in places like Texas, Arizona, California - prize money was based on a how big a crowd they could draw. Fringe status, however, wasn't theirs for long. By 1971 almost forty players had joined Virginia Slims. Richard Nixon called King to congratulate her on a win in Phoenix: “This has gotta be your best year, don’t ya think?”

The film lets itself down only when crossing the line into girl-power fist pumping. Following the unification of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in 1973, a deal agreed during a pre-Wimbledon lockdown in London’s Gloucester Hotel, we are treated to a montage of feminist milestone intercut with Helen Reddy performing “I Am Woman”.  The passing of the Sex Discrimination Act - “I am strong” – abortion rights - “I am invincible” - the creation of the ‘Ms.’ prefix – “I am womaaan”. The pairing lends these worthy achievements a lacklustre sentimentality.

Battle of the Sexes regains its footing when surveying the scene more delicately. It offers a vision late sixties/early seventies America which is both enlightening and grim. Recorded commentary and news footage more subtly invokes the era’s lead blanket sexism. Reporters refer blithely to women’s place in the home – players are even asked which will end first, their marriage or their careers? The tennis world refers to its players as “men” and “girls” – so implicit patronising it grates on the modern ear. Shameless critique of a female athlete’s appearance was knee-jerk. When Billie Jean arrives at the Houston Astrodome, one commentator call her a “looker” and jibes she could “vie for a Hollywood screen test”, if only she’d lose the glasses and grow out her hair.

As a result, watching King earn her final game is a genuine delight. Humble, talented and ruthless, her silencing it total. As a confounded Riggs puts it after matchpoint, “I underestimated you.”