Billie versus Bobby – how one tennis match changed history

Reviewed: Battle of the Sexes.

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.”

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

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
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For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Scottish Nationalist ranks

The First Minister is facing pressure to talk less about independence - and bring on new talent in her party.

She so recently seemed all-powerful, licensed to reign for as long as she chose, with the authority to pursue the return of our national sovereignty. We would then have the ability to strike our own deals on our own terms, a smaller, smarter, leaner nation freed from the stifling constraints of partnership with a much larger neighbour. There was, she repeatedly told us, nothing to be afraid of.

Now, suddenly, she is the victim of her own miscalculation: having misread the public mood, having raced too far ahead of moderate opinion, she finds herself at bay. The voters have delivered a public humiliation, while an opposition party until recently lampooned as unelectable is on the march. There is, suddenly, talk of her departure sooner rather than later.

Yes, this is a tough time to be Nicola Sturgeon…

Let’s not overstate it. The position of Scotland’s First Minister is considerably more secure than that of the UK’s Prime Minister. Theresa May wants out as soon as is feasible; Sturgeon, one suspects, will have to be dragged from Bute House. Sturgeon retains enough respect among the public and support among her colleagues to plough on for now. Nevertheless, things are not what they were before the general election and are unlikely ever to return to that happy state.

It’s all because of Scexit, of course. Sturgeon’s unseemly sprint for the indy finishing line left enough Scottish voters feeling… what? Mistreated, taken for granted, rushed, patronised, bullied… so much so that they effectively used June 8 to deliver a second No vote. With the idea of another referendum hanging around like a bad headache, the electorate decided to stage an intervention. In just two years, Sturgeon lost 40 per cent of her Westminster seats and displaced half a million votes. One could almost argue that, by comparison, Theresa May did relatively well.

For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Nationalist ranks. Tommy Sheppard, a former Labour Party official who is now an influential left-wing SNP MP, published an article immediately after the general election calling on the First Minister to ‘park’ a second referendum until the Brexit negotiations are complete. There are others who believe the party should rediscover its talent for the long game: accept the public mood is unlikely to change much before the 2021 devolved elections, at which point, even if the Nats remain the single largest party, Holyrood might find itself with a unionist majority; concentrate on improving the public services, show what might be done with all the powers of an independent nation, and wait patiently until the numbers change.

There are others – not many, but some – who would go further. They believe that Sturgeon should take responsibility for the election result, and should be looking to hand over to a new generation before 2021. The old guard has had its shot and its time: a party with veterans such as Sturgeon, John Swinney and Mike Russell in the key jobs looks too much like it did 20 years ago. Even the new Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, has been on the scene for donkey’s. There are more who believe that the iron grip the First Minister and her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, have on the party is unhealthy – that Murrell should carry the can for the loss of 21 MPs, and that he certainly would have done so if he weren’t married to the boss.

The most likely outcome, given what we know about the First Minister’s nature, is that she will choose something like the Sheppard route: talk less about independence for the next 18 months, see what the Brexit deal looks like, keep an eye on the polls and if they seem favourable go for a referendum in autumn 2019. The question is, can a wearied and increasingly cynical public be won round by then? Will people be willing to pile risk upon risk?

As the hot takes about Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election performance continue to flood in, there has been a lot of attention given to the role played by young Britons. The issues of intergenerational unfairness, prolonged austerity and hard Brexit, coupled with Corbyn’s optimistic campaigning style, saw a sharp rise in turnout among that demographic. Here, Scotland has been ahead of the curve. In the 2014 referendum, the Yes campaign and its can-do spirit of positivity inspired huge enthusiasm among younger Scots. Indeed, only a large and slightly panicked defensive response from over-65s saved the union.

That brush with calamity seems to have been close enough for many people: many of the seats taken from the Nats by the Scottish Tories at the general election were rural, well-to-do and relatively elderly. The modern electorate is a fickle thing, but it remains rational. The Corbynites, amid their plans for total world domination and their ongoing festival of revenge, might bear that in mind.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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