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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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