Billie Jean King Beats Bobby Riggs Once Again in Tennis Battle of the Sexes

Culture Watch
tags: movie review, Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs, Battle of the Sexes



Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

On the night of September 30, 1973, over 30,000 people jammed the Houston Astrodome and 90 million more edged forward on chairs and sofas in their living rooms to watch the most hyped tennis match, and perhaps sports event, in the history of the world. Forget the Indianapolis 500. Forget the World Series. Forget Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. This was it – big mouth male chauvinist Bobby Riggs against women’s libber tennis ace Billie Jean King for $100,00 and the hoopla championship of the world.

Riggs, a stellar 55-year-old slightly past prime time tennis star, had challenged King, the 29-year-old sensation of the women’s tennis world, to a one-time match to decide, as he put it, if women belonged on the tennis court or in the kitchen and bedroom. King, furious with his demeaning anti-women attitude, accepted the challenge. The two had battled verbally for weeks, sports stars and celebs had championed each, television heated up the promotions and the nation awaited the outcome.

The battle is the movie Battle of the Sexes, that just opened, and it is as much fun as it is sports history and the history of the women’s lib movement in the early ‘70s. It stars Emma Stone in a solid performance as King and Steve Carell in a just brilliant performance as loudmouth Riggs. Stone plays King as the feisty young tennis star and Carell plays Riggs as the over bearing, chauvinist (“I’ll put the show in chauvinist” he wailed). Riggs was disgraceful and just impossible in his crusade to build an audience for the television epic and it worked. Tens of millions of men tuned in to cheer for the sexist Riggs, who started the match in a bold yellow “Sugar Daddy” jacket, and tens of millions of women (and men) to cheer for King.

Riggs was the favorite. Bobby had been a championship player in his prime. He won the 1939 Wimbledon and added other titles over the years. Bobby may not have trained properly for the King match but was, in fact, in good physical shape and just a few months earlier, in a stunner, had defeated another woman tennis star, Margaret Court, in similar boy vs. girl match for a $10,000 prize. Despite a slightly slower step, he was ready for Billie Jean.

The movie faithfully tells the story of the historic sporting event and brings in many heroes and villains. It crucifies former tennis great Jack Kramer and lionizes the young tennis stars of the day, such as Rosie Casals and Chrissy Evert. It explains the fragile situation of the women in the brand-new Virginia Slims tour, started after they bolted, led by King, from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association. They left to protest money prizes. In one tournament, the first prize for men was eight times as much cash as first prize for women (“the men are eight times as exciting to watch? Said King). Overall, in the early 70s, men’s’ prizes were three times as high as those for the women.

The movie is a good one with fine acting and direction by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. It is historic and it is funny, really funny. We see Bobby playing in swimming flippers in the rain and dressed as Little Bo Peep hitting shots amid a herd of sheep. Writer Simon Beaufoy overdoes it in some places, though. We learn a lot about both tennis stars, but sometimes too much. Do we need to know every tiny single detail of King’s lesbian life? We could use less preaching and more tennis.

I saw that match on television, and whooped for Billie Jean when she won in straight sets against the odds. The match had incredible hype in the media, but the movie only shows some of that. The movie had to do more with the real media hype to show the importance of the match. This televised match made women’s tennis.

Directors Dayton and Faris do a fine job of showing how King played a clever match against Riggs, forcing him to run from corner to corner again and again and, in the process, wearing out his 55-year-old body. It also showed how angry he became with himself as he was losing, and that despondency contributed to his final defeat.

Despite these problems, this is two hours or so of fine filmmaking and a cheerful history story not just about tennis, but the woman’s movement in America.

The movie concerns itself with the two players and the match itself and does not look very far down the road concerning its consequences. They were far reaching and immediate. The match dealt directly with the questions, still in play, of whether women who did what men do at work should receive the same salary, whether one candidate for a job should get it if she was a woman and whether, if you ever are in trouble, if you should call a woman for help just as quickly as you called a man.

The strikingly agile and battle-ready Billie Jean answered all of those questions with one big overhand smash. Her victory over the blowhard Riggs was a gigantic step forward not just for the women’s tennis sport, but for the women’s liberation movement. At the time, just about everybody acknowledged that. Billie Jean’s victory, and in three straight sets, just to remind you, was all action and not talk. Women at that time talked and talked and talked about how good they were compared to men in any field and the female tennis star proved it. Billie Jean not only defeated Riggs, she kicked his ass.

The victory not only helped the women’s tennis movement hurtle forward, but gave the women players political clout. Television aired more of their tournaments, newspapers published more stories. They demanded better pay and threatened to boycott tournaments if working conditions were not right. They added strength to the fledgling Virginia Slims women’s tennis tour (the predecessor of the current Women’s Tennis Association). Billie Jean and others in the 1970s paved the way for the Williams Sisters, Maria Sharapova and others. The defeat of Riggs opened the door for every skinny little girl in America carrying a big tennis racket under her arm.

Her victory over Bobby made Billie Jean an international superstar. That next year, she earned $1 million on product endorsements, a huge sum forty years ago. She went on to win an impressive six Wimbledon titles and four U.S. Opens and her face graced a hundred magazine covers before she retired in 1983, generally recognized as one of the most famous people in the country.

Billie Jean King did as much for the women’s lib movement in America as activist Betty Friedan, writer Gloria Steinem and Congresswoman Bella Abzug put together. She did it in the eyes of the world and did it with panache.



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