Battle of the Sexes: A reminder of tennis’ evolution

Published by Linda Pearce

Emma Stone and Billie Jean King teamed up to promote Battle of the Sexes at the US Open. Photo: Getty Images
The release of Battle of the Sexes, a new film centred around the match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, is a potent reminder of how far tennis has come.

When new US Open champion Sloane Stephens was presented with a record winner’s cheque of US$3.7 million that matched what her male equivalent Rafael Nadal would receive a day later, the woman for whom the Billie Jean King Tennis Center was named back in 2006 sat proudly amid the courtside crowd.

For the founding mother of women’s pro tennis as the inaugural president of the WTA, King’s star turn as the subject of the new film “Battle of the Sexes” – based around the 1973 exhibition match against Bobby Riggs – will help to complete the picture for the younger generation aware of her influence and leadership but not perhaps fully aware of how indebted they are to King and her fellow pioneers.

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The movie, soon to be released by Fox Searchlight, stars Oscar winner Emma Stone as the game-changer her friends know simply as “Billie”. Despite some dramatic licence, there are many lines and scenes that will resonate at the same time that they help educate Stephens, Madison Keys and their contemporaries fortunate enough to know only the era of equal grand slam spoils completed by Wimbledon’s belated acquiescence in 2007.

The original commentary of the late Howard Cosell is almost shocking to hear now, just as the sexist condescension of the famous promoter Jack Kramer is almost breathtaking – while also a reminder of just what momentous progress has been made. The prizemoney injustice bubbled over at the 1970 Pacific Southwest championship in LA. Enough, said BJK and her comrades, who have become known as the “Original Nine” (and whose inclusion in the film came at King’s behest). Men, they were told, are simply more exciting to watch. Stronger, faster, more competitive. “It’s not your fault,” says Kramer, in the film. “It’s just biology”.

It was also just, well, one too many red rags, and while the bulls stayed in their – relatively – comfortable paddock, the gals signed symbolic $1 contracts, set up their own tour, rolled out their own courts and sold their own tickets, before Gladys Heldman finally signed a sponsor: cigarette brand Virginia Slims.

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But if there is no sign of the other Virginia (Wade), there is another Court. Australia’s Margaret. Surprise, surprise, she’s the one in the black hat, pumping weights, baby on hip, sermonising about the perils of an all-women’s tour, all that “licentiousness, immorality, sin”. While King, still married to her saint-like husband, Larry, is finding herself sexually attracted to another woman for the first time and grappling with the life-changing emotions being stirred.

Some less familiar with the story may have forgotten that it was Court, despite King’s objections (“he wants to make himself look good, and for women to look stupid – it’s not a match, it’s a show”), who was the first to play against Bobby Riggs, the 55-year-old hustler portrayed as suitably hopeless and outrageous by Steve Carell.

When it’s King’s turn to defend the sisterhood, there’s the crazy-entertaining match build-up that includes the notorious line about women being best ”in the bedroom and the kitchen“, plus the good old “I’m gonna put the show back in chauvinism”. Meanwhile, having declared that “dinosaurs can’t play tennis”, King also threatened behind the scenes not to play if Kramer commentated.

The match itself is billed as the most-watched tennis match of all time, making the cover of Time Magazine and onto prime-time TV. At the Houston Astrodome, there was a world record crowd of 30,492. Pre-match, a sponsored “Sugar Daddy” giant lollipop was swapped for a pig dressed in a pink bow. He entering on a gilded rickshaw tended by barely-dressed harem girls. She, with a nod to Cleopatra, atop a gold litter, hunky college track athletes below.

There has been much speculation since 1973 about whether Riggs threw the match to settle gambling debts, but no need for a spoiler alert when we reveal what Frank Sedgman, an apology on the night of our preview screening, told Tennis Australia chief executive Tiley earlier that day. Sedgman had warmed up Riggs before the “Battle”, apparently, and the result was never in doubt. King, said Sedgman, was “way too smart for him”.

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The winner of 39 grand slam titles is also understandably delighted with the result of what she points out is “not just a tennis film”, but also one about social change, personal struggles and sexuality.

“I hope this movie is relevant,” King said in New York. “I hope it helps younger people to know the story, but more importantly, ‘what are we going to do with now and the future?’ I hope it will help everyone in some way. I hope if even one more person becomes comfortable in their own skin from this, then that’s also really going to be helpful so we can all be our authentic self. It really speaks loudly to that.”

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