America at Large: Hollywood finally tips its hat to ‘Battle of the Sexes’

Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs showdown in 1973 a bizarre interlude in a turbulent time

Billie Jean King was ferried to the court on a throne fit for Cleopatra, carried by four shirtless hunks from Rice University. Bobbie Riggs came in on a rickshaw hauled by six female models. As part of the pre-match ceremonies, he gave her a Sugar Daddy lollipop and she gifted him a brown baby pig christened Bobby.

Before a ball was struck, that exchange captured how they were on very different missions here. Riggs was in it for the cash and the self-promotion, King was representing her gender, feminism and a whole lot more stuff that you couldn’t put a price on.

Given the dramatic power of that particular cameo, the wonder is why Hollywood took 44 years to get around to making a movie about a tennis match that was the Mayweather-McGregor of 1973.

Like its modern day equivalent, “the Battle of the Sexes” was equal parts commercial shakedown and ersatz sporting event yet evinced a car crash quality that meant even those who wanted to couldn’t look away.

More than 30,000 filed into the Houston Astrodome to watch, 36 countries took the satellite feed, and, nearly half a century later, Steve Carell and Emma Stone play the chauvinist hustler and the distaff pioneer in the cinematic version.

As with so many films that try to recreate sporting history, the story is conflated for narrative purposes but the biggest weakness may be that a two-hour movie can’t possibly do justice to this truly bizarre interlude.

Having spent months taunting female tennis players before goading Margaret Court into a match that he won convincingly in the so-called "Mother's Day Massacre", Riggs went after King.

He was 55, hadn’t won a Grand Slam since 1941 but knew a thing or two about making headlines and stoking the box office.

“Personally, I would wish that the women would stay in the home and do the kitchen work and take care of the baby and compete in areas they can compete in,” he said, in one press conference during the build-up, “because it’s a big mistake for them to get mixed up in these mixed sex matches.”

At 29, with nine Grand Slam titles already to her name, King was the first female athlete to earn $100,000 in a year. She had also redefined the professional game for women through her ground-breaking advocacy for the breakaway Virginia Slims Tour.

On and off the court, she appeared driven by the desire for her and her peers to be treated equally, a lofty goal at a time when some tournaments often paid men eight times as much in prize money as women. Against the background of that turbulent time, it’s easier to understand why she was willing to get involved in such a tawdry and crass promotion.

Chicago mob

“There are three differences between the men’s and the women’s game in tennis,” said King at the time. “Men hit harder, because they’re stronger, but otherwise we’re just as good. Men get more good business deals, because the game is run by men. And men tank more matches than women do. I guess we just have more pride.”

Whatever pride Riggs once possessed had long ago been sacrificed on the altar of his inveterate gambling. A washed-up tennis player decades past his best, his taunting of women pros had gained him renewed relevance and the opportunity to make easy money.

Even the outsized lollipop he handed over on court was a bought and paid for product placement by a sweet manufacturer. For all that, he was the bookies’ favourite to take home the $100,000 winner-takes-all purse.

What nobody knew at the time is that his willingness to bet on just about anything (including himself back in his pomp) had brought him into contact with – and into debt to – the Chicago mob, a relationship that has prompted recent investigations to conclude the match was fixed at their behest. Certainly, it’s telling that after the first set he spent some of the break negotiating with a bookie sitting nearby to revise his own odds.

"The Billie Jean King fans screamed "Atta Boy, Billie!" wrote Grace Lichtenstein in The New York Times the morning after her facile three-set victory.

"The Bobby Riggs fans yelled "Kill, Kill!" Mrs King's 55-year-old father, Bill Moffitt, leaped out of his seat at the Astrodome last night screaming "Go, baby go!" at every King point. George Foreman, the heavyweight champion, did the same. When Mrs King won the first set, Stella Lachowicz, the public relations chief for the Virginia Slims women's tennis circuit, trotted around courtside handing out printed invitations to "The Bobby Riggs Bridge Jump." She was reminding spectators that Riggs had promised to jump off a California bridge if he lost to her."

After all the hoopla and hard sell, Riggs was so far out of his depth and out of condition, or, as per the conspiracy theory, merely throwing the game in accordance with the diktats of the mobsters, that he had a time-out in the third set to deal with hand cramps.

During that intermission, King had her calves rubbed by Marilyn Barnett, her personal secretary and, unbeknownst to the rest of the world in those days, her lover too.

A married woman coming to terms with her own sexuality, carrying the hopes of female tennis in the ongoing struggle for equality, she won “the Battle of the Sexes”.

She fought a much longer war.