“Battle of the Sexes”: Game, set, match, Billie Jean King

The plot of the 2017 American biographical sports film directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris is loosely based on the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

International Blog – Michael Dickens

Dickens

Michael Dickens

“Battle of the Sexes,” a fictionalization of the 1973 exhibition tennis match between World No. 1 Billie Jean King and ex-champion and serial hustler Bobby Riggs, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, opened to much fanfare recently in theaters across the United States.

It’s a very good movie – a beautiful film about sports – with great storytelling, and I was gripped from started to finish. What hadn’t occurred to me when I sat down with my wife in a suburban Washington, D.C., theater on a recent Sunday afternoon to see “Battle of the Sexes” was that at its core, it’s a lesbian love story that goes back and forth between intimate moments and public events, on and off the court. Throughout the film, we find out just how brave and authentic an athlete – and person – the 29-year-old King really was. Mind you, she just happened to be the top female tennis player in the world, too.

Meanwhile, Riggs had been one of the top players in the 1940s and won six major titles. However, by age 55, the self-avowed male chauvinist pig – both an energetic hustler and promoter, but an ebullient boor – had become a big gambler with a penchant for turning provocation into profit.

“It was a man vs. woman match made for maximum public-relations gimmickry, but also a deadly serious referendum on equality on and off the court,” wrote Manohla Dargis in her review of the film for The New York Times. 

Indeed, the bespectacled King was a feminist symbol and the first woman athlete in any sport to win more than $100,000 in a single year. She was the centerpiece of the fledgling Virginia Slims women’s professional tennis tour, named after the popular (at the time) feminine cigarette brand, that was out to fight against the gross inequalities that defined men’s and women’s professional tennis since the beginning of the Open Era in 1968. Fast forward to the 2017 WTA Finals in Singapore, won by Caroline Wozniacki last month, with the awarding of multi-million dollar prize money to its participants and broadcast to a worldwide television audience, and you realize just how far women’s tennis has come in the past forty-plus years.

At the same time, during her prime, King was championing women’s rights – including equal pay. So, in agreeing to play the floppy-haired Riggs in an exhibition match that was staged inside the vast Houston Astrodome in Houston, Texas – and televised in evening prime time throughout the U.S. – it became both personal and political while remaining entertainment, too.

“There’s a lot to follow and a great deal to look at, including an atmospherically embellished past that turns the movie into a veritable way back machine of amusing and amusingly unfortunate choices,” writes Dargis. “There are plaid jackets and flirty minis, sideburns and shags, harvest-gold drapes and rooms perilously fogged in by cigarette smoke.”

Leading up to the big match, Riggs’ sexist pronouncements get bigger and more outrageous, and some of his stunts – many of them wildly absurd and self-serving – are hard to take seriously. However, they offer some good comic relief during the film – and Carell is very convincing as Riggs. Yet, for all of the drama and pomp and ceremony, the King-Riggs event drew plenty of Hollywood attention. Spectators came to the event dressed elegantly and sipped champagne while sitting court side. There were more than 30,000 fans watching in person inside the Astrodome while 50 million Americans watched at home on TV. (I was a high school teenager when the real event occurred, and I remember watching it at home on TV with my family. I was pulling for King to win.)

Always looking to make a fast dollar, Riggs was paid $50,000 to sport a bright yellow Sugar Daddy jacket, which he took off after just three games. Meanwhile, King entered the arena in the great Hollywood fashion of Cleopatra, complete with four muscular and bare-chested males dressed in the style of ancient slaves who carried her in on a feather-adorned litter. Riggs presented King with an oversized Sugar Daddy lollipop and King gifted her opponent with a piglet, which was symbolic of his male chauvinism.

As it happened, the two-time Wimbledon champion King rans Riggs all over the court and trounced her opponent in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. She won by forsaking her usually aggressive approach to play a solid baseline game that allowed her to handle his lobs and soft shots. Afterward, she called her winner-take-all victory over Riggs the “culmination” of her career.

While King and Riggs are the focal points of the film, the tennis scenes are pretty convincing. That’s because real players were used as doubles for King and Riggs. Kaitlyn Christian, a former champion collegiate doubles player at the University of Southern California who is struggling to make it as a professional on the minor-league ITF circuit, acted as Emma Stone’s tennis double in portraying King, and former men’s professional Vince Spadea served as the tennis double for Steve Carell, who played Riggs.

Before she was cast, Christian had never played with a wooden racket with its smaller sweet spots like the ones King used in her prime. However, I learned, her forehand and backhand slice was convincing and it reminded me of how much the women’s game as evolved since King’s heyday into one that relies upon powerful ground strokes as exuded by predominant power players of today like Serena Williams.

Looking back, King liked to serve and volley. She wasn’t afraid to come toward the net to control points against her opponents. Her style, which served her well both throughout her professional career – and for one great festive night against Riggs – was one that relied upon finesse coupled with a dash of touch and spin.

Meanwhile, King’s personal life became a bigger part of the movie, thanks to directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris of Little Miss Sunshine fame, who tweaked the screenplay. King, who came out as a lesbian in the 1980s and would go on to become a widely admired advocate for LGBT groups, was at the time of her exhibition against Riggs married to a man – and in the early stages of grappling with her sexuality after falling for a female hair stylist.

“It really did happen this way, where Billie Jean began her first affair with a woman at a time when she was one of the most famous women in the America, if not the world,” Mr. Dayton told The New York Times. “So that seemed like an important story to tell. And at the same time, she was fighting this very public battle for equality.”

While Riggs may have viewed the match as nothing more than a publicity stunt, coming after he easily beat Margaret Court, 6-2, 6-1, on May 13, 1973, King felt that beating Riggs was important both for women’s tennis as well as for the women’s liberation movement. “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” King once said. “It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”

Instead, while King’s victory over Riggs didn’t define her career – thank goodness – it became her destiny to work toward gender equality, not only in tennis but in all sports. And, as a nation that loves it sports likes the U.S. does, we are appreciative of what this true champion has achieved in her lifetime.

About the author

Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.