Happily, it was over on Monday night. I’m talking about the TV movie “When Billie Beat Bobby,” scheduled to play on KATU at 8 p.m. This movie about the farcical excuse for a legitimate tennis match was ballyhooed with a tsunami of advance hype. The program “Inside Edition” treated the movie match as if it had proved as significant to the march of feminism as the drive to give women the vote.
Mark Wigginton’s column in the Portland Tribune bore the headline “A tennis game that changed history,” a statement unrivaled for factual absurdity. It made history in a ridiculous way but certainly did not change history. Wigginton characterized the 1973 match as “a single sports event that polarized, symbolized and trivialized the entire concept of gender equality: a tennis match.”
Wigginton hit it right in one in one of his terms, trivialized. No serious devotee of tennis could have envisioned a more trivial match than one between King and a player so old he had become an historic relic. The match provided a landmark example of depreciating an important issue, that of gender equality and more specifically, of advancing the cause of women’s competitive tennis.
King in 1973 stood at the pinnacle of a brilliant career. In 1967 she won almost every American and international tennis match. In 1971 she became the first woman athlete to win $100,000 in a single year. She won four U.S. singles titles and six Wimbledon singles crowns amid a host of other important victories in singles and doubles.
This was the era when Jimmy Connors ruled men’s tennis, but this supposedly epic match was not between King and Connors. It was with a 55-year-old faded star, Bobby Riggs, a canny shotmaker with legs long gone. Riggs was 21 in 1939 when he won the men’s singles at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. Now, in 1973, Riggs longed for a return to the public eye.
Riggs turned the night into a cheap spectacle, giving the feminist jeering section ample fodder for detesting him. He appeared in the arena surrounded by a bevy of busty babes, as scantily clad as decorum would allow, billed as “Bobby’s Bosom Buddies.” The ensemble paraded around the circumference of the arena, inspiring choruses of hoots and catcalls from the assembled throng. Riggs loved every second of it. After years of being pushed out of the spotlight by players of greater talent, he once again blossomed in the focus of media attention.
King stomped Riggs, of course, in three sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, on Sept. 20, 1973, at the Houston Astrodome. I would guess the only reason Riggs won 10 games was because King permitted the match to drag out in order to give the crowd its money’s worth. I became one of the 50 million viewers who watched at least part of the alleged match and it played as tennis at its dreariest and dullest, but as showbiz rivaling a venue pitting Christians against lions, with the crowd cheering the lions.
The Riggs match aside, King devoted considerable effort to further the cause of women’s tennis. As a result, about the time Tracy Austin won the women’s singles in 1979, spectator interest began shifting to the women’s game. Chris Evert helped and by the time Steffi Graf and Monica Seles came to prominence in the ’80s and ’90s intense public interest had migrated to the women. The drama of the Williams sisters seems to guarantee no waffling back to the men’s side.
Unfortunately, the King-Riggs match didn’t convince everyone of its absurdity. John McEnroe, who won his first U.S. open in 1979 and whose shining light faded 15 years ago, has boasted he could today beat either of the Williams sisters, Serena or Venus. McEnroe, like Riggs, misses sorely the plaudits of the multitude. Please, let’s not do this. We don’t need more such buffoonery on the courts.