I’m not someone who remembers exactly where she was when women’s tennis star Billie Jean King beat aging motormouth (and former Wimbledon champ) Bobby Riggs in the so-called “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match on September 20, 1973. I watched it on TV, but it wasn’t a big deal to me. I was a very serious sports fan, and to me this was just “trashsports,” like the ABC-TV show Superstars that debuted earlier that year.
King, 26 then, was at the height of her athletic power, having already won 9 Grand Slam singles titles. Riggs, 55, was way past his prime as a tennis player, but remained a hustler extraordinaire. Here was a big payday for him, as he had bloviated with comic bravado against “Women’s Lib” in order to set up an irresistable-to-sponsors “battle” of the chauvinist vs. the feminist. Obviously it was an act. But King, a hustler herself in terms of promoting women’s tennis (let alone lining her own pocketbook), bought into it.
I must admit that the new documentary on King produced as part of the American Masters series on PBS, which premieres tonight, did convince me that King was in a must-not-lose situation against Riggs. He had already beaten the Australian tennis star Margaret Smith Court—no “Women’s Libber” she (and a homophobe to boot)—and King believed that the efforts she was making to bring equal paychecks to women tennis players would suffer a serious blow if Riggs wasn’t taken down a notch. I must also give kudos to the filmmakers for making the King-Riggs match look exciting, thanks to judicious editing.
But really, young feminists, this match doesn’t deserve to be the defining moment in Billie Jean King’s long and illustrious career as a tennis player and activist. Rather, it was her brilliant and steady leadership in the movement to gain equity for women athletes that made her the most important political figure ever in women’s sports history.
Born in 1943, Billie Jean Moffitt was supported in her sporting endeavors by a father who was a firefighter and a jock (her mom, still around at 91, wasn’t her athletic role model). Her brother Randy, who became a Major League pitcher, also cheered her on as she tried out any sport, especially if it involved running, jumping and hitting a ball. Tennis, which she took up in 5th grade, fit that bill, and as soon as she got a racket she announced she planned to be the best player in the world. She also realized, as a 12-year-old, that it was a sport in which a vast majority of the players were white. “That’s not right,” she said—and thus began thinking that if she could be #1 in the game, she could use it as a platform to speak out for equality.
When the Women’s Movement began picking up steam in the late ’60s-early ’70s, King hopped on the bandwagon. She says in the documentary that she was reading Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan and other Second Wave authors. And her feminism only grew when Wimbledon became an “open” tournament (with prize money) in 1968 rather than remaining “amateur” (or “shamateur,” as players still received money under the table). After winning the 1968 Wimbledon singles title she learned that while she was given a check for £750, men’s champ Rod Laver earned £2,000. Talk about “that’s not right.” Some tournaments had a male-female prize ratio of as much as 12 to 1 in those days.
Next thing you know, with the guidance of Gladys Heldman, the founder of World Tennis Magazine, a group of 9 women players formed their own tennis tour in 1970, the Virginia Slims Circuit, and worked like crazy on-and-off court to gain sponsors and an audience. King saw herself and the tour as part of the Women’s Movement, and told Ms. cofounder Gloria Steinem that feminism was too focused on the neck up. “You’re not using us enough,” she said to Steinem of her fellow women athletes. “[Sports] is about being the best we can be … It’s about trusting our bodies for the first time.”
By 1973, a few months before her match with Riggs, King met with other top women players—who were competing in a separate tour—to unify under the banner of the Women’s Tennis Association. Her successful selling pitch was that they’d never get any closer to equity in prize winnings if they didn’t join forces.
The next year, King’s feminist efforts on behalf of women’s sports expanded beyond tennis, as she founded the Women’s Sports Foundation and womenSports magazine (which later was known as Women’s Sports and then Women’s Sports and Fitness). She also founded World Team Tennis—which features coed professional teams as well as youth programs.
The Billie Jean King documentary on American Masters doesn’t say much about King’s work on behalf of the foundation or the magazine—it should have—but doesn’t skip over the 1981 “galimony” suit filed against her by her former lover, hairdresser Marilyn Barnett. It even shows images of Barnett, who worked for King as an all-around assistant, standing near King on the sidelines at the Riggs match.
It’s commendable that King is seen in the film as an early champion of gay rights after her outing, but that’s not how I remember it. She might have admitted to the affair (which seems to have been condoned in part by King’s husband, Larry King), but called the longtime relationship “a mistake” and would not call herself a lesbian (as she does now—and with a broad smile talks about her partner of 34 years, fellow tennis player and commissioner of World Team Tennis, Ilana Kloss). It wasn’t until 1998, in an interview I did with her for The Advocate, that she finally came out formally in print and became, quite publicly, a staunch gay-rights advocate.
One wishes that the film was less hagiographic and gave King the respect of showing her warts-and-all. But for those unfamiliar with this remarkable woman, it’s wonderful and necessary to have a historical spotlight beamed on her. This is the first American Masters that features an athlete (why did the show wait so long?), but the series certainly chose one of indisputable significance.
Billie Jean King, now 69, says that she has “one big thing” left in her—but doesn’t yet know what it is. Don’t disbelieve her. Stay tuned.
Photo of Billie Jean King with the set scores of her match against Bobby Riggs from Wikimedia Commons