Telling the story of the hyperhyped tennis match between 55-year-old “male chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs and the then reigning queen of tennis, Billie Jean King, this deceptively light documentary catches the casual and systemic sexism of the time, paints a warm, human picture of King and even has the grace to give the publicity hungry Riggs, now long dead, a decent screw.
And the match really was hyped. If you were alive back then there is no way you won’t remember the furore when Riggs, who’d won Wimbledon in 1939 but had long since slipped into obscurity, came out of retirement to make a loud public announcement – the women’s game was feeble, he asserted, and he personally could beat any woman on the planet.
A bracingly direct hustler with a shit-eating grin and an impish eye for the main chance, Riggs is what made the contest such fun back then and is what makes this retelling of the story so enjoyable now. We get some backstory – how Riggs had gone to Wimbledon in 1939, discovered that betting was legal in England and put money on himself to win the singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles. He won. Then we get plenty of cuts of Riggs in the early 1970s – whose second marriage had just broken up thanks to gambling – generating the hoopla that worked the media back then into a perfect storm. Riggs dressed in a series of ludicrous outfits, squiring young attractive women, making loud announcements that it was only obvious that this “broken down old man” could beat any woman, not because he was so great but because they simply weren’t up to much.
We then meet King – a buzzy ball of energy, a big wide smile, lithe. She’s a slighter woman, funnier, sharper, less butch than the King of memory. The end credits tell us that Billie Jean is an executive producer, so there’s initially the suspicion that a slight polishing of the legend is going on. On second thoughts what’s probably happening is that in peeling back the years the documentary is giving us back the bright young powerhouse before she came out as gay and the snide recasting of her image began.
For those who don’t remember King, a note. In any discussion of the best women’s tennis players of all time King is always one of the contenders in a pool consisting of three/four people max. End of note.
And then we’re into the heart of the documentary – how Riggs played Margaret Court, then the world’s number one, and beat her. And how King, who had until then declined to play him, then felt duty bound, in the name of all women, to go out and shut this loudmouth up once and for all. Riggs kept coming. “Billie Jean King is one of the all-time tennis greats, she’s one of the superstars… but she doesn’t stand a chance against me, women’s tennis is so far beneath men’s tennis.”
As the game came closer and the press interest increased, the two appeared on countless TV shows and at press conferences together – Riggs winking as he goads King; King twinkling as she goads him back. The two like each other, you can tell. Both seem to be enjoying the lobs, drop shots and electrifying passing shots of verbal play.
The heart of the documentary is actually pulling the sort of hustle Riggs would have been proud of. It’s about how the politically engaged King and a gang of other women – the “nine” – broke away and set up a tour of their own, in an attempt to get prize money parity with the men. How this breakaway group played games anywhere there was a court, how official tennis tried to close them down, how even fellow players such as Margaret Court and Virginia Wade (looking vaguely rueful as they look back in talking-head mode) wouldn’t back them. And how the corner was turned when the cigarette company Virginia Slims (slogan: “You’ve come a long way baby”) started sponsoring them.
The fact that a cigarette company can be the hero in a tale of exploitation and sport pretty much says all that needs to be said about the past being another country.
And then we’re on to the game itself, King v Riggs at the Houston Astrodome 20 September 1973. About which I’m going to say nothing at all, apart from the fact that it is still the most watched tennis match ever in the US and is presented here as a series of grainy fragments.
Did it prove anything about men’s v women’s tennis? The documentary doesn’t go there. Instead The Battle of the Sexes is a historical document bursting with flavour – the shock of bra-burning feminism in an entrenched chauvinist society, a battle played out as a circus stunt with huge symbolic relevance by bright, wise King and canny, roguish Riggs.
© Steve Morrissey 2013