Wimbledon champion Billie Jean King and 55-year-old Bobby Riggs during meeting at an east side tennis club. Returning in triumph from London, Mrs. King met Riggs in a $100,000 winner-take-all tennis match
Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs on court together ahead of the infamous 1973 Battle of the Sexes (Photo: Getty Images)

FILM

Billie Jean King: Let The Battle of the Sexes inspire the next generation's fight for equality

As the long-awaited film finally hits UK screens, Billie Jean King tells Alexandra Heminsley why the 1973 Battle of the Sexes might have been won – but the fight is far from over

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By Alexandra Heminsley on

Out today, the Battle Of The Sexes tells the story of the extraordinary 1973 tennis match between then 29-year-old tennis ace Billie Jean King and 55-year-old Bobby Riggs, a bloated, showboater of a former World Champion. King accepted Rigg’s offer to take him on in an exhibition match in the frankly enormous Houston Astrodome, to make the point that women could play just as well as men. Gender politics was different back then…

The stakes were ridiculously high: the world TV audience was 90 million, second-wave feminism was bubbling to the surface and the campaign for equal pay was finally getting some attention. Had King lost, the societal implications would have been enormous. But she won, and got to present Rigg with a pig as consolation. Played in the movie by Emma Stone, whose characteristic likeability twinkles throughout, Billie Jean King comes across as infectiously optimistic, truly gritty and relentlessly charming. As such, I was a little nervous that meeting her in person might, dare I say it, disappoint. What a fool. Within minutes she was grilling me on The Pool, and whooping with delight when I explained how proud I was that we don’t relegate our health and fitness coverage to the Beauty section.

“Thank you! It’s about life!” she whoops, regaling me with a story about how she and her ex husband set up womenSports magazine in 1973. Because that is the sort of person Billie Jean King is: when she has an idea, she actually sees it through. As depicted in the film, when US tennis didn’t pay its female players equally, King and her manager (played with requisite sass by Sarah Silverman) set up their own league and toured the country independently.

And it wasn’t as if King reached this position of influence from a fair starting point. Her early tennis days were “pre Title IX”, which was the legislation passed in 1972 which declared for the first time that equal federal funds should be spent on men and women.

“For the first time women got athletics scholarships too. Me, I had to work two jobs to keep going while Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith had scholarships at UCLA, and USC, prestigious schools, all paid for.”

It’s the 1973 Bobby Riggs match that really changed things though. The film does a wonderful job of showing the enormity of the occasion, from the venue to the TV rights to the almost endless wrangling between broadcasters over the nature of the coverage. Some of the middle aged sports veterans seem to have behaved as if they were dealing with a ticking bomb… which in some respects they were. How did King steel herself for an event of that size?

Every generation has to start over, but the millennials and Generation Z are the best generation ever because they are big on inclusion and they have technology to help mobilise and communicate

Emma Stone and Steve Carrell star in Battle of the Sexes, out today
 

“All I could do was do my best,” she says cheerily. “It opened up dialogue, got people talking ‘Wow! Have you seen the match? Oh my god! What did you think? Oh my god she did this wrong, she did this right, oh my god…’ Any time you’ve got discussion and dialogue over a dinner table or a bar or cups of tea, that’s good.”

But if you have an audience of 90 million, and you are trying to open up dialogue surely you must know that that means tens of millions of people disagreeing vehemently with you. I ask her if she felt that at the time. “Oh yeah, they didn’t want to know!” she laughs as if the weight of 30 million mens’ rage was feather-light. “I just thought, how do I reach the hearts and minds, that was my job.”

It genuinely seems that she believed advocacy was part of her job as a sportsperson. Does she still think that, and does she expect it of others today?

“Serena (Williams) is really stepping up now, leading change, I love it! Not everyone is going to do it, but I wish that they would want to. You have an opportunity for a global platform, and it’s a privilege to have that voice, it’s a chance to give back.”

So what actually changed after her big match? How long was it until she felt that anything had? “In some ways, things changed immediately. The dialogue. I knew what words triggered people then.” She explains her reluctance to use the word “feminist” on the live broadcast. “Half an hour before the match, they were still laying the damn court, Frank Gifford, a big deal at ABC, opened his interview – BAM! – with ‘You’re a feminist aren’t you?’ and I knew that if I said yes 75 per cent of the people would just turn off right away. So I just said, ‘I am all for the women’s movement.’ It didn’t shut anybody down, it included the women, it kept everyone listening. I was constantly on a tightrope. My job was to communicate.”

But did enough change? “Of course not!” she guffaws. “Back then, on average US women were making 59 cents on the dollar. Now we’re up to 79 cents, so there has at least been improvement. It’s not where it needs to be, it won’t be until we have complete equality. I just hope this film inspires the millennials and Generation Z to fight too.”

What would she have them do, particularly in this feverish political climate? King is as enthusiastic about the future as she is about her past exploits. “They have to choose. But they need to know to do it every day. Every generation has to start over, but the millennials and Generation Z are the best generation ever because they are big on inclusion and they have technology to help mobilise and communicate. And I hope the film helps some of them to become comfortable in their own skin, to allow parents or grandparents to maybe understand LGBTQI kids better. Better understanding always takes the fear out of it. The unknown is what makes people homophobic.”

It sounds as if she would quite like to be part of that generation, starting over again, I suggest. “Yes, that would be great!” she giggles. But then you wouldn’t have had the chance to do all of the amazing work you did, I add. “Well maybe I would just have done something amazing as a millennial,” she replies. I don’t doubt it.

As I go to leave, I tell her how much I enjoyed the film, how much it cheered me up after a crappy week. It’s like you, I said, informative but fun. She grins again. “You have to keep the fun, always keep the fun!”

@Hemmo

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Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs on court together ahead of the infamous 1973 Battle of the Sexes (Photo: Getty Images)
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