With Wimbledon upon us the question has been asked at the Edinburgh Film Festival: Are all men better than all women at tennis? Nowadays you’d struggle to find someone to stand up and propose such a motion. Common sense suggests that, to pick two names at random, Laura Robson would beat David Cameron. But back in the 1970s this question was taken seriously. Most especially by one Bobby Riggs. He had won Wimbledon, so he was no slouch with a tennis racquet. More to the point, he loved gambling and playing sports and games for money. He was a showman and saw the claim Any man can beat any woman as a means to make dollars.
The Battle of the Sexes is a film co-directed by James Erskine and Zara Hayes about the tennis match that was played between Riggs and Billy Jean King in 1973. At that time Billy Jean King was ranked the No.1 woman in the world. Riggs was fifty years old and, let’s say, not in peak condition. With interviews with leading female players of the period the directors build up a picture of the women’s game at the time that is set in the context of the fight for female equality. Remember this was a time when a food-mixer could be advertised with the slogan Does everything but cook, that’s what wives are for. In America women couldn’t have a credit card in their own name. They couldn’t start a business without their husband’s consent and weren’t allowed to eat hamburgers unless accompanied by a male chaperone. Actually I’ve made one of those up, but they’re all so preposterous that it’s hard to tell which.
Riggs was out to make money and contacted all the top female players hoping one would bite. Billy Jean King is interviewed explaining how she didn’t reply as she knew she had nothing to win and much to lose, but Margaret Court did respond and did play Riggs. After that King agreed to a match with the hustler.
It became a huge event, with the winner getting $100,000. It remains the tennis match with the highest viewing figures to this day. For Riggs it was a money-maker, but for Billy Jean King it became much more than a tennis match. It was history, it was a chance to advance feminism and prove something about female abilities.
The filmmaker does a good job of integrating the story of the match with the start of the female tennis tour. Who’d have thought it had such a difficult genesis? The current female tour only exists thanks to nine brave individuals. They played in a first unofficial tour under the threat of being banned from playing in the few competitions like Wimbledon and the US Open that did allow women. And let’s not get started on the prize money-differential. (Don’t worry if you want to get started on the the prize money differential. They get started on it in the film, and mention it quite a few times before the end).
At last a film for tennis fans to cheer for. And look what’s in the Wimbledon news today… Andy Murray versus Serena Williams anyone?!
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