PBS documentary celebrates when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

6-4. 6-3. 6-3.

Billie Jean King trounced Bobby Riggs on Sept. 20, 1973, in the Houston Astrodome in the widely seen and most politically charged tennis match in history.

Naomi Carter remembers the night: The television set tuned to ABC. A bottle of Pepsi and a bowl of popcorn on the TV tray. The kids and husband gathered around the living room. And the tension, as if everything was riding on King’s serve and volley.

“Oh, you know I didn’t do the dishes that night,” said Carter, 67, of Greenwich, Conn. “The significance of the event probably is lost on young people, but that night Billie Jean King proved something for all women.”

Carter recently toure  “The Battle of the Sexes: 40 Years Later” exhibit during the U.S. Open at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in New York and, like many other fans, turned to social media to share her impressions and remembrances. The exhibit, featuring a collection of match artifacts and images, also celebrates the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association and also the U.S. Open becoming the first Grand Slam tournament to award equal prize money to men and women. These are all milestones that King, who is openly lesbian, made happen.

“My job in the match was to change the hearts and minds of people to match the legislation of Title IX and what we were trying to do with the women’s movement,” King, 69, said in a news release from the International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum, presenters of the exhibit. “It was to validate it, to celebrate it and to get it going toward changing a world where we had equality for both genders.”

Gail Harrell, 71, of Chicago, toured the exhibit, which included a “King Power” button, King’s Adidas tennis shoes and custom-designed tennis dress, Riggs’ SugarDaddy windbreaker, racquets and a “Liberation Match” scorecard. Later, Harrell said, “I’d forgotten how much I liked the term ‘women’s lib.’ I’m going to bring that back.”

U.S. Open fan Michael Cox, 49, of Detroit, also toured the exhibit: “I’m a big fan of the Williams sisters and women’s tennis, which wouldn’t be what it is without Billie Jean.”

PBS also is marking the anniversary of the Battle of the Sexes with “American Masters: Billie Jean King,” the first episode in the long-running series to profile an athlete. The episode premieres on Sept. 10.

“Billie Jean King embodies the art of sports, of humanism and of activism,” said “American Masters” executive producer Susan Lacy. “For more than 50 years, her excellence and example have sparked the way for changes that enrich us all.”

Filmmaker James Erskine said, “Almost from the first time she picked up a racket, Billie Jean King has understood the power of sport as a major cultural force to shape society; and it was her insight to use the emotional energy borne on the playing field to fight for equality and social justice. Through her life she has faced triumph and adversity with equal measure, battling both on and off the court for a better world.” 

In the documentary, King tells her story, with perspectives provided by Bobby Riggs’ son, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Elton John, Serena and Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, Chris Evert, Rosie Casals, Gloria Steinem, Valerie Jarrett and others.

All the accomplishments and career highlights are covered: King won her first of a record 20 Wimbledon titles in 1961 and went on to win 39 Grand Slam titles. She’s received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and been named one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.” She founded the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974 to advance the lives of women and girls through sports and more recently co-founded GreenSlam to promote environmentalism in sports. She’s a trustee of the Elton John AIDS Foundation. She’s the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000 in a single season and one of six inaugural inductees into the Court of Fame.

King, early in the documentary, recalls her childhood passion for sports, including finding odd jobs as a kid to buy her first tennis racket and playing all day to become the best. She loved the game and loved winning, and she recognized tennis, at the time an elitist sport, could become a platform to fight for equality.

Discrimination throughout the 1960s, the rise of women’s liberation in the 1970s, the solidarity of nine suffragettes in tennis are reviewed  as the show builds up to the big battle in Houston.

King had repeatedly resisted Riggs’ requests for a match. A loss, she feared, could set back the women’s rights movement. But Margaret Court, ranked No. 1 among the women players, agreed to a Mother’s Day match with Riggs, for a guarantee of $35,000, win or lose.

“I had no idea,” Court, in the documentary, says of the hype and harassment Riggs had planned. She opened the match with a curtsy, got trounced and almost immediately the focus turned to King as defender of women’s tennis.

“If I could win … I could help social issues move forward,” King remembers in the show. At the same time she was preparing for the match and dealing with the media exposure, King was acknowledging her lesbianism and fearing what might happen to the women’s tour if she was outed. “I had to play Bobby Riggs … and just stay focused. I hit hundreds of overheads every day.”

Battle of the Sexes viewers – there were more than 90 million worldwide – likely remember the spectacle before the match as much as the outcome. Riggs arrived on a rickshaw, accompanied by scantily clad female models, and King arrived in a throne carried by four muscle men, like a Cleopatra of the court. At the net, King presented Riggs – who had made certain the women in the worldwide audience considered him a male chauvinist pig – with a piglet named Larimore Hustle.

For King, winning the first set was critical.

Elton John was watching ABC that night: “I was praying.”

Hillary Clinton was with a group of friends and watching so closely she had to remember to “breathe in, breathe out.”

Howard Cosell provided the memorable coverage in his trademark staccato delivery: “You can sense the kill.”

Casals has described it as “the match of the century” while Evert has said King’s victory transcended tennis.

Riggs, after the loss, said he was “killed by the woman.”

But to King, he confided that he’d underestimated her.