Forty years after the historic tennis matches between feminist icon and champion player Billie Jean King and noted chauvinist, provocateur and former pro Bobby Riggs, director James Erskine looks back at the circus that surrounded the 1973 event and its legacy in advancing the rights of female athletes.
AUSTRALIAN CENTRE OF THE MOVING IMAGE: 'I didn’t want to be a second class citizen and I didn’t want anyone to be a second class citizen," declares the tennis great Billie Jean King at the start of this fascinating documentary, where a professional sport is the unlikely prism through which the struggle for gender equality is examined. Now aged 70, King speaks with directness throughout James Erskine and Zara Hayes’ film, providing a balance to historic events which 40 years on look frankly ludicrous, but which held a powerful sway on the culture of the early 1970s.
the struggles depicted in this documentary are emblematic today
The film has two formidable protagonists: King, a powerful American player whose rise in women’s tennis the mid-1960s coincided with the stirrings of professionalism, and Bobby Riggs, a former male number one from the 1940s who was a gambling hustler and canny self-promoter who hit upon the tactic of challenging female players to play him in exhibition matches while he was in his early to mid-fifties. Riggs would loudly claim his superiority over the younger women, playing on mainstream male fears about the growing women’s liberation movement. He was a boorish loudmouth, but Riggs attracted a huge profile.
The film, which is blessed with extensive archival footage including two key matches, sketches the rise of feminism both on a public and tennis circuit level. Even as King was winning multiple Wimbledon titles, reporters were asking when she would stop to start a family with her husband. Samples of television advertisements from the time demonstrate the condescension shown to women, and it was a rival of King’s, Australian champion Margaret Court, who accepted Riggs’ challenge. She was conservative in outlook and played him for the cash guarantee ($35,000), only to lose her nerve before a sizable audience (John Wayne, Bill Cosby) in straight sets.
It was at that point that King took up the challenge, and the film alternates between her adversarial partnership with Riggs – they promoted their clash widely, generating a crowd of 31,000 in the Houston Astrodome, a television audience of 100 million viewers and a rich purse – and the struggle she led to form a breakaway woman’s professional tennis circuit (the eventually dominant Women’s Tennis Association). It should be noted that King is an executive producer (Riggs passed away in 1995), and the narrative only briefly refers to the more awkward circumstance that she played Riggs at a time when she had realised she was gay, and was having an affair with her secretary while married.
But with the game itself as the lengthy climax, The Battle of the Sexes finds plenty on the court that is compelling. Stylised inserts shot for the film aren’t necessary to illustrate the course of play, especially when it’s illuminated by anecdotes such as Riggs’ coach reporting that having lost the first set his main concern was finding out what his odds were from his bookmaker in the stands. Looking at the audience – I swear I saw Mad Men’s Roger Sterling – you can easily think this is a bygone era, but the struggles depicted in this documentary are emblematic today. The Australian Centre for the Moving Image is a short walk from Melbourne Park, where the Australian Open will be played over the coming fortnight. As a closing credit notes, Wimbledon and the French Open now have equal prize money for men and women. The Australian Open doesn’t.