Thanks to a link provided by commenter rdmcpeek43 in response to my post on Billie Jean King , I watched the American Masters program on Billie Jean King last night. It was very good. I am not sure how much longer it will be freely available on the web. The film was a biography of her but was less about her tennis as such and more about her pivotal role in advancing equality for women on the tennis circuit, all taking place at a time when women were vocal about the need for equality and justice in all areas of life.
There was a lot in it that I did not know. Although I used to follow tennis while I was in Sri Lanka, the country did not get TV until 1977 (we skipped the entire black-and-white period and went straight to color) and so had to read about it in the newspapers. They focused on reporting on the games and less on the backstage politics. It was nice to see famous women players of the past whom I had only read about before.
I had not been aware until this film of the vicious gender politics that permeated tennis those days and the determined efforts by the male-dominated tennis hierarchy to suppress King’s and a handful of other women’s efforts to get at least some semblance of fairness for women players. This forced them to create a separate circuit where they had more control. Although I hate tobacco companies, you have to credit Virginia Slims for stepping up to be a corporate sponsor for a financially very risky venture. They put women’s tennis on the map.
A good bit of the documentary was on the famous Battle of the Sexes match with Bobby Riggs and the jousting that went on before it. Although King was right in first refusing to play Riggs because she had nothing to gain and everything to lose, once Margaret Court lost, she was again right in taking up the challenge. As a result of the huge publicity surrounding the match and her trouncing of Riggs, the cause of women’s tennis received a huge shot in the arm.
While I knew that King had later come out as a lesbian, I also had not been fully aware of the awful circumstances by which she was outed.
King was also interviewed on the radio program Fresh Air yesterday. In it she was very gracious towards Riggs, saying that although he was a chauvinist, he was also a very kind man and she liked him, and that being the showman and hustler that he was, he took his chauvinism over the top, knowing it would garner a lot of media attention. She also said that Riggs was an exceptionally good player in his day whose career was hampered by the disruptions due to World War II that prevented him from getting the recognition he deserved
You can never get too much of the ebullient Billie Jean King. She is a lot of fun.