American Masters waited 27 years to profile a sports figure, but Billie Jean King, an engrossing and often thrilling 90-minute documentary premiering tonight on most PBS affiliates, was well worth the wait.
Scheduled to commemorate the 40th anniversary of King’s “Battle of the Sexes” match with fading tennis champ Bobby Riggs, the film from writer-director-producer James Erskine covers King’s life and career from her 1943 birth in Long Beach, Calif., through her meteoric rise in the world of women’s tennis in the 1960s and early ‘70s, just as the women’s movement was taking shape around the world, and up to the present day.
As King, who turns 70 this November, remembers it, she fell in love with tennis almost from the moment she started playing at 11 in public parks, but she was troubled to notice that the game seemed to attract elitist, all-white players. She won her first in a record 20 Wimbledon titles in 1961 and started to use her escalating visibility to raise attention to the vast inequity in prize money awarded to women vs. their male counterparts.
In the early ‘70s, King’s global celebrity caught the eye of Riggs, who was hustling to promote himself now that his own tennis career was virtually over at age 55. He challenged King, who was less than half his age, to a match, claiming that despite their age disparity, he would win easily because his gender gave him an automatic advantage. King, no fool, declined, reasoning that if she beat Riggs, she would have beaten a player well past his prime, but if she somehow lost, it might damage the credibility of women’s tennis in general.
Her hand was forced, however, when Margaret Court of Australia, the top-ranked women’s player of the time, accepted Riggs’ challenge and got her clock thoroughly cleaned, underestimating Riggs and letting him psych her out. In the wake of that debacle, King reluctantly agreed to accept the challenge. The winner of the match would collect a $100,000 jackpot, but King obviously realized that the faceoff was, in some respects, a public referendum on whether women truly were the equals of men. What the rest of the world didn’t know was that King was dealing with a different kind of pressure as well: Married to a man since 1965, she now realized she was a lesbian and was struggling to process those feelings.
Nevertheless, she pulled herself together and handily beat Riggs, who had slacked off training since he beat Court so easily.
Not surprisingly, the gripping centerpiece of this documentary is the extensive footage from that match, punctuated by conemporary commentary from King, Chris Evert, Hillary Clinton and many other spectators and participants, including Larry Riggs, son of Bobby, who died in 1995.
After their match ended, Bobby Riggs jumped the net, shook King’s hand and said, “I underestimated you.”
That’s a dangerous mistake for anyone to make, as this fascinating documentary makes abundantly clear.
Billie Jean King today