- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2001

It wasn't a real sports event, only a made-for-TV gimmick designed to sell soap and razor blades. It shouldn't have mattered a bit or a whit. Yet to many, it did.

The "Battle of the Sexes," Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs on a tennis court in the Houston Astrodome on Sept. 20, 1973, was, literally, a laugher. For schlock value, if not shock value, this one ranks high on the all-time list.

Anyone old enough to remember it knows that tennis champion King, who was sort of Venus and Serena Williams rolled into one in her day, thrashed and bashed shameless self-promoter Riggs in straight sets. After all, she was 29 and he 55, although he claimed the dozens of pills he popped each day made his body much younger. Where Bobby Riggs was concerned, it was wise to keep your hand on your wallet and a tight lid on what you believed.

Despite the one-sided nature of their athletic competition, if that's what it was, the legend endures that King's victory was some kind of landmark in the struggle for women's equality. Television, the monster that created King-Riggs in the first place, tips its hat to that concept tonight when "When Billie Beat Bobby" premieres on ABC. "Billie Jean was a scrappy individualist, just like Bobby," writer/director Jane Anderson told Time magazine. "They were both working class, both rebels, both big mouths. They needed each other."

Sure they did to become rich and more famous. The question is, did we need them? The famous quote from P.T. Barnum seems to fit here: "There's one born every minute."

Except perhaps for the most devout feminists "women's libbers," some still called them it was hard to dislike Bobby Riggs unless you took him seriously. If you wanted to believe his babblings about male supremacy, hey, that was your problem.

It was true, though, that even the best female athletes were accorded less-than-proper respect. When King won her first Wimbledon singles certificate, in 1966, her payoff was a certificate for clothing. Even when she won her third straight two years later, the cash reward was about a third of that for her male counterpart, Rod Laver.

Angered by the inequity, King founded the Virginia Slims women's tour in 1970 and soon became the first female pro to earn more than $100,000 in a year. Some paying customers were beginning to treat women's tennis as a viable concern, and Bobby Riggs never missed a golden opportunity.

By 1973, Riggs was a retired former Wimbledon champion (1939) known in recent years for hustling younger opponents in rich money matches and beating most of them with an arsenal of trick shots. His match with King was not the first "Battle of the Sexes"; on Mother's Day, an occasion rich with irony, he had defeated Margaret Smith Court, one of the top female pros, in straight sets. Big deal, Riggs said, because no woman could beat a man in anything except having babies and washing dishes.

When King agreed to play Riggs, corporate money poured in, and TV networks competed fiercely for the rights. ABC won and, appropriately, assigned its biggest ham, Howard Cosell, to broadcast the sham with Frank Gifford.

On Sept. 12, while Watergate was beginning to unravel and other vital concerns were unfolding, much of the United States allowed itself to be fascinated by the King-Riggs spectacle. Thirty thousand poured into the Astrodome. Forty million watched on TV, the biggest audience ever for tennis, and they saw a "pregame" show worthy of the Super Bowl. Each contender entered the arena on a cart. Riggs' was pulled by a team of muscular males, King's by female models dubbed "Bobby's Bosom Buddies." Everywhere, one suspects, chauvinists chortled.

When the two met at center court, Riggs presented King with a giant lollipop, the meaning of which seems to have melted in the mists of time. She gave him a baby pig named "Larimore Hustle." It was all a grand show until they started the match.

King, the aggressor from the start, smashed shots past Riggs that his aged legs couldn't reach, rendering moot his supposedly deadly array of junk shots. She won three straight sets, 6-4, 6-3 and 6-3. Just as Riggs had promised, it was a rout the other way.

Like the match itself, the aftermath was anticlimactic. Riggs retreated into sporting anonymity, occasionally muttering about a rematch, and died of prostate cancer in 1995. King's perch at the top of women's tennis soon was successfully assaulted by Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, among others.

In the final analysis, this preposterous gender challenge may have had some value in proving to dunderheads hither, thither and yon that women really could be athletes.

Title IX soon took hold, mandating equality in school and college sports. A while later, prompted by cable TV's voracious schedules, myriad women's professional leagues arose in other sports. Nobody in his right mind ridicules female athletics or athletes any more.

In calling attention to athletic competition by women, Riggs a self-styled "male chauvinist pig" might qualify as the patron saint of sporting equality. Do you find that funny? Surely, Bobby Riggs would have laughed loudest of all.

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