It happened today - September 20, 2015
September 20 is supposedly a red-letter day for women’s equality because on this date in 1973 Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs at tennis. Well, something sort of like tennis. But I’ve always thought the whole spectacle was bogus and whoever builds on falsehood builds on sand.
I say it was bogus because at the time, King was 29 and at the top of her game while Riggs was 55 and retired for decades. (Despite the popular legend, however, the rules were standard tennis rules, unlike a later Jimmy Connors/Martina Navratilova match that favoured the female athlete). And nobody really thinks, or thought then, that a match between a current top male and female player on equal terms would end in anything but bitter humiliation. Indeed, just months earlier, Riggs had beaten the top-ranked woman in the world, 30-year-old Margaret Court, in straight sets, 6-2 and 6-1.
The King-Riggs match was nevertheless a huge public event, held at the Houston Astrodome with the contestants making entries more suited to pro wrestling and watched by 50 million people worldwide on TV. And King beat Riggs, who hadn’t even practised, in straight sets. But she refused a rematch even though the original contract had provided for one. And wisely.
In 1992 Jimmy Connors, then 40, took on Martina Navratilova, 35, with rules that favoured her… and won easily, 7-5 and 6-2. And nobody has staged similar spectacles in other sports, let alone suggested allowing men to compete with women in elite female events from golf to hockey.
Why not? After all didn’t King prove that women could beat men at their own game?
Of course not. In fact she proved the opposite, especially by refusing a rematch against a man who’d won titles before World War II as the Vietnam War wound down. She knew perfectly well what would happen. And imagine putting a 55-year-old former women’s champ on the court against a 29-year-old top male player. No, actually. Don’t. It would be disgraceful.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad women’s athletics is now higher-profile and more rewarding. Indeed, in sports from tennis to golf I think that as the equipment continues to evolve the women are playing a more interesting game more like the original than men with their 240 km/h serves and 300 yard drives that are overwhelming the world’s great golf courses. And of course even in my “prime” I was no match for top female athletes in any field of human endeavor. But the fact remains that King’s triumph was a show trial of sexism, not a fair contest.
In 2006, former great male tennis player and decorum-shattering brat John McEnroe called King “the single most important person in the history of women’s sports.” I’d be sorry if that were true. Does anyone doubt the result if a male and female player of equal distinction and comparable age, for instance, Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert, had played a genuinely competitive match under standard rules at any time in their lives?
King had a great career, of course, and did help elevate women’s sport. But the thing for which she will always be most famous was a bogus spectacle. Women athletes deserve better. And so does Billie Jean King.