Forty-four years ago, a 29-year-old female tennis champion played a tennis match, on national television, against a 55-year-old male former tennis champion. And the country, more or less, went insane.
“Battle of the Sexes” is a new movie depicting that match and its times, and the real-life woman at the center of the story was on the phone with me for a few minutes last week, fast-talking and bubbly.
“For me it’s about, can we get a younger generation to fight the fight?” said Billie Jean King.
She’s speaking of the battle for equal pay and equal rights — one she’s fought for much of her life. Now 73, King’s career has encompassed world-class tennis (she won 39 Grand Slam titles during her playing career, between 1966 and 1980) and social activism.
While many will remember her much-ballyhooed match against Bobby Riggs in 1973, the movie reminds us of a more significant accomplishment for King that year: Outraged about the vast pay gap that then existed between men and women tennis pros, she founded the Women’s Tennis Association, still the core of women’s professional tennis today.
“The one thing I really wanted (in the movie) was to have the original nine have a real presence,” said King, referring to the nine female players, including herself, who formed the Virginia Slims tour in the early 1970s, in open defiance of the United States Tennis Association (which threatened to bar them from Grand Slam events). “We took the chance, and got in a lot of trouble,” said King, but from that tour grew the WTA. Each of the nine women signed a contract for one dollar, posing for a photo with a dollar bill — a scene re-enacted in the movie.
The “Battle of the Sexes” match grew from those tensions; Riggs, a tireless self-promoter and consummate performer, had spoken loudly about how women pros didn’t deserve the same pay as men because they didn’t play as well. King initially declined his invitation to a match, but decided to play him after he easily defeated star player Margaret Court.
Their match, taking place in the Houston Astrodome and watched by a television audience of 50 million, was an over-the-top spectacle: He entered in a rickshaw pulled by tight-T-shirted models; she was borne on a litter carried by bare-chested men.
For the movie, King spent long hours with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty,” “Slumdog Millionaire”).
“I had to think back, but to be honest, it helps me the most if I see (footage of) the match,” she said, of that long-ago evening. “I was so busy in those days, not getting any sleep, working on the tour. The match was so important, but we had our tour that I had to be playing.”
Other than sharing her recollections with Beaufoy — one session lasted “10 hours — that put him under!” — King wasn’t specifically involved in the making of the film. Though the filmmakers, including directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine), wanted her blessing, “My job was to stay out of the way,” she said. “I just said, whatever you guys need.”
She did, early on, meet Emma Stone, who played her in the film.
“We’re quite shy, both of us,” said King.
The two have been spending time together doing promotion for the film, but during its making “she really decided not to spend so much time around me. I’m older now, and she needed to be like I was at 29. I thought that was brilliant. You think you need more, but she needed less. That’s why she’s so great — if we’re talking sports, I’d say she’s got the instincts of a No. 1 player.”
King, an athlete to the core, is tickled to have this year’s Academy Award winner for best actress (for “La La Land”) playing her on screen — “that’s like being the No. 1 player in the world in tennis!” she said. “We had fun with that.”
But watching the final film — which also depicts King in a closeted lesbian relationship (she was married at the time) — wasn’t always a laughing matter.
“It’s difficult for me to watch,” said King, of the curious experience of seeing her life on-screen. “It brings back a lot of pain and shame and joy.”
Outed by a palimony suit in the early 1980s, she became one of the first openly gay female athletes, and now lives with her longtime partner Ilana Kloss, also a former pro tennis player.
Long retired from tennis (she gave up competitive play in 1990, and rarely picks up a racket these days), King’s life today is as busy as ever. An in-demand motivational speaker, she recently founded the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, “about equal pay for equal work and being your authentic self.” World Team Tennis, a league she cofounded in 1974, just celebrated its 42nd season — “men and women equally on a level playing field, contributing equally to the team effort.” And she currently serves on a number of boards, including the Women’s Sports Foundation and the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
King says she’s completely happy with how “Battle of the Sexes” turned out.
“I thought (the filmmakers) really caught the essence,” she said. “It’s not a documentary. But they absolutely got the essence and the emotion.”
“I just hope this movie’s relevant, and that the younger generation will really want to keep going forward. Every generation has to fight for freedom and equality.”
‘Battle of the Sexes’
True story of the 1973 tennis match between No. 1 Billie Jean King and ex-champ Bobby Riggs.
Come back to The Detroit News on Friday to read film critic Adam Graham’s review of the movie.
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