Ms. Billie Jean Moffitt King—the wonder woman of tennis or the dingbat of tennis or both, depending on your point of view or maybe your gender—hurried off the jet at Honolulu International Airport last May 13. She and her secretary, Marilyn Barnett, and fellow pro Rosemary Casals were on their way home from a tour of Japan and hoped that during the stopover they could locate a television set and watch Margaret Court play against the nation's foremost male chauvinist pig, Bobby Riggs. King herself had turned down just such an intersexional match.
"They have these little TVs in the airport," said King. "I said, 'I bet they'll delay it a week because Hawaii always runs everything a week late.' And if they did I was going to be furious because we had made it to the airport in time to see the match. We put quarters in the TV, turned it on and flipped the channels—and, sure enough, no match. I was just furious. Rosie was furious. Marilyn was laughing at us.
"We were going to get back on the plane but Marilyn turned on the radio to listen to some music and heard, 'Bobby Riggs has just defeated Margaret Court 6-2, 6-1,' and I said, 'WHAT?' Now I really got angry. Rosie and I were hopping around that plane for five hours all the way to California. I was SO mad!
"I said, 'Well, that's it, that's it. I gotta play this guy now.' "
September 9, 1973
And as everyone between the polar caps must know by now, she is going to play him. Furious Billie Jean King, 29, vs. aging hustler Bobby Riggs, 55, in a best three-of-five sets, $100,000 winner-take-all match in the Houston Astrodome, Thursday, Sept. 20 at 8 p.m. E.D.T. before what is certain to be the largest live audience—close to 40,000—in the history of the sport. (The biggest previous crowd was 25,578, gathered for the U.S.-Australia Davis Cup matches in White City Stadium, Sydney, on Dec. 27, 1954.) At last check the Astrodome had sold 18,000 tickets and stacked up $225,000 in the till, the biggest advance sale the indoor stadium has had this far ahead since it first turned on the air conditioning eight years ago.
ABC will televise the match nationally, and since two such notable bigmouths as Riggs and King are involved, the network, for contrast, named Howard Cosell to do the stroke-by-stroke in his usual humble fashion. In the booth with him as colorperson will be Rosie Casals, who already has described Riggs to the world:
"He's an old man, he walks like a duck, he can't see, he can't hear and, besides, he's an idiot."
"I was going to lodge a very big complaint," said Riggs, "and say I wouldn't play if she was going to be in there, until I heard that for the male color man they selected Jack Kramer. So I have a good friend up there in Kramer and he'll be able to support my side...."
ABC forked over a reported $700,000 to Promoter Jerry Perenchio for the TV rights—which seems like a reasonable sum when one considers that the show could attract more than 20 million viewers. CBS, which televised the Riggs-Court massacre and claims it is legally entitled to this sequel, has filed suit in Los Angeles asking for an injunction to prevent the playing or the televising of Riggs vs. King. Even if it loses the suit, CBS will take a measure of revenge, rolling a first-class, first-time-on-TV movie one hour after the tennis starts. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, mixed-doubles competition across the airwaves, Billie and Bobby against Bonnie and Clyde.
The hoopla surrounding the Astrodome show has taken on gigantic proportions, even to the point of Riggs and King re-creating The Bickersons, a show from bygone radio days:
Riggs: Billie Jean, if it'll make you feel better, I'll be glad to wear a dress for our match.
King: What you wear is immaterial to me. For all I care you can wear your jockstrap.
So Riggs, a paragon of good taste, had himself photographed in a jock and sent, so he claimed, a print to her for her approval. He also toyed with the idea of presenting her with a funeral wreath just before the match, a play on the Mother's Day bouquet he gave Court. He gave lessons to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, played against newscaster Harry Reasoner while at various times tied to a suitcase, a dog on a leash and a bucket of water and showed up for an exhibition at Forest Hills wearing a dress. And always the tongue was wagging:
"I don't mind being called a male chauvinist pig as long as I'm the No. 1 male chauvinist pig. I like to be at the top of the ratings.
"I plan to bomb Billie Jean King in the match and set back the Women's Lib movement about another 20 years.
"The best way to handle women is to keep them pregnant and barefoot."
Everybody tried to get in the act. The Astrodome gave ticket buyers the option of sitting on the Riggs side or the King side and announced that Riggs seats were going faster. There is a Virginia Slims tournament in Houston that week and King's companions on the tour will be given Thursday night off and will sit in a special rooting section. A gaggle of traitorous females are going to counterbalance the Slimsites by wearing Bobby Riggs T shirts. The mayor of Long Beach, King's hometown, gave her a QT (quiet tennis) pill made out of a tennis ball, to shove down Riggs' throat. Manufacturers of indoor surfaces knocked down the doors trying to get their products used (Sportface was picked, pleasing Billie Jean but displeasing Bobby, who wanted Supreme-Court). And the commercial offers rolled in, making "$100,000 winner-take-all" incorrect. The loser is going to gross about that much and the winner figures to make at least double.
It doesn't take a Lew Archer to figure out that all this is more show biz than sport, and the Astrodome seems like the ideal setting—perfect for a spectacle if not for a tennis match. If we ever elect a Nero President, he will surely feed his victims to the lions there. The court will be set up on the infield, with the center of the net approximately where the pitcher's mound normally would be. The Houston Astros originally were supposed to play there the night of the 20th, but they were forced to change their schedule and play a twi-night double-header on the 19th. Could anyone have guessed a few years ago that the National Pastime would ever be made to move over for a tennis match, and a bisexual one at that?
"One problem we'll both have is background," said Riggs. "It's such a vast area, with no fences, no screen and no beautiful acoustics, which you usually have when you're enclosed in a nice tight stadium.... You're going to see over the net and keep looking another 200 yards!"
Then there are the Astrodome lights, rimming the stadium where the dome meets the wall. They were a bit of a problem when UCLA's basketball team lost to the University of Houston there in 1968, and the bulbs at each end had to be dimmed. Overheads and serves could be tricky, especially since the Astros' baseball schedule will limit practice time.
Apart from the lights and background, there is another little problem King has—rats. Her brother, Randy Moffitt, pitches for the San Francisco Giants, and she went to Candlestick Park recently to see him play. The Giants were all quite interested in the Riggs match and were quick to tell her about the Astrodome, one of their regular National League ports of call.
"The baseball players were teasing me," she said. "All of 'em said, 'Well, good luck, you and the rats.'
"I said, 'WHAT?'
"I've never been there. I don't have a clue, but Randy and the other guys said there's a lot of rats there. I don't think they were kidding. That's all I need, little rats running across the court."
She need not worry. The Astrodome was once infested and the Giants indeed once killed a rat in their dugout, but an exterminator was brought in and he chased the rodents out.
"We won't have rats running up her skirt," said a Dome spokesman.
So the male chauvinist pig across the net will be her only animal worry, but that should be more than enough to occupy her. The history of male-female matches indicates that she is in for a rough time. There have been other matches besides Riggs-Court. Jack Kramer was only 15 when he easily defeated Alice Marble. In the 1920s, when Helen Wills was queen of the courts, she played a practice match against a good male player, Fritz Mercur, on an outside court during the Nationals. She won, but Mercur handicapped himself by not coming to the net. They played a return match on center court one morning and that time Mercur won, but with difficulty.
More to the point, King herself has played men before. She practices fairly often with teaching pro Dennis Van der Meer, her partner in the lucrative TennisAmerica clinics and allied businesses. In practice sets she plays him "pretty even, but I don't usually beat him." Four or five years ago she played an exhibition set (with Ping-Pong scoring) against Gene Scott at C. W. Post College in New York, hastily arranged to fill a gap in a program. He spotted her 10 points and won anyway. ("He has that big hopping serve and got it way up above my shoulder, and I couldn't handle it at all," she said.)
King has even had experience playing men in Houston—indoors, as a matter of fact. In August of 1971, as part of a promotion for the Virginia Slims tour, an elimination tournament was held to determine an opponent for her. It was won by Jim Rombeau, former All-America tennis player at the University of Houston, who was 70 pounds heavier and far taller than King. Rombeau had not played competitively in three months and was not in the best of shape. They met in a one-set match at the university's Hofheinz Pavilion and Rombeau won 9-8 in a tie breaker in which King won only one point.
Of course, the issue is not whether a good young man player can beat the best young woman player. King and the other Women's Lobbers concede on that point, just as the women golf pros admit that the men even putt better than they do. The issue is whether a 55-year-old ex-champion male, who has "one foot in the grave" but does extraordinarily well with the other three limbs, and his mouth, can defeat Ms. King, who is 26 years younger and, if her injured right knee comes around as hoped, considerably quicker.
The fact that Riggs wiped out an extremely nervous Mrs. Court on Mother's Day and then Court beat King the last time they met (in the final of a tournament in Nashville), or the lesser-known fact that young woman pro Tory Fretz once beat Riggs in an informal match, has not seemed to dampen anyone's enthusiasm for the upcoming extravaganza. Van der Meer, who coached Court at courtside and will do the same for King, said Court was so nervous against Riggs that she could barely hold on to her racket. Van der Meer lost $500 on the match but plans to make a wager on King "out of loyalty."
"She can only win if she can overpower him," said Van der Meer. "She can't outsteady him, she's gotta go in. He's a counterpuncher and Billie Jean is going to have to take the net with him. She must cut off his passing shots; she must serve well. Court's service was very nervous."
Does the prospect of King volleying at the net scare Riggs? Not on your bottle of Geritol.
"Beautiful, I hope she does that," he said. "That's the way I prefer to play her. The rallies are shorter. I'll be able to last the distance that way. She won't wear me down and tire me out and she'll rush herself into so many mistakes she won't believe it. If I can't pass her, I can sure lob her. There's no wind to blow out my lobs; I'll have pinpoint accuracy. I can go as high as 400 feet and still have room to spare at the Astrodome.
"It doesn't matter, I figure I can play her four or five different ways. Play her from the backcourt, play her from the net.... I have a lot of options, but I'll probably let her start the action and I'll just find the answer to anything she does."
"Bobby's going to win," agreed Pancho Segura, longtime touring pro now settled down in Southern California. "It's only one match. Bobby's going to beat the kid. She's never going to be able to handle him in one match. He's got all the shots. He hasn't got the speed anymore but everything else is there.
"Billie Jean's only hope is to tire him out, run him around if she can control things. She's got a better chance than the other girl because they're playing at night."
And what does nighttime have to do with it?
"Bobby doesn't see too well, anyhow," Segura said, "and when you get over 50 and you're playing at night under the lights, they bother everybody. When you look up, the light reflects off your glasses. That's hell."
Pancho neglected to mention that King wears glasses, too.
"Bobby will win," said Kramer. "The only hope Billie Jean has is to get off to a good start and exploit Bobby's lack of physical speed. It might take Bobby some time to figure out some way to get by her.
"If that happens then he has to be able to go the distance. He might have to play four or five sets. But I feel he will have too much control and will exploit her weaknesses!"
But what weakness could the five-time Wimbledon champion have?
"Riggs is going to be able to exploit a very poor stroke or shot of Billie Jean's, her forehand. Everything off her forehand, except her volley, is quite weak. Riggs with his good control will serve 90% of his first or second shots into that forehand, something that none of the girls apparently can do.
"The only doubt in my mind is that Riggs' soft stuff may be so soft that it enables Billie Jean to come up to the net and gain good court position to really volley well. I don't think Bobby can move too well anymore. He doesn't figure to be too zippy out there."
"I believe I'm versatile enough to handle his garbage shots," said King. "I've got good mobility and I know I've got to work a lot on my overhead. One thing, I never try to underestimate an opponent. Riggs is better than he looks.
"I don't plan to change a thing between now and then. I think one of the mistakes is changing gears."
When the women pros made a recent stop in Nashville, the Tennessean took a poll and 70.6% of the fans (78.1% of the women, 64.2% of the men) tabbed King as the winner. Billie Jean herself playfully filled out a ballot:
"I predicted Margaret would win, and I predicted Ilie Nastase one year at Wimbledon and Chris Evert another year, and I wasn't right either time. So I'm not much at predicting."
Then she marked an X beside her own name.
To counterbalance that, here is another X beside the name Riggs. Four sets. Oink.