At this point in time it is perfectly clear that what this country needs is a tennis match between a baboon and a cucumber. We have handled man vs. woman now, twice, with considerable grace and style. It is time to move on to the biggies.
For example, as accompaniment to Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs right there on the floor of the Astrodome, America's Indoor Taste City, the temptation must have been to avoid decency and present us with all manner of tacky stuff: dwarfs singing at the champagne bar, Liberace riding in a Naugahyde Skylab.
But no. All Promoter Jerry Perenchio displayed in front of 30,472 people live, and a few dozen more watching around the world, was King-Riggs straight up, Riggs-King unadorned; Billie Jean against Robert Larimore for $100,000 winner take all.
Of course, there were the obligatory band musicians by the hundreds, dancing girls by the thousands; hardhats and hippies, libbers and lobbers, chauvinists and charlatans; handsome gladiators with no outerwear, nubile maidens with no underwear; aliens dressed up in tuxedos, local gentry dressed up as skunks and elephants; zillions of celebs ranging from out-of-work Tarzans to out-of-work Monkees; trillions of dollars, including basic and ancillary; television, radio and closed-circuit theater; a man with two horns sticking out of his head, a woman with a diamond-encrusted cross dangling around her neck, a banner from Oconomowoc, Wis., an all-week caramel sucker (gift from Riggs to King that she said she would donate to an orphanage), a live pig with a pink bow (King to Riggs) and a grand entrance by the two of them—she borne aloft on an Egyptian litter, he propped into a Chinese rickshaw—that should have been directed by Fellini and scored by Handel.
September 30, 1973
Nevertheless, what kind of In happening can it be when Eva Gabor skips it just to get married again? How big a sporting event can it be when Richard Nixon doesn't even telephone? What in the world kind of occasion was this in which the woman not only defeated the man but swamped him; outplayed, outclassed, outpsyched, outnerved and beat the living bejeezus out of him as well. Perhaps it was something like life. Or death.
Though the atmosphere surrounding King's shocking 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory over Riggs took on all the conflicting tones of a political convention, championship prizefight, rock festival, tent revival, town meeting, Super Bowl and sick joke, what the match finally got down to was a dazzling clinical exhibition of tennis by Billie Jean.
She both first-served aggressively and attacked Riggs' own softball deliveries with authority. She rushed to the net and commanded the territory by whipping stunning volleys off her backhand and by taking Riggs' infamous moon-shot lobs out of the Dome lights and rifling overheads right back past him.
She varied pace on ground strokes, kept Riggs moving from corner to corner and played consistently to his weak backhand. She concentrated on hitting behind her opponent, wrong-footing him time and time again, then surprising him with some of his own beloved spin garbage. Everything worked.
Eventually, King's aggressive play dictated the tempo completely and forced Riggs to hit the ball harder than he likes. Now he had to match her net play, her speed and movement. He had to abandon his kit bag of drop shots and chicanery and hope to prevail in a contest of sheer athletic warfare. In such a confrontation no 55-year-old man holds much hope against Billie Jean King. As Riggs was to say later, "She played within herself all night. She was never extended. The girl was all over me the whole time. I didn't know Billie Jean was so quick."
On King's part it was a brilliant rising to an occasion; a clutch performance under the most trying of circumstances. Seldom has there been a more classic example of a skilled athlete performing at peak efficiency in the most important moment of her life.
Because of Billie Jean alone, who was representing a sex supposedly unequipped for such things, what began as a huckster's hustle in defiance of serious athleticism ended up not mocking the game of tennis but honoring it. This night King was both a shining piece of show biz and the essence of what sport is all about.
Since Matches of the Century or Battles Between the Sexes only come around every four months or so, it is necessary to get a fix on one quickly. This one is easy. The fact that Billie Jean thrashed Bobby no more means that women are bolder, stronger and more likely to become a different type of creature now than Riggs' massacre of Margaret Court on Mother's Day meant that they were enfeebled and representative of the earth's inadequate.
Even before the match, spokesmen for the Virginia Slims circuit down-played the importance of victory. "No matter the outcome, neither women's tennis nor the movement will be hurt," said Ted Tinling, the London designer who created King's "menthol green and Italian sky blue" ensemble. "If she loses, nothing will change."
"Right," said Gladys Heldman, founder of the women's tour. "What do we get if Billie Jean wins, 30 Senators?"
Afterward, even King seemed bothered by reference to anything more cosmic than women's tennis. "This is the culmination of 19 years of work," she said. "Since the time they wouldn't let me be in a picture because I didn't have on a tennis skirt, I've wanted to change the game around. Now it's here. But why should there be a rematch? Why any more sex tennis? Women have enough problems getting to compete against each other at the high school and college levels. Their programs are terribly weak. Why do we have to worry about men?"
From the moment King arrived in town she had looked amply worried. She set about a stringent program geared to night play and concentration. She went to bed late, woke up late and turned down "about 2,000" interviews. She lacked her spontaneous warmth and good humor. She withdrew inwardly. Zealously shielded by her secretary, Marilyn Barnett, a former Beverly Hills haircutter who at times literally threw her own wispy body between King and the onrushing media, Billie Jean went through the motions of winning two matches in the Slims' Houston tournament and began practice sessions inside a large plastic "Bubble" erected in the Astrodome parking lot.
The Bubble, containing the Sportface surface that was to be used for the match, took on all the earmarks of a fighter's training camp. King would work out first in the evening, hitting with Pete Collins, a teaching pro from Hilton Head Island, S.C. Then Riggs would arrive with his touring medicine show featuring sons, relatives, land developers, starlet-models, and Bobby's favorite nutrition specialist, Rheo Blair, whose yellow José Greco bell sleeves rippled in the breeze and whose suitcase of vitamin pills shimmered like a rainbow.
Spectators were charged $5 to sit inside the Bubble, watch the workouts, guess which celebrities were on hand (former Monkees singer Mickey Dolenz was the most notable—it was that kind of a Bubble) and freeze to death in the air conditioning.
There was much concern that Billie Jean was not practicing enough against soft junk, but Collins kept winking and saying she'd be there, lending credence to the suspicion that for the 10 days King was in Hilton Head she was not contracting hypoglycemia or hepatitis or cancer at all but practicing lobs against duck-walking Tibetan trolls.
One evening while Marilyn the Secretary held off autograph hounds by passing out white cards with King's name pre-signed in turquoise ink, Billie Jean's father, Bill Moffitt, expounded on the enemy.
"Australian girls aren't like American girls," he said. "Sissy Bug will murder this Riggs. No way you beat a good player with tricks. If he gets personal, I'll punch him out. He ought to write a book, I Fed Three Wives. I hope Sissy shuts him up good. He's done nothing for the game. If it weren't for women, where would he be? Sissy will kill him, bet you five."
Meanwhile Riggs, who had conned himself into this windfall, may have been promoting himself out of it. Unlike his first sex match at quaint Ramona, Calif., where he trained judiciously, practiced hard and got plenty of sleep, Houston was a binge. When Riggs came to Texas on Sept. 9 he was off booze entirely, but his itinerary included trips to Beaumont and San Antonio to drum up ticket sales. He scheduled appearances on radio and TV, visits to bookstores and cocktail parties and practices in the Bubble where he hustled games against three and four local challengers every night.
He hustled Congressman Bill Archer and heart surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley and a stockbroker who brought his own cheerleaders and a 13-year-old kid. He even hustled Billie Jean's husband, Larry King, spotting him four games and winning 6-4.
Following the matches he would conduct mass interviews with the public, sometimes encountering rough questioning, such as that of one girl with a tape recorder from Fondren Junior High.
Girl: "Are you afraid to play men?"
Riggs: "Who brought you, little girl?"
All the while Riggs spieled for Hai Karate after-shave and Sugar Daddy suckers. He flaunted a shirt with two holes cut out of the chest. And he kept quoting from a song, "Get your biscuits in the oven and your buns in the bed." But the preparation for the biggest night of his life left Bobby Riggs grumpy, hungry and worn out.
"He thinks this is such a lock, he can beat her at half-speed," admitted Lornie Kuhle, Riggs' trainer, at one point. "I think he's right, but...."
Riggs himself contemplated the outcome as follows: "I'm taking so many pills I must have a glass stomach. Billie Jean's banking that I'm not in shape and not serious enough and she may be right. But I saw the girls at Wimbledon and they were so bad it confused me. I know I can play my game. The question is can she play up to her ability under the pressure? Can she stay loose, hit out, be great on the tough points and win? I don't believe it. She'll fold. I make me a 17-point favorite."
The day of the match dawned with all sorts of wonderful rumors: Larry and Billie Jean were getting a divorce. An Arabian sheik with a harem of 60 was flying in from Kuwait. Helen Reddy would sing at courtside. Sinatra was coming. Streisand was coming. Duke Wayne was coming.
That evening the reactions of the protagonists during their magnificently grotesque entrances foretold all. As Billie Jean rode above the multitudes, laughing and waving, she spotted actress Jo Ann Pflug going fairly berserk just below. "How do you like it?" shouted Pflug.
"I love it," shrieked Billie Jean.
Minutes later, surrounded by all of Bobby's Bosom Buddies and half the cameras in the Western world, Riggs arrived. He was not laughing, not even smiling. "How's it going?" he muttered to nobody. "Where is she?" Bobby Riggs was actually tight, nervous, grim. He did not look like he loved it anymore.
Probably his fate flashed before Riggs sometime during the fourth game of the opening set. Serving at 15-all, he hit every shot in his cotton arsenal yet King kept coming on. Back and forth they went, huffing and running on both sides for about nine exchanges. Then King hit a backhand wide and Riggs waddled across the sideline, breathed heavily and smiled down at the floor. The psych was over and he knew it. Now it was tennis only, and he was in against a champion 26 years his junior.
Riggs broke King's service three times, once in each set, but every time she broke back in the following game. King won the first set when Riggs double-faulted at set point. She served a love game to win the second. At 4-2 in the third, Riggs took an "injury break" for hand cramps; he gulped pills and water and tried to get wind or new legs or a Sugar Daddy. Something, anything. But it was all over.
On the third match point—with most of the women jumping up and down in glee, most of the men morose and silent, with the gift pig fast asleep beside the court—an eerie wail came from out of the crowd. "Close him out, Sissy. Close him out."
Billie Jean Moffitt King did. Sissy closed all the pigs out.