A Necessary Spectacle

Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs, And The Tennis Match That Leveled The Game

by Selena Roberts

A Necessary Spectacle

Hardcover, 272 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $24.95 | purchase

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Book Summary

Provides an account of the 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, discussing its impact on the cultural history of the 1970s and its implications for the evolution of women's sports.

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Excerpt: A Necessary Spectacle

A Necessary Spectacle

Chapter One

Chapter 1: The Mother’s Day Massacre

Margaret Court followed the money down a desolate two-lane highway. About forty miles northeast of San Diego, the road known as Wildcat Canyon slithered past orange groves and a dusty Indian reservation, and through the shadows of the Cuyamaca Mountains. It was an uncomfortable stretch, so isolated that Mexican drug smugglers favored the route for their midnight drops.

Reaching the town of Ramona, California, Margaret found a luxury housing development still in the bulldozing stage. It was May 13, 1973. A tennis has-been named Bobby Riggs and a sure $10,000 were just forty-eight hours away.

Mother’s Day.

All the five-foot-ten Aussie had to do was punch a few volleys past the geezer in telescopic glasses. All the mommy of the moment had to decide was where to ace the mouthy, wrinkled runt: down the middle or out wide.

It was going to be so easy. With her husband and infant son by her side, Margaret would walk onto a court surrounded by 3,200 fans in makeshift bleachers, impose her V-8 power strokes on Bobby, and exit this lizard’s paradise with the winner-take-all payday, plus an extra $10,000 in television rights fees from CBS.

Margaret often described money as an evil, but even she had to admit that the dough was the inducement that brought her here, not Bobby’s sexist prattle. She entered her match with Riggs as if it were an exhibition, rather than a serious competition against a skilled and cunning opponent. And she gave no thought to its social consequences. American women were tossing bras, girdles, and nylons into trash bins, but the women’s movement didn’t move Margaret. She was a Mrs., not a Ms.

“I found that a difficult time,” Margaret recalls. “I always felt your gift made room for you. Whether you’re a man or whether you’re a woman, I didn’t feel you had to go over the top.”

No, Margaret was never one to go over the top. She was a benevolent bystander when Billie Jean King and eight other women risked their tennis careers in daring skirmishes for prize-money equality in 1970. She was a practicing pacifist when those women—known as the Original Nine—defied the male tennis establishment to form an autonomous circuit called the Virginia Slims.

Margaret just wasn’t the defiant type. She was more introverted than her vociferous peers, someone who usually minimized her presence. Margaret would almost sneak onto the court with her head tilted down, her broad shoulders slightly slumped, and her body folded inward like flower petals at night. She didn’t enjoy standing out or speaking up. Sometimes she could actually feel her skin heat and redden from the neck up during interviews. To her, a bank of microphones looked about as friendly as a gang of alien invaders.

Margaret preferred to be a noncombatant amid the gender mudslinging of the early seventies, when rational feminism was often entwined with radical lesbianism. As a devout Christian who found moral clarity in the Scriptures, she was like many alienated onlookers who couldn’t separate man-bashing militants from the messengers of equality.

While activists were wearing T-shirts that read, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle,” Margaret retreated into the comfort of her marriage. The hoof steps of picketing marchers, the drumbeat of feminists, the glorious music of a cause engaged, it was white noise to Margaret. She couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Everything had changed so much, so fast, while she was away. What had she walked back into?

She had fled from fame in 1966, retiring from tennis for two years, desperate to shed her label as the Aussie wonder girl who had won thirteen majors before her twenty-fifth birthday. She searched for a pocket of solitude on the fringes of the earth—otherwise known as Perth, Australia—moving from the densely populated east coast of the country to the only dot of civilization on the other side of the great Australian desert.

In Melbourne, Margaret was a tennis legend. In Perth, she was the tall young lady with short, neatly cropped hair who owned a boutique on a quiet street.

“Nobody knew me in Perth,” Margaret recalls. “I could hide away.”

Barry Court found Margaret adorably gentle. Knowing little about her former tennis career, he fell in love with her kind heart and earnest disposition. It wasn’t until after they were married in 1967 that he discovered who his wife had been. One day in 1968, Margaret said to her husband, “You’ve never traveled overseas. You don’t know my background of sport. How ’bout we go for one year?”

One year spilled into the next. She hadn’t touched the throat of a racket in two years, but she slipped right back into her old competitive skin. She hadn’t lost a thing. With muscles as strong as tree roots carved into her arms, with lean long legs and a lumberjack’s approach to the ball, Margaret was more dominant than ever. She won all four majors to capture the elusive Grand Slam in 1970. None of those victories was more remarkable than her two-and-half-hour epic at Wimbledon. Just before her final against Billie Jean King, Margaret received two painkiller injections into her puffy ankle left blue from a ligament she tore in an earlier round match.

She was in obvious agony. But so was her opponent. Billie grimaced through the end of the match with leg cramps and cranky knees. Her left knee had been surgically repaired years earlier, and now her right knee was buckling, too.

Somehow each woman produced spectacular shots of will, but Margaret managed her pain well enough to take a 14–12, 11–9 final. The mesmerized crowd was thrilled, if mentally exhausted, after witnessing one of the great Wimbledon championships.

They also saw one incredible leg of Margaret’s journey to becoming the first player to win a Grand Slam since Maureen Connolly in 1953. She sealed it with a U.S. Open title at Forest Hills two months later.

The Slam put Margaret back on top, back in the public eye, but she declined to indulge in the popular on-tour debates over male expendability, feeling too indebted to the men in her life to diminish them. They had lifted her, not belittled her. Barry traveled the world with Margaret. He shrugged off the teases from the blokes back home and never seemed threatened by her success. She was embraced by men, not marginalized by them. She didn’t realize that few women of her time could join her in saying, “I was always the leader of the gang, you know. I had eight boys in the street and I was the cowboy and never the Indian. I never felt frustrated.”

She had only felt acceptance. All her life, gentlemen had routinely opened doors for Margaret, at hours as early as 5:00 a.m. That’s when she used to venture into a Melbourne gym after her morning jog, passing milkmen with strides that echoed on the lonely streets as she ran to lift weights. Bulking up was as ladylike as a beer belch in the early sixties, but as a fifteen-year-old tennis prodigy, Margaret was determined to convert her angular physique into a power structure.

“A woman didn’t go to gyms, but I loved that side of it,” Margaret remembers. “I loved working out.”

Her coach, Australian tennis legend Frank Sedgman, and the gym attendants made that possible by establishing special rules for the only woman in the weight room. They installed a curtain in the shower area just for Margaret, and kept the gym closed to men until she was gone.

“They looked after me. They supported me.”

They had saved her, too. Born July 16, 1942, in the railroad junction town of Albury, New South Wales, Margaret Smith grew up in a rented home where she could measure the financial burdens on her family by the amount of alcohol her father drank. He worked as head of the dessert unit at a local butter and cheese plant, bringing home pocket change for wages and a single perk: ice cream.

“I lived on ice cream in those early years. Then, for some years, I didn’t eat ice cream at all.”

The Smiths didn’t own a car or a television. They grew their own vegetables. With four siblings and only one bedroom, Margaret and her sister slept on the front porch, with thatched blinds pulled down from the beams to keep out the moonlight and most of the insects. In the morning, when those blinds lifted, Margaret could see inspiration across the road: twenty-four grass tennis courts that stretched out like magic carpets. Years later she would muse, “I’ve always wondered what would have happened if those courts hadn’t been there.”

Those courts became her escape. As a child, Margaret and a handful of mischievous boys routinely wiggled through a hole beneath the tennis club’s fence to swipe grass-stained balls that were as flat and soggy as overripe tomatoes. They bashed them to bits, playing their own brand of tennis in the roadway, with makeshift rackets. Margaret whacked away with a thin board the length and breadth of a boat’s oar.

At age eight, she got lucky. Her parents couldn’t afford to buy her a real racket, but a friend of her mother’s saw how gamely Margaret flailed away at a ball suspended from a string tied to a backyard tree. Next time the lady visited, she handed Margaret a dilapidated antique racket with a square head, broken strings, and no grip. It was thick, unwieldy, and perfect. Beautiful, Margaret thought.

She won her first tournament with that relic. Soon enough, she had Wal Rutter, the grumpy pro at the tennis club, turning his back while she crawled like an inchworm through the hole under the fence to practice on the most remote court, the one hidden from view by a hedge. Rutter never filled in that hole. It would become a tunnel to Margaret’s new life.

She bloomed on grass, rising so fast in the local junior ranks that Sedgman whisked her away from Albury, offering her a job as a typist and a future as a player. At fifteen, she was bound for Melbourne to become a gender bender of her own design: a woman with uncommon muscle but traditional values.

In 1973, Margaret joined the successful Virginia Slims circuit, but she didn’t follow Billie Jean King’s formula for promotion. She didn’t go door-to-door to schmooze with sponsors, or stand in traffic to hand free tickets to motorists. She didn’t sign autographs at shopping centers or rise at 5:00 a.m. for interviews on every ten-watt radio station known to man.

“The other women thought I never sold myself enough,” Margaret says. “I wasn’t a sponsor’s dream.”

But she was an opponent’s nightmare. Margaret swooped down and plucked up more titles than any woman in history. But she was also an unassuming wife who was happy to take career breaks for childbirth. After the first of her three children arrived in 1972, Margaret sat on the sidelines for nearly a year. She returned to the tennis mix in 1973, starting off the season with an Australian Open title.

Her priorities were family, tennis, and, especially, God, after a spiritual rebirth in the spring of 1972. Sitting in an ornate Catholic church in France, listening to Latin verses she did not understand, Margaret cried out, “If you’re really real, where are you?” Weeks later, she and Barry traveled to Cincinnati for a tour event and stayed in the residence of a local family. Each day, the lady of the house handed Margaret a book on spiritual guidance.

“I think she’s become a religious nut,” Margaret told Barry.

She tossed the books into the rubbish—except for one: Accepting Christ as Savior. Margaret paid it little mind, but between tournaments she began attending religious meetings with friends who were born-again Christians. Verse by verse, she evolved into one herself.

Religion simplified Margaret’s world. It eliminated political nuance and its complexities, which was perhaps one reason she never saw the social tentacles attached to the mouth of Bobby Riggs. To her, Bobby was a harmless huckster with an outdated game and a chauvinist’s shtick, a threat to be taken as seriously as a haunted house. His fangs were false; his hair was dyed; his best days were cobwebbed.

“She didn’t get it,” Billie says. “She just didn’t get it.”

Bobby reveled in the perception of himself as a living, breathing punchline of the senior circuit, but there was a message in his act. In the early seventies he began speaking out against the shortchanging of senior players. He demanded more prize money for aging ex-champions like himself, while mocking Billie Jean King’s own crusade for equal pay. Bobby was tired of women yakking about their independent value. He shared his stance on old-man privilege with anyone who would listen: If women are raking it in, what about us?

Bobby felt sure that any graying champ could knock the high heels off any woman anywhere. He exuded the confidence of a quizmaster, a man with all the answers, a man especially positive about one thing: A victory over a woman would mean much more than a cash infusion for the over-the-hill gang. It would mean a second lap with fame for Riggs himself.

“It was a way to come back,” his son, Reverend John W. Riggs, explains. “He wanted to be important again.”

It had been thirty years since Bobby Riggs lost his place among America’s household names. In between the mighty Don Budge and the dashing Jack Kramer, there had been the sprite-sized Riggs, a player who survived against giants by exploiting their human weaknesses. He plotted his way to the Wimbledon men’s singles title in 1939, and the instant attention he gained was delightfully dizzying, a feeling he never thought he’d recapture. Then came the spring of ’73.

To be surrounded like a bonfire again, to be seated at the best table in the house—it all made for an intoxicating range of possibilities. But he couldn’t realize any of them unless he made the match a reality. So Bobby did what came naturally for him—he put money on it. Armed with a $5,000 carrot, he sent out telegrams challenging his wish list of opponents: Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, and Margaret Smith Court.

Billie was the one he wanted, the one who really mattered. “The sex leader of the revolutionary pack,” he tagged her. That was typical Riggs, a lob over the net that was meant to tease, to frustrate. To goad. Billie just let it skip out of bounds. “There was nothing in it for women’s tennis,” Billie says. “I kept saying, ‘No, Bobby, no.’”

Margaret couldn’t resist the bait.

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