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Empire Meets Billie Jean King
Tennis movies, Bobby Riggs and Steven Spielberg

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It's that time of year again when even the most hardened film fan finds their attention turning to the thwack of polyester against vulcanised rubber, and the ever-fragrant Queen Sue Barker of SW19. And this month it's not just the telly that's top-to-tail tennis, with two films about the best sport in cinemas now: Venus And Serena (self-explanatory, that one) and The Battle Of The Sexes, James Erskine's absorbing documentary about tennis legend Billie Jean King's match against by-then hasbeen Grand Slam champion Bobby Riggs, staged at the Houston Astrodome - and watched by a mind-boggling 90 million people around the world - on September 20, 1973.

Riggs, something of a cheeky chappy with a yen for self-publicity, took a lighthearted approach to the whole venture, but for King - out to avenge an earlier Riggs drubbing of Margaret Court - the event held huge significance in the nascent fight for equal rights for women. Empire caught up with film buff Billie Jean (who you might have spotted playing a judge in a 2007 episode of Law & Order) at the documentary's gala premiere.

Empire Meets Billie Jean King

So Billie Jean, you've entered the world of filmmaking...
I love films. I'm so far behind lately because I've been working too much, but I love British mysteries, the old classics, Alfred Hitchcock - you know Strangers On A Train was flimed at Forest Hills, where we used to play? (The US Open moved from Forest Hills to Flushing Meadow in 1978.) Another British film I love is The Queen. Helen Mirren is fantastic, and Colin Firth. (Catching sight of a poster for Lincoln on the wall) Did people actually go to watch Lincoln here? Because he's American.

Yes, it did well.
I couldn't imagine it doing that well here. But there's Daniel Day-Lewis... I think he's unbelievable. He's one of the all-time greats. I don't know if you've ever read the book, Doris Kearns Goodwin's? My partner Ilana and I went to see Lincoln at 10.45pm, and I saw at the end that it was based on Team Of Rivals, and I thought, "I've had that book since '05 and I didn't read it, what's wrong with me?" So I come home, I read the book and I go back and watch it. I actually watched it three times. Janusz Kaminski, who does the cinematography, is amazing. He's a Polish guy - he arrived from Poland with one suitcase. He used to be married to Holly Hunter and that's how I met him, through Holly. Holly did a TV movie, When Billie Beat Bobby, and she played me.

Is that why you decided to do a documentary rather than a dramatised version of the story?
I knew it was more than a tennis match! I knew there were a lot of consequences that could happen from it.
New Black Films came to Charleston, South Carolina - there's a women's tournament there. And they had a reunion of 'The Original Nine' - they were the nine women who signed the $1 contract (in 1970 nine women players signed a players' contract for just $1, this symbolic gesture a key part in the eventual formation of the WTA). They had a reunion of us during the tournament. And James (Erskine) and New Black Films wanted to do something on the history of women's professional tennis, so the WTA says, "You've got to talk to Billie Jean if you're going to do this." So we sat down at the tournament, we were lucky, we got some time and we started talking.

How was it, looking at all the old footage of that time?
I hadn't seen a lot of it, ever! A lot of that footage is brand-new. James saved the Margaret Court-Riggs [footage]. Someone was going to throw it out. Because they didn't know what it was. They found this thing that said, "Tennis, '73." James says, "That could be it, take it out." It almost crumbled, the film. And that footage (of the Riggs-Court match) is very important to tee the film up. Because I didn't want to play Riggs. And Chris (Evert) said no. A lot of us said no. I knew it was more than a tennis match! I knew there were a lot of consequences that could happen from it.

There's talk this week of Serena Williams maybe playing our Andy Murray. What would you say to her about that?
They've been asking her to play John McEnroe because of the age thing, someone older, because Bobby was older than me. That's why to me [the match against Riggs] wasn't an athletic endeavour. If I beat him, I should beat him. Bobby was saying, "It doesn't matter if I'm older, any guy can beat any woman", basically. I have men come up to me and they go, "That match changed my life." They say, "Now I have a daughter and I want them to have equal rights and opportunities. I want them to have the same as my son." And for women, that match really helped their self-esteem. They had courage they didn't have before. They all give me their stories, it's amazing. People start to cry in front of me all the time. It's really so sweet. And President Obama was 12, and he said it influenced him - he's got two daughters, of course. He used to see me practise when he was ten, which I did NOT know.

Empire Meets Billie Jean King

Did you see the film Wimbledon?
I did! (Laughs) It was fun! I always love Wimbledon, so anything to do with Wimbledon makes me happy.

Is it an accurate portrayal of the world of tennis?
Tennis is physical, mental, emotional and spiritual - well, for some it's spiritual.
I'm trying to think of the storyline... A lot of the time players will train every day. You have to bring all of yourself to play tennis. That's what it teaches young people: how to bring all of yourself to something. Because it's physical, mental, emotional and spiritual - well, for some it's spiritual. And do you know how hard it is to do that, day in, day out, physically, and emotionally? I mean, did you see that documentary on Murray? (BBC1's The Man Behind The Racquet) You see how hard we work out, every day? Did you see his body now? He's in unbelievable condition. He's paid a huge price. You have to pay a huge price usually to win.

Have you got any tips for how tennis should be portrayed on film, because there are hardly any films about it.
I think there was one... (thinks) Dean Martin was in it. The Player? (The film is 1979's Players, starring Dean Martin and Ali MacGraw and featuring tennis legends such as John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase and much-loved BBC commentator Dan Maskell. Sadly it scores 3.9 on IMDb...) They didn't have me in that one at all. I thought, "Why didn't you ask me to be sitting in the stands like an extra?" Nah, I'm teasing! (laughs) No, I'm not teasing actually!

But I don't think [films about tennis] show enough of what we do behind the scenes. The working out, and the struggles, the challenges. The drama. They show a match, and they think there's drama within the match, but that's not really it. It's like, my tennis match with Bobby Riggs was terrible! That's not what was important - it was what it represented. It was the drama of what was at stake. And at the end, it's a celebration.

Are there other tennis stories that would make good movies?
There's loads of stories. Everybody has a story to tell. They've just done the Serena and Venus one. Their city is next to where I grew up. Compton's next to Long Beach, where I grew up. Long Beach Poly, my high school, would play against Compton. And they lived across from the high school I went to for a while. I [co-founded] World Team Tennis, and we did a tennis clinic and they were in the line. And that's where I met them, when they were babies! They were so cute (laughs).

So who's going to win Wimbledon?
Serena. She's playing phenomenal. Men is wide open. Federer (Roger followed Rafa out of SW19 later that afternoon), Djokovic or Murray. Those four, with Nadal in there... I mean he's not there now, but those four are just so much better than anybody else.

The Battle Of The Sexes and Venus And Serena are out now.

Interview by Liz Beardsworth

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