The Battle Of The Sexes

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Documentary covering the exhibition match – 'The Battle Of The Sexes' — played by Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973, and the former’s formation of the WTA that same year.


Back in 1973, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs played a tennis match that, while on the surface a gimmick, changed the world forever. Such is the premise of new documentary The Battle Of The Sexes – as the match was lightheartedly called at the time – and it’s hard to argue as you watch the fascinating story of this event unfold. King, who appropriately enough was the reigning queen of tennis at the time, had never wanted to play Grand Slam champion Riggs – then aged 55 and determined to prove that “any man could beat any woman”, as King puts it – fearing the consequences of losing such a match; both for her own reputation, but much more significantly for women generally, at a time when the feminist and equal status movements were gaining momentum. But when Margaret Court accepted Riggs’ challenge (and $35,000) and was thrashed 6-2, 6-1, King understood that a rematch (with King taking over from Court) – and victory in said rematch – was the only possible course of action.

Erskine’s film interweaves the story of the match with the birth of the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association), founded by King that same year and a vital step in gaining equal rights — and, eventually, equal pay — for women players, intercutting interviews with King and key figures from the time, including Chris Evert, with footage of both Court and King’s matches against Riggs, much of it seen here for the first time in 40 years. What many might dismiss as ‘just a tennis match’ — and a novelty one at that — slowly gains in weight and import as the stakes become clear, Erskine also featuring contemporary newsreel of civil rights marches, bra-burning and an increasingly vocal female community. It’s surprisingly moving stuff, with the ever-ebulllient Riggs — never one for shrinking from the limelight —a humorous counterpoint to the serious business of creating a fairer world. (It should be noted that King and Riggs remain good friends to this day.)

Climaxing with dramatic footage of the encounter itself, it’s a simple but highly effective structure — it’s impossible not to feel fully invested when match-day finally arrives. With contributions from some of today’s most notable female players, the most obvious beneficiaries of King’s efforts, it’s a memorable, thought-provoking tribute to both the transformative power of sport at its finest, and the passion of one woman determined to help in the fight for a more just society.

Even 30 years on this unique sporting vignette has lost none of its dramatic fizz.