‘The Battle of the Sexes’ is a title used for several exhibition tennis matches in which male players played female players. This entertaining documentary is focused on the most famous of them, the best-of-five-sets match played between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973.
There’s always a risk in any kind of sports film that it will only be of interest to fans of the sport, but that shouldn’t be the case here. It is assumed that viewers are familiar with the basic rules of tennis – the significance of King and Riggs’ match being played to five sets is not explained in detail – but the film does a good job of contextualising the match for viewers unfamiliar with the story, providing plenty of background on the struggle for equal prize money in women’s tennis and the difficult process of establishing the women’s tour. It is, perhaps, a little one-sided; women who declined to join the breakout Virginia Slims women’s professional tour and later joined the Women’s Tennis Association, including Virginia Wade, Chris Evert and Margaret Court, are interviewed but edited rather curtly, and the narrative clearly favours Billie Jean King and the other ‘original nine’ Virginia Slims players. However, it provides a neat overview of the situation and clearly situates the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match within the politics of women’s tennis at the time.
The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s is also contextualised, though a little more broadly. Women’s roles and some of the legal obstacles for businesswomen are outlined, though for the most part archive clips and a scattering of shots of Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem are assumed to be enough to remind people of the social and cultural conditions of the period. We might wonder how much longer this will continue to be the case (I think it’s worth noting that I spent my teenage years hearing the phrase ‘burning their bras’ – which turns up again here – and wondering what women in the 1960s had against underwear), but the archive footage selected provides a reasonable background for younger viewers who may not necessarily come to the film knowing much about the history of feminism.
Much of the film is focused on the person of Billie Jean King herself. Wisely, her personal life is referred to only briefly and when relevant, but her personality and career is front and centre and she is one of the principal contributors. However, the filmmakers have put as much effort as possible in to redressing the inevitable imbalance that results from covering a face-off between one person who is still alive and another who has passed on by including Bobby Riggs’ son among the interviewees and featuring plenty of archive footage of the man himself.
The structure of the film is a little odd, covering Margaret Court’s match with Riggs before going five years back in time to explore the story of the formation of the women’s professional tennis circuit, which throws the viewer out of the narrative for a moment. Some of the archive footage also mixes up abortion debates from the US and the UK in a largely US-centric film, without consideration of the fact that the debate and laws in the two countries are not the same. These choices are unlikely particularly to confuse viewers, but they disrupt the narrative a little.
The film does its best to break up the usual ‘talking heads’ format, in some places succeeding better than in others. A brief appearance by Adam West as Batman is rather fun, but many of the specially filmed insets (treated to emulate the grainy quality of 1970s film footage) showing walking feet, people bouncing tennis balls, a woman wearing a replica of King’s tennis dress and shot from the shoulders down and so on are rather distracting. Other, more imaginative attempts to illustrate the contributors’ points are downright baffling at times; the use of a clearly pre-World War Two cartoon to illustrate one point seems especially out of place.
It’s particularly disappointing to see the final, climactic tennis match filled with filmed insets, and the final match point slowed down. There’s no denying that sports coverage in 1973 was not of the same quality as it is today, but it would have been nice to see the film-makers confident enough to let edited highlights of the match play with King’s commentary over them, rather than filling the sequence with filmed insets and cutaways to 1970s advertising. One of the pleasures of watching tennis is the slow burn of a set and the sudden release of tension that comes with a quick but important point, and this is lost when the film keeps cutting away to clearly new footage or even to something else altogether. Having said that, it’s very interesting to hear King talk about her tactics while watching footage of the match, and it’s nice to see the last few points play out in full, from the first match point to the last.
This is a tight, focused film, which uses its main subject to offer a fascinating glimpse into a world in which men still proudly displayed signs proclaiming themselves to be ‘a male chauvinist.’ Of course, the film also highlights some of the things that haven’t changed so much; it’s still possible to hear the same complaints about women’s tennis and female tennis players who play ‘like a man’ expressed by some fans today, particularly with reference to the Williams sisters, that we hear from 1960s pundits in the film. However, for the most part, the world has moved on, and this film offers an interesting and entertaining snapshot of one of the events that helped it to do so.
Juliette Harrisson is a part-time lecturer and full-time Trekkie. Her thoughts on what the Greeks and Romans have done for us can be found here.
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