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IT WAS THE MATCH the world awaited. That should be qualified: a quite special world awaited the Riggs-King spectacle, a well settled suburban world. It is true that the sidelines were anything but suburban, packed instead with movie made stars and other with-it celebrities. But tennis has for years been the pet game of these beautiful few. The Efren Zimbalist Jr. Open is by now an old institution. No, the match was made for newer fans. For the country clubbers from Palm Beach to Piping Rock, for all mixed doubles faddists, for the people who have made tennis Big Business, the match was going to be a happening.
And how they waited. It was going to be the sex battle of the century, the biggest hustle in history, the triumph of prime time tennis. From the day of Margaret Court's debacle, the ladies of the suburbs had a cause. And what a cause. The daily ladies doubles was now field for liberation, the weekend tennis its proving ground. And the talk over tea after tennis was noisy with sexual banter, and later, the cocktail chatter grew hotter as the sexual sparring got heavier. The housewife was to be vindicated, her woman's honor restored: Margaret had put meaning into tennis.
The people in the suburbs of Detroit even scheduled a prematch mixed doubles, big enough for full front page coverage in the society sections of the News and Free Press. And the ladies labored weeks of painful planning -- passing hour after hour of busy time killing time licking stamps and addressing invitations and stamping envelopes. And they talked away more busy time worrying about what was to be eaten and whose private court to use and calling all the lucky ladies of the private courts to secure them for the tournament. And in between all the licking and stamping and talking they honed their games, scurrying around the courts as if Court had given them commitment. And it was, really, quite creditable a commitment. They wanted to be sure, you see, that the big day should happen just right.
AS, SO SMOOTHLY, it finally did. For all the ladies' talk that followed, you'd think that King's victory was going down in history as a landmark of the Liberation, as epoch-making as the day of Ibsen's Nora's doorslam, or the day that tanks succeeded cavalry. But after all the fuss, the match wasn't much. It wasn't much at all.
And who really expected the event to be as big as was predicted? You knew from the beginning that King would trounce Riggs. She was on top, he wasn't -- it was that simple. And you could see it in their styles. King was hitting hard with a vengeance to the corners, attacking from the net with short wide-angled volleys. She kept Riggs on the run, forcing him to be defensive. And he fought back with hardly any fight -- with lazy looping topspins and slow shots to the center when straight lines were in order, with lobs when he needed drives. King was playing up to Riggs, teasing the weakness that was his boast. She was simply playing Libber to his Lobber.
Riggs never had a chance. Sure he's got every shot that King has, and more; he's got a whole arsenal of them. And he pulled out a few, as if to bait King into believing that he would make good his boast. But he didn't do it often enough, because King made sure he scrambled. With surprise retrieves, with drop shot touches at the net catching Riggs backcourt, with backspins zeroing off to the side pulling Riggs wide, with double placements sprawling Riggs off balance, with overheads from the baseline curving crosscourt and steady belting backhands -- she just didn't let up, not one bit.
WHICH IS TOUGH on sombody 55. And on Riggs the running told. He began to lag approaching net, and fumble easy shots from noman's land. He played for time, pussy-footing between points -- meanwhile, King pushed her pace, hunching up her shoulders to lengthen her stride, and grinned into the camera. By the third set, Riggs was playing like a man being stoned, and his last game was pure throwaway. He slapped and missed two easy forehands, double-faulted at deuce, and on match point stuffed a sure putaway into the net. It was as if he had played out one long apology, in regret for a boast gone bad. King's smile was wide and happy.
As far as battles go, it was all quite disappointing. But not surprising in the least. And I'll tell you why. King was playing for blood, Riggs for money only. The contest, you see, was not in the skills of each. In top tennis, the difference between the skills of the best counts for next to nothing -- the winning is all in the head, in the concentration that gives the psychological edge. It's in being on top of every ball and fired for every point. And that winner's edge, the stuff of King's clenched fists, comes only out of wanting it more than the other guy. King was mad with wanting it, Riggs just greedy.
Because for King, the match meant more than money. She believed it a cause, at least as far as Women's tennis goes, a defense of Women's Liberation. She was to be avenger of her oppressed sex, redeemer of Margaret Court's humiliation. And it was this belief that gave all the force to her fight.
But Riggs had no such confidence. He had tuned into the public eye as taunter of the Cause, and his mouth put him treacherously far out onto the line. The chauvinist pitch was only his means to exploit the public temper. So he sloganeered like a mechanical mouthpiece,. or the little kid who recites what he's heard from his parents' discussions -- not because he understands the import of the phrase, but because he'd seen it trigger an excitement.
SO THERE you have it: Riggs parrots stinging lines for fast money and vast attention, and makes himself a victim of his own villainous cause. He played darling devil's dare to the Women's Cause, and set them up as its defenders. It's like the sneaky fox who sets Mama lion raging in her lair. The anti-hero teases the hero into vengeance. And so Billy Jean King, like any American hero, could do what she had to do with justice on her side.
Isn't it rather ironic, then, that Riggs is so unmale? Since when has hustling or super-mooching or picking fights with women been something men are proud of? Not since Riggs. The word 'hustler', after all, originally meant 'prostitute' -- it was a woman's wheedling way of getting what she wanted. Fifteen years ago, you might have described Riggs as a sissy, and a slippery one at that. But now he's made it a life style, and elevated it to a full blown ethic. He has devoted himself to an anti-male role, to avoiding all the resonsibilities entailed in being the traditionally admired straight and strong-armed male.
First, there is his tennis game: he got started by two women, Dr. Esther Bartoch (then the number three ranking women's player in Los Angeles) and Eleanor Tennant (who later trained Alice Marble). And under them he perfected the winning softspin game, not to mention the psyche-out gimmick. Then there is the crooked way he rose to wealth: he married it, in Priscilla Wheelan (the Wheelan family was sole owner of American Photograph Corp. and Riggs was handed one of its executive positions). He settled down in the corporate saddle for several lazy years -- now that's hardly your tycoon's rugged individualism. There is as well the other matter of his marriage: the simple, gentle soul his wife remembers walked out of it with a $1,000,000 settlement. And if you still need convincing -- though perhaps this isn't playing fair -- just take a look at the guy. Notice the runty size, the duck waddle of a walk, the well-tinted hairdo sculpted to his face, the elfish upward twist of the eyebrows. It's as if this Battle had got its sexes mixed up. If this is the figurehead of sexism, the tough-skinned Tarzan of the hour, well then, things have changed.
JUST ASK Our Lady of the Suburbs. Women now can play the games of men. King proved that. And not only can they do anything that men do, but they can be 'feminine' at the same time. Billy Jean was advertising a hair curler, wasn't she? And didn't Howard Cosell say that with longer hair and no glasses she'd be a looker good enough for the movies? Ladies rejoice, the vindication of women has arrived. The war is over, Billy Jean King finished it off.
Let me qualify again -- finished it off for that special group of ladies in the suburbs. May they rest in peace, safely sheltered from the struggle to come. Because the match, irrelevant though it was, irritated that. It's rather tiring, after all, to repeatedly watch the Movement bastardized for popular consumption. And this time the network did a total facejob. It saw the Battle as all sport, a new form of fun and games. And it drove home one important lesson: the Battle is big money. Yes that is what will stick; the Movement soon will be Big Business. Riggs is no dummy. He has secured the popularity of the latest national craze.
You're probably prepared by now for a feminist rap. But it's obvious, isn't it, what King has done? She has won male privileges for the ladies. Which is as old as Suffragette Reform, half a century old to be exact. And in 1973, that's settling for a sorry second. It's bargaining for equality without questioning the social systems that institutionalize inequality -- rather like to bail a boat on the bottom of the sea.
NOW BILLY JEAN KING is only a tennis player, not an ideologue. And she has done what professional tennis players are supposed to do--she's made a lot of money, an awful lot. And she's done more--she's used her success to set aright the once unequal pay scales of the sport. But, to push a point, that hardly speaks the voice of revolution. Which is only to say that the Riggs-King match had nothing to do with the issues that were read into it. Its only point, the only point that matters in the end, was its lack of point. The match mattered not a moot.
But don't, please don't, tell this to the Lady of the Suburbs. You'll put a damper, for a short while, on all her fun. Because it's going to mean a lot for her, a lot more busy time, a lot more killing time over tea and tennis and telephone talk. Not that King's money-making will bowl her over -- she's probably got her own bank account. But the sexual victory should clinch a cheer straight from her heart. "It's the principle of the thing" -- listen to her next evening over martinis with her husband -- "that counts." And there will be Libber bantering over dinner like a replay of the Battle. And, gutfelt, she will make a martyr of Billy Jean King, while he, half joking and half dead serious, will stick up for Bobby Riggs. And she will defend her right to be selfish when she orders breakfast in bed that Sunday morning, and he, caught in good enough humor, might even go dogtailed to make it. You can't forget, you know, that she's come a long way, baby, a long way.
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