Next month, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of "The Battle of the Sexes," American Masters will premier their show on Billie Jean King. It's the first time in the program's history that a sports figure has been profiled. And this Sunday over at ESPN, Outside the Lines will feature a segment on King's match against Bobby Riggs.
What the match did establish was that Robert Larrimore Riggs, a bespectacled, ferret-faced, squeaky-voiced little gentleman of leisure who had worked long and hard for this moment, had finally done it. He had gone and pulled off the finest pure hustle in the modern history of American sport.
It was almost as if Riggs had picked his spot, too, as if he had realized two years ago when he began his shrill shilling about man vs. woman that, when it caught on, he should be ready to play and in the most romantically obscure setting possible. So it was that he beckoned television and radio and newspapers and magazines and gamblers and goldbricks and princes and paupers and stars of stage, screen and cassette and promoters of everything from copper bracelets to vitamin pills ("How about Bobby Riggs senior citizen support stockings?" he said) to a place called San Diego Country Estates.
And dig a hustler in action—Riggs on 60 Minutes:
Couple years later, Frank Deford profiled Billie Jean:
The added irony is that she is a more passionate person than any of the voluptuous femmes fatales who ever slinked across a silver screen and buried their heaving breasts in the wet cement at Grauman's. Passion—"the gale of life," Pope called it—is why, ultimately, it has all worked for Billie Jean. First, it is to her advantage that the female vessel holds raw emotions more preciously. But besides, men are afraid to show passion themselves, and those who do possess it are advised by their colleagues to keep it down—as they say on airplanes: for your safety and convenience. Men suffer each other only to be principled or kooky, depending on the viewpoint; but the fellas, as Billie Jean invariably refers to the other gender, permit women to retain passion—presumably because its bedroom dividends are shared and because its other excesses may be conveniently used to show women as quirky, unreliable characters in need of a shoulder to cry on.
Without her tennis, Billie Jean would still have been something; without her passion, nothing. Of course, she has a number of other things going for her: typical female guile, typical male aggressiveness, typical American get-up-and-go, typical California insouciance and real good ground strokes. The fellas simply cannot let a person run around with all those assets, plus a license for passion, and not expect her to put a dent in things. "Being a girl was not the only thing I had to fight," Billie Jean says. "I was brought up to believe in the well-rounded concept, doing lotsa things a little, but not putting yourself on the line. It took me a while before I thought one day: who is it that says we have to be well-rounded? Who decided that? The people who aren't special at anything, that's who. When at last I understood that, I could really try to be special."