A sensational 1973 tennis match is the centerpiece of Selena Roberts’ book, A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs and the Tennis Match That Leveled the Game, a smart review of King’s career and the rise of women’s sports during the past 40 years.
Roberts, a New York Times columnist, shows that King and Riggs had much more in common than one might think. Both came out of Southern California, liked attention and weren’t part of the country club set. Riggs was a former Wimbledon champion who saw a chance for a second act in his sports life by challenging women. King, meanwhile, had been struggling to turn women’s pro tennis into a lucrative business. She accepted Riggs’ challenge after he beat another Wimbledon champion, Margaret Court, and The Battle of the Sexes was born. King took the match seriously, while Riggs concentrated on the hype, neglecting to sleep, train or practice. King thrashed Riggs.
While King’s tennis record (20 Grand Slam singles titles) is superb, she’ll be best remembered as the person most responsible for the growth in women’s sports, and as one of the three most significant cultural figures from sports in the 20th century (behind only Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali). Riggs, meanwhile, was remembered until his death in 1995, so both participants got what they wanted out of the match.
Title IX, the federal legislation mandating equal funding for women’s sports by universities, soon followed. Though the playing field isn’t completely level prize money isn’t even, and women’s team sports have trailed individual sports in popularity at the pro level it’s much better than it was in 1973. A Necessary Spectacle shows that the road to gender equality has taken some bizarre turns, but that the destination was worth the drive. Budd Bailey works in the sports department of the Buffalo Daily News.