A film of Billie Jean King’s historic gender challenge match in 1973 is set for release. But scheduling rows at Wimbledon and worries over casual sexism suggest the fight is still not won
Days before Wimbledon, the trailer for a tennis film came out: Battle of the Sexes. It is based on a true story, one you may already know. In 1973, 55-year-old Bobby Riggs, a former world No 1, took on Billie Jean King, who was 29 and the dominant female player of the time. Much of the contest was razzle-dazzle spectacle: Riggs entered the court in a rickshaw pulled by models; a coterie of topless men carried King on a gold throne. But the $100,000 match itself, watched by 30,000 in the Houston Astrodome stadium and 90 million on television, was a serious business – something shown by the fact that it is still being talked about 44 years later.
The film, to be released in October, looks great fun. Oscar-winner Emma Stone plays King, and Steve Carell seems a perfect fit for the hammy chauvinist Riggs. Like Austin Powers or Anchorman, Battle of the Sexes will be a snapshot of how far attitudes have changed. Riggs’s assertion that women belong in “the bedroom and the kitchen” will probably get a good laugh now. In 1973, King was fighting in part for women to receive equal pay to men in grand-slam tournaments. That has existed now across those four events for a decade.