BILLIE JEAN KING thumped Bobby Riggs 40 years ago. Pounded him, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Some people might have said she beat him like a redheaded stepchild. Not around Billie Jean, because the phrase reeks sourly of child abuse and prejudice, and Billie Jean was wary of words that hurt, even back then.
Beat him like a rented mule wouldn't have been acceptable either, a phrase tainted by animal cruelty, with harsh notes of slavery and sharecropping. But she did beat Riggs handily and the women's movement had a new heroine, a talented, determined athlete with a social conscience.
Billie Jean King, the owner of the Philadelphia Freedoms of World Team Tennis, won singles at six Wimbledons, four U.S. Opens, one French and one Australian, on every surface but cobblestones. Yet the match everyone remembers is the beatdown of Riggs, the squeeze against the sleaze, $100,000 winner-take-all, the Astrodome, 50 million watching on television, Howard Cosell yapping commentary.
And now PBS will be showing the latest in the "American Masters" series starting tonight, an inspiring documentary about Billie Jean King, her tennis triumphs and her grinding crusade for social justice.
She hits the trifecta here. First athlete profiled in a series that honors cultural and artistic giants, a woman, a gay woman.
"It's 40-40-40-70, and I'm having fun with it," she said, giggling. "Forty years since we formed the Women's Tennis Association, 40 years since we got equal pay for women at the U.S. Open, 40 years since I played Bobby Riggs. And I turn 70 this year."
One woman did all that? And more! Helped raise $225 million in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Founded the Women's Sports Foundation, which has awarded more than $50 million in educational and cash grants to girls and women involved in sports and physical activity. Campaigned for Title IX, a 37-word piece of legislation she now ranks right there, for civil-rights significance, alongside granting women the right to vote.
First woman to be awarded the Medal of Freedom. Her name on the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing. And now they are going to put a lid on it. Never on Billie Jean, over center court.
On the eve of the U.S. Open she scurries around Manhattan, promoting the documentary, promoting tennis, promoting social justice. She gives me 38 minutes in a West Side Italian restaurant and I am dazzled, honored.
We talked about Michael Jordan (she played doubles with him in Aspen), about the Mexico City Olympics (she was baffled by the victory stand protests), about Hillary Clinton (she hopes she gets the chance to run for president), about the media (she thinks 95 percent of the media is controlled by men).
The film traces her beginnings in tennis, growing up on what her brother Randy described as "the wrong side of the tracks" on west 36th street, Long Beach.
Played baseball and basketball first. A classmate asked one day if she wanted to play some tennis. What's tennis, she asked. You run and jump and hit a ball, she's told. She hesitates for maybe a blink of those blue eyes and said, "Yes!"
The classmate's family belongs to a country club. Everyone dressed in white. The people the same color. Where is everyone else, Billie Jean wondered.
She rushed home, giddy with having found her sport, begs her parents for a racket. Her dad refused, measuring her determination. She badgered her neighbors for help. "They give me pseudo-jobs," she said. "I earn $9.28, keep it in a Mason jar, go to Brown's Sporting Goods to buy a racket. Pick one with lavender on it, my favorite color."
That is quintessential Billie Jean King, the writer's dream, all those sparkly details, all those vivid memories. The $9.28 in the Mason jar, the name of the store, the color splotched on the racket.
Still bubbling with energy and enthusiasm after all these years, still remembering milestones along the way, still bragging about her parents, her brother Randy.
Maybe 5-5 in heels, which she must have been wearing, dancing with Rod Laver after one of her Wimbledon triumphs. She was smiling on the outside, crying on the inside, because Laver earned 2000 pounds, while she got 750 pounds. Vowed to do something about that disparity. Soon.
If she'd left her slipper behind that night, no one would have blamed her, because she danced with a Prince Charming and she'd started out as an eager kid from the wrong side of Long Beach wearing the wrong clothes for tennis.
"I was 12, playing in a tournament at the Los Angeles Tennis Club," she explained. "It was a big deal. Perry T. Jones was in charge. He said, 'First, we need to line up for a photo of everyone in the tournament.'
"Then he came up to me and said, 'Little girl, you can't be in the photo, you're not wearing a tennis dress.' I was in white, all white, but white tennis shorts.
"My mom was so upset. I told her, 'Don't worry Mom, it's his problem, he's not a very nice man. Someday they are going to have to take a photo of me!'
"We went home, she sewed a white dress for me. Scalloped edges. I can still see the cup she used to trace the round, scalloped edges on the dress."
That is the quintessential Billie Jean. Significant stories, vividly recalled, right down to the cup to trace the scalloped edges. And a lesson learned subliminally, that you don't wear your Sunday clothes when you go out to fight for truth and justice.
We talk about the '68 Olympics, the black gloves on the victory stand. "I had no idea what was going on," she confessed. "It was '68, the year Martin Luther King died. They [the black American runners] were unhappy. I read more about it. I learned why they were unhappy. It was a human-rights thing. They had a platform for their platform."
And next year, in Sochi? What should athletes do to protest Russia's cruel law against homosexuals? "You have to ask the athletes," she said, the only time she hedged all afternoon.
"What can you say to someone representing their country for the first time? Don't go? Or someone older, representing their country for the last time? I can't speak for them. But if they go and they intend to make a statement they should be prepared."
I told her that the Swedish female sprinters at the World Track and Field championships in Moscow have already made a statement, painting their fingernails in rainbow colors.
Ibsen wrote that line about the proper wardrobe for the fight for truth and justice in a play called "Enemy of the People." He also wrote that "he is strongest who stands most alone."
Billie Jean counters with talk of the strength in a union. "In '72, in London, the Gloucester Hotel, during Wimbledon," she said eagerly, "we were going to form our own Association and we gathered in this room. I told Betty Stove to guard the door, not let anybody out. She was big, Dutch, had broad shoulders. Some women wanted to leave, she wouldn't let them.
"We elected our officers that day. I was chosen president. Virginia Wade was named vice president, but she only kept it 2 weeks and gave it up and I knew that was gonna happen.
"We made sure we had women from the five continents on our board, because we wanted to go global."
Earlier there had been that split with the USLTA, nine dissidents accepting a buck apiece, bonding for a tour of their own. Risking careers, defying the men running the sport ruthlessly. "Gladys Heldman [the Tennis magazine publisher] said she didn't have any money," Billie Jean remembered. "We said give us one dollar, symbolic, that's as good as thousands."
Riggs swaggered onto the scene early in '73, conning Margaret Court into a match on Mother's Day. She lost the match at the introductions when Riggs handed her a bouquet of flowers and she curtsied. Curtsied!
It was months before Billie Jean agreed to play Riggs. "If I won, I was beating a 55-year-old guy," she recalled. "If I lost, and I woke up every morning thinking about the impact, it would hurt the women's movement, it would hurt women's tennis."
In the film, Randy brags about his sister, recalls a phone call the night before, urging him to bet the mortgage. "I told him to bet the house," Billie Jean said, chuckling. "I don't really remember doing that, but I probably did.
"Randy says that whatever I set out to do, I did. Well, he was determined to be a big-league pitcher and he made it. He's a sweetheart."
We talked about the match some more. How I had found her, training in Hilton Head, frazzled and tighter than her racket strings.
"I had so much on my mind," she confessed. "I had to play in a tournament in Houston that week. Could not get out of it. I had to make all those appearances with Bobby. And I was struggling with whether I was gay or not."
They didn't put the court down until the day of the match. But surely, early on, she realized Riggs was overmatched. "Nooooo," she shrieked. "My dad always said, 'It's never over until you shake hands.' You never underestimate an opponent.
"My parents were great that way. Some parents want their kids to win, so that it reflects onto them. My parents urged me to play my best. I'd come home after a loss, all cranky, and my mom would ask, 'Did you play your best?' And I'd say, 'Sure, I played my best.' And she'd say, 'OK, it's over, move on!' "
Forty years later and people remember. "Not a day goes by," she said, "that someone doesn't ask me about the match with Riggs. Men talk to me, tell me how it made a difference in their lives. How it influenced the way they raised their daughters.
"President Obama did that, the night he gave me the Medal of Freedom."
She has had eight surgeries on her knee, she is approaching 70, she tells the world she has one big fight left in her. She has not yet chosen the battleground.
Stay tuned. Meanwhile, watch "American Masters: Billie Jean King." It is a profile in courage, an inspirational story for the family, men and women, boys and girls. A lesson for us all.
And yes, Riggs probably did give away that first set, drenched in sweat inside that garish "Sugar Daddy" windbreaker. They'd promised him $50,000 to wear it, which is why he wouldn't peel it off. And that was the name of that game.