Former Pros Recall King’s victory Over Riggs, Lasting Effect on Women’s Sports
Newswise — The historic Battle of the Sexes tennis match is being further immortalized in a movie by the same name that recalls personal and professional struggles of the participants.
Meeting one’s idol can be a rare occurrence, but when it does happen, it can have a profound effect.
When that idol screams an expletive at the one doing the idolizing, it can’t help but be burned in memory. When it happens at what will eventually be known as one of the most important events in not only sports history but the evolution of the women’s movement, then it becomes a moment in time.
Betsy Blaney is pretty sure she’s the only one who heard her tennis idol, Billie Jean King, scream at her during the historic Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs in September of 1973.
Blaney, a producer for campus radio station KTTZ-FM, part of Texas Tech University Public Media, was one of the line judges for the match, admitting she had to sit on her hands during the match so she didn’t cheer every time King won a point. A fledgling, 19-year-old teaching pro player at the time, Blaney was obviously shocked that the person she modeled her game after unloaded on her when a call did not go King’s way.
“It was a shock, but it goes with the territory,” said Blaney, who would later spend three years on the major pro circuit. “I just tried to keep my poker face on and not be intimidated by it. I think that’s something that players do that, to intimidate lines people. But we’re supposed to be neutral and call them like we see them.”
Twenty-five years later, Blaney, whose 15-year stint with The Associated Press brought her to Lubbock, had a chance to interview King while working for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, reminiscing about the match that King won in straight sets in the midst of a circus-like atmosphere that pitted the women’s movement against the male-dominated atmosphere. Blaney brought up to King her outburst at Blaney’s call. In true King fashion, Blaney said, King told Blaney she should have stood up for herself.
That just showed the essence of who King was and what she represented – empowering women in all walks of life to do, to be, whatever they wanted. And the Battle of the Sexes match, which is being chronicled in the movie by the same title starring Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Riggs, is bringing this pivotal moment in history to the forefront for a whole new generation to see.
“It sent a message to a lot of little girls who were watching it that there is a place in the upper echelon of sports for women,” Blaney said. “I think tennis was one of the first sports to really deliver on that. I think it set in motion the belief for young girls, even teenage girls, that if they work hard and are disciplined, they could make sports a way to make a living.”
Setting a tone
Sandy Collins was one of those young girls. Playing juniors in her native Southern California, Collins remembers there were no competitive girls’ teams in the early 1970s for her to play on, so she was forced to play on boys’ teams in high school. She was pretty good, too. She won district, competed at the state tournament and spent three years as the No. 1 singles player – on a boys team.
So she had a bit of a unique perspective when King and Riggs clashed in the Astrodome on that early fall day in 1973.
“As a female, you’re like, ‘That’s great, you’re beating the guys,’” said Collins, the associate athletics director for event operations at Texas Tech who also spent time as the school’s assistant and head women’s tennis coach in the 1990s and 2000s.
“So for me, there was a correlation in that I competed with guys every day. I know it almost sounds silly, but as women or girls playing with guys, it’s so different because it’s so hard to compare the two genders, really.”
Like Blaney, King’s victory would prove to be an impetus for a collegiate career that took Collins to Odessa College and University of Texas-Permian Basin and then later, a 17-year professional career that included victories over phenom Tracy Austin and King herself.
Collins remembers attending a yearly tournament at the Los Angeles Tennis Club where King and other pioneering members of women’s tennis, such as Rosemary Casals, Wendy Turnbull, Françoise Durr and Evonne Goolagong-Cawley would compete. It was one of the early building blocks that allowed the women’s game to gain notoriety.
It was the match with Riggs, however, that gave the women’s game the push it had been desperately looking for, even if the growth was still somewhat slow afterward. It showed that the women’s game was gaining on the men’s game in terms of ability and gave wings to the Title IX movement resulting from the Education Amendments Act of 1972.
“I know when I graduated from high school, I was considering turning pro right then and not going to college,” Collins said. “In my mind, turning pro was a good thing even at 17, and even back in the day when money was not nearly what it is now. But for sure I believe the match with Riggs heightened the sense that the future of women’s tennis was now.
“If she had lost, I don’t know what women’s tennis would be like today.”
Advancing the women’s game
Blaney, who was asked to be a line judge by her boss at the Brookhaven Country Club in Dallas just two days prior to the match, is certain most of those in attendance or watching on television weren’t aware of how big this event was or what it would become in the perspective of history.
Even sitting on the court, Blaney admits she didn’t have a sense of how big a deal it would become through the years. How could she? She was still an impressionable 19-year-old who dreamed of making the pro circuit but was unsure about what the path would be to get there.
King opened that path. And the victory over Riggs was just the beginning.
King’s victory over Riggs eventually led to promoters taking the women’s game seriously. King and eight other female players – the Original 9 – had formed the Virginia Slims Circuit, rebelling against the inequality between the prize money awarded winners on the men’s and women’s tour by the United States Lawn Tennis Association.
Three years later, King beat Riggs, and the Virginia Slims Circuit began gaining popularity. With that came an infusion of talent, not only from the United States but around the world.
It also meant the women’s game was gaining ground in terms of legitimacy, and King was that driving force.
“I do think it helped, in a sense, for Billie Jean being a spokesperson for that Original 9 that went out there,” Collins said. “She led that group to get promoters, bring people in and give money to the tour, and I think that certainly spearheaded the movement. I don’t know if they’d have gotten it otherwise. I don’t think it helped just in tennis, but I think it helped women’s sports in general.”
Collins also was fortunate that in her 17-year pro career, she was able to become friends with King. King served, for a time, as the coach for another women’s tennis legend, Martina Navratilova, and Collins was Navratilova’s hitting partner for a while. So when Navratilova would get practice advice from King, so would Collins.
King also would work with Collins when she wasn’t on the court with Navratilova and others and push Collins in her game. But it was that sense that King brought, that she could do better, pushing people to be their best, that best epitomized King.
“She just wanted to see the best in every single person and work to get it out of them,” Collins said. “She’s never minded giving of her time. I feel fortunate to have that person who has been a friend of mine for this many years. She’s that way with a lot of people.”
In essence, that is what King was trying to do with Blaney as well, telling her she should have stood up for herself. Because King stood up for women everywhere.
“I just think she’s been exercising her pioneer gumption all her life, and when she won, I was elated,” Blaney said. “She’s been an advocate for equality, for women, most of her life.”