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Tennis' King vs. Riggs in 'A Necessary Spectacle

Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs, and the Tennis Match that Leveled the Game. It's about the 1973 battle of the sexes match that inspired great bravado and even greater publicity.



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Other segments from the episode on August 26, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 26, 2005: Interview with John Le Carré; Interview with Annie Ross; Review of the book "A necessary spectacle."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

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Review: Selena Roberts' new book "A Necessary Spectacle"

Next week the US Open begins in New York and the best male and female tennis
players in the world will compete for their respective championships. Book
critic Maureen Corrigan reviews a new book about a famous match over 30 years
ago when a man and woman played each other for some more than just prize money
and a title.


It's such a great subject for a book: the 1973 battle of the sexes tennis
match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. Riggs was a 55-year-old
runt-sized skirt chaser who, in a last chance bid for the spotlight he'd once
enjoyed as the 1939 Wimbledon champion, boasted that he could beat any woman
at tennis. `Women just don't have the emotional stability for the game,'
Riggs declared. He telegrammed challenges to the top women's tennis players:
Billie Jean King, the teen-aged Chrissy Evert and, perhaps the greatest woman
player of all time, Margaret Court.

When the ladylike Aussie, Court, took the bait and spectacularly lost to
Riggs in what became known as the `Mother's Day Massacre of 1973,' Riggs'
dream opponent, the outspoken feminist Billie Jean King felt compelled to
pick up the racket. It was the libber vs. the lobber that September night in
the Houston Astrodome where the stands were packed with celebrities and common
folk wearing everything from sequined evening gowns to denim leisure suits.
This was history mugging for the TV cameras. King was carried into the
Astrodome, Cleopatra-style, on a litter hoisted by toga-clad members of the
Rice University track team. Riggs entered on a rickshaw surrounded by
under-dressed young women dubbed `Bobby's Bosom Buddies.' When they both
reached the court, Riggs presented King with a two-foot-high Sugar Daddy
lollipop, and she, in turn, handed the self-pronounced male chauvinist a
squealing baby pig.

Then they were off and King speedily trounced Riggs: 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. It's
said that even feminists felt sorry for Bobby Riggs that night, which just
goes to show that some women never learn.

It's such a great subject for a book it makes me wish that the new one that
chronicles the cultural politics of this razzmatazz tennis match and its
significance for women in sports were a better one. "A Necessary Spectacle,"
by New York Times sports columnist Selena Roberts, isn't bad. It's just not
as good as it should be. As though infected by the hyperbolic atmosphere of
the match itself, Roberts writes in a distracting, illiteration-heavy style.
For instance, in describing Riggs' surprise at King's athletic superiority,
Roberts quips, `Riggs had envisioned a nervous slug, not a resilient slugger.'
Roberts also is too glib in her attempts to fill in the social context of the
1970s, quickly trying to tie in everything from Watergate to the civil rights
movement to her central story.

These faults noted, however, Roberts is a good reporter and many of the quotes
and anecdotes she uncovers speak eloquently to the entrenched sexism on the
court and off that King and other second-wave women's movement pioneers had
to battle. When King made her entrance that night in the Astrodome,
broadcaster Howard Cosell told the TV audience, not about her star athletic
accomplishments, but about her looks. `If she ever let down her hair to her
shoulders and took off her glasses,' the unlovely Cosell commented, `you'd
have someone vying for a Hollywood screen test.'

Roberts also describes a moment two weeks before the match when King, sitting
in a locker room toilet stall, overheard a handful of women players who'd
supported King publicly now privately admitting that they were using their
tennis prize money to place bets with bookies on Bobby Riggs. As Roberts
explains, `The reasons why these "Benedicta Arnolds" had money to wager in
the first place was because of King.' Among other crusades, she led the group
of women players who broke away from the stodgy US Ladies Tennis Association
to start the autonomous Virginia Slims Circuit and spearheaded the formation
of the Women's Tennis Association.

Roberts delves into King's struggles with her sexual identity against the
backdrop of the emerging gay pride movement, and also discusses the continuing
political threats to Title 9, the landmark 1972 bill mandating federal
funding for women's college sports programs, `a piece of legislation whose
importance some of today's tennis players,' whom Roberts quotes, `haven't a
clue about.'

With its florid style and weakness for slapdash generalizations, "A Necessary
Spectacle" does merely an adequate job telling a great story about the battle
of the sexes. But it does rally enough to give readers a sharp appreciation
of Billie Jean King who, in the tradition of inspirational sports legends,
wasn't the best women's tennis player of her time, just the women's tennis
player with the most guts.

BIANCULLI: Maureen Corrigan is author of the new memoir, "Leave Me Alone, I'm
Reading." She reviewed "A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby
Riggs, and the Tennis Match That Leveled the Game" by Selena Roberts.


BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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