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Steve Flink: "Battle of the Sexes" Should Be Celebrated

All of us who write regularly about sports are fortunate to have a forum for our views and a space to explore topics of enduring importance and even of magnitude. In my case, as a tennis journalist who has been in the field for nearly 45 years, as a serious student of the game, as one of the sport's historians, I have weighed in on a multitude of subjects over the decades. But this is my first venture into a form of movie reviewing, and one I am delighted to share with readers who may well head out into theaters across America and around the world to watch the much heralded and newly released "Battle of the Sexes".

The film is about the renowned battle between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs on September 20,1973 in Houston, Texas. No fewer than 30,472 showed up at the Astrodome to witness a spectacle unlike any other in the history of tennis, and about fifty million more fans saw the match on ABC television. It must be mentioned, however, that the movie clearly transcends the tennis showdown between a 29-year-old woman moving toward the end of her peak years and a 55-year-old man who had climbed to extraordinary heights in claiming the "Triple Crown" at Wimbledon in 1939 as an amateur before performing mightily as a professional during the following decade.

What makes "Battle of the Sexes" weightier is the way it dives into the lives of both King and Riggs in the immediate period leading up to Houston, including his tenuous marriage and gambling addiction along with her changing sexual identity. That provided considerably more tension in the storyline, and it makes the movie appeal to a wider constituency. Moreover, the "Battle of the Sexes" accurately reflects both the sports culture and the world at large as it was in the early seventies.

The way I looked at it, it was a first rate movie in many ways. The acting is extraordinary almost across the board. Emma Stone plays Billie Jean King impeccably, capturing the champion's heart and spirit, somehow speaking tonally almost exactly the way King did at that time. Her capacity to replicate Billie Jean's mannerisms is not only uncanny but almost eerily precise. Stone's performance is a testament to a mastery of her craft and her propensity to delve inside a character and play it to the hilt. Similarly, Steve Carell turns himself convincingly into Bobby Riggs circa 1973, both in appearance and style, in voice and personality, as an amusing and sometimes infuriating character and a surprisingly sensitive soul. His portrayal of Riggs is nuanced and sophisticated, carried out on the same level as Stone's piercing and totally credible depiction of King. The beauty of both performances is displayed in how they make us care about Riggs and King as people; they are defined by their strengths and vulnerabilities; their demonstrable zest for life and nagging inner doubts; their recognition that somehow destiny had called upon them to collide in an extravaganza that introduced tennis to the masses as had never been the case before. Many who observed the King-Riggs clash on television had never seen a tennis match in their lives.

But there were others who contributed significantly and even substantially to the film with their authentic portrayals of people from a timeline lasting essentially from 1970 to 1973. Open Tennis had commenced in 1968 so these were tumultuous years for the game as it exploded in popularity and tried to find ways to govern itself and establish boundaries for those who were looking to make a living in a swiftly evolving marketplace. An indispensable figure in the game's evolution was a dynamo named Gladys M. Heldman. She founded World Tennis Magazine in 1953, wrote gutsy editorials for the publication every month, and gained the universal respect of the men and women players for her forthright stances and unbending devotion to the game.

In 1970, it was Heldman who united with King and eight other leading female competitors (including her daughter Julie), signing them to $1 pro contracts. Heldman persuaded Joe Cullman of Philip Morris to sponsor a women's only pro event in Houston that was called the Virginia Slims Invitation. That led to a full-fledged Virginia Slims circuit for the women the following year that was spearheaded by King with her inexhaustible drive and energy. Her role was irrefutably large, unwavering and far reaching. But without Heldman's ingenuity, unflagging spirit, business savvy and high intelligence, King and her colleagues among the players would not have succeeded. Heldman is played in the movie by Sarah Silverman.

Silverman is terrific in the role, bringing to the screen much of Heldman's sharp-edged wit, foresight and wisdom. Heldman was a central figure in the emergence of a women's circuit, and that is properly conveyed in 'Battle of the Sexes". My only gripe is that she is treated somewhat superficially in the film for a woman of her multitude of gifts and accomplishments in the tennis community. Her brilliance is not fully represented, but thankfully this remarkable woman's presence in the film is still deeply felt and Silverman was an ideal choice to play the inimitable Heldman.

While Silverman captured the essence of Heldman despite a limited number of scenes, Alan Cumming surpassed her in his portrayal of Ted Tinling. He was celebrated worldwide because of his distinctive dress designs for women tennis players, and this ubiquitous individual would later advance the sport even more powerfully in his role as a chief of protocol, working as only he could to bring the players and administrators together at the major events.

Tinling understood Billie Jean King with more depth than just about anyone else in the world of tennis. Their rapport was extraordinary, and he unfailingly gave her the benefit of his complete candor. He told her not what she necessarily wanted to hear, but what she needed to know. He was a friend who spoke his mind faithfully, and King was among his biggest confidants and boosters. The movie shows Tinling in his element after Heldman gets him hired as the official dress designer for the tour.

Cumming is not given that many scenes, but he makes every one of them count irrevocably. It was Tinling who referred often to King as "Madame Superstar", a label that fit her exceedingly well. When Cumming uses that nickname in the movie, it brought Tinling—who passed away in 1990— vividly back to life for me. Cumming played Tinling to near perfection. He could have done no better. I only wish they could have made the actor look taller because Tinling was 6'7", and his height shaped his personality and defined who he was in many ways, but the fact remains that Cumming still somehow managed to turn Tinling into the larger than life figure that he surely was.

In my view, only one chief character is shortchanged or misrepresented, and that is none other than Jack Kramer. Kramer concluded his amateur tennis career masterfully, winning Wimbledon in 1947, taking the U.S. Championships in 1946 and 1947. He turned professional after securing the title at Forest Hills in 1947 and thoroughly dominated every one of his rivals, starting with Riggs, continuing with Pancho Gonzalez and Pancho Segura, finishing by eclipsing Frank Sedgman in 1953.That is an illustrious cast of rivals, and for more than five years Kramer towered above them all. He is widely regarded as one of the ten greatest players of all time.

He later promoted the pro tour skillfully, signing the leading amateur players to contracts year after year, hoping to see Open Tennis born. He was the most multi-faceted leader the sport has ever known, "The Man of the Twentieth Century" as I called him. Amidst it all, he had a long and fruitful relationship with Wilson Sporting Goods, who put his name on their best-selling racket for ages. That frame was a status symbol for all serious tennis players. Kramer's good name spoke for itself. For about twenty years, from the 1950's into the seventies, he was arguably the foremost television commentator for both the American networks and the BBC.

Meanwhile, during the years covered in "Battle of the Sexes", Kramer's influence remained immense. The "Grand Prix" circuit which commenced in 1970 was largely his brainchild, and was no small contribution. In 1972, he was named the first Executive Director of the ATP when the player's association was formed, and the following year, only months before King faced Riggs in Houston, Kramer courageously stood with and by leading players like Arthur Ashe, Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Stan Smith and Ken Rosewall as they boycotted Wimbledon. Kramer knew that he would incur the wrath of the British press to a larger degree than any of his players, but was willing to take the unwarranted criticism because he and the players were fighting earnestly and steadfastly on behalf of Nikki Pilic, who had, in their view, been unjustifiably suspended by the ITF and would therefore be kept out of Wimbledon.

I bring up all of this background on Kramer because viewers of "Battle of the Sexes" have no idea that he was a man of immense stature. The film examines Kramer in a narrow light for a very limited period when the movie takes place. I firmly believe the viewers needed to be enlightened on Kramer. He had not been classified as "Mr. Tennis" by accident. In 1970, he was running the Pacific Southwest tournament in Los Angeles. King and Heldman wanted him to reconsider his prize money ratio, which offered $12,500 for the men's champion and only $1500 for the women's victor. The total prize money allocation was $50,000, with the women receiving only $7500. Kramer refused to change the numbers and Heldman aligned with King and other standout players like Nancy Richey and Rosie Casals. They boycotted the Pacific Southwest event and played for $7500 total prize money in Houston, just for their nine players.

Kramer is played in the movie by Bill Pullman, a first-rate actor. But Kramer's distinctive voice is missing. If you closed your eyes at various points in "Battle of the Sexes" and listened to Carell and Stone, you would have sworn it was actually Riggs and King speaking. They were that good. In the case of Kramer, Pullman does not sound much like the real Jack Kramer.

But that is not as important as the one-sided view of Kramer as the film's villain. This was 1973. The world then was not what it is now. The prevailing view at the time was that men's tennis was vastly more appealing to the public than women's tennis. Kramer felt that way, but so did almost everyone else among the powers that be. The women went out on their own and demonstrated eventually that they did indeed have vast drawing power. My grievance with the movie is singling Kramer out, as if he and he alone was disparaging women's tennis. His refusal to honor King and Heldman's request to alter the prize money breakdown in Los Angeles sparked the women to hold their own tournament in Texas. Kramer's opposition motivated the female players to prove immediately what they could accomplish.

The USLTA refused to sanction the Houston women's only tournament held under the banner of Virginia Slims. The players were threatened by the USLTA with suspensions if they participated in Houston. But the movie exaggerates Kramer's role in shaping USLTA thinking on the matter. Alastair Martin was President of the USLTA. As Heldman reported in World Tennis, Martin sent a telegram to the players in Houston during the second day of their tournament informing them "that they were suspended, that they were no longer eligible for a national ranking and they could not play Federation or Wightman Cup."

The USLTA—now known of course as the USTA—hierarchy was always bound to oppose the women players staging their own event opposite the Pacific Southwest. They consulted closely with Kramer to get his strong input, but by no means was it solely his decision. The movie turns Kramer into an utter villain, as if he entirely directed USLTA policy. Not so. It was much more complicated than that.

Finally, the last powerful scene in the move featuring Kramer in direct conflict with King was in the days leading up to the Riggs-King encounter. Kramer had been hired by ABC as one of the three commentators. He was to be the analyst favoring Riggs, his old friend and comrade. Howard Cosell was the middle man doing play by play. And Rosie Casals, King's longtime doubles partner, friend and fierce advocate, was hired as the other commentator.

That all made sense. Riggs had his old pal Kramer in his corner of the booth. King had her trusted friend Casals cheerleading for her. And Cosell was there to be a journalist calling it as he saw it. But King took a strong stand against Kramer, saying she refused to play the match if he was in the booth. In "Battle of the Sexes", King and Kramer have a tense conversation privately about her ultimatum, and Kramer decides to walk away and let the match go on.

That was the right thing to do, and magnanimous on his part. He had been hired to do a job. He had spent the previous two decades establishing himself as an outstanding announcer. Yet he agreed to withdraw from the assignment, and Gene Scott took his place. King had every right to fight for what she believed in. Her history with Kramer had been marred by disagreements and confrontations. But was the public best served by Kramer not commentating? The movie looked at this only through the prism of King, who felt deeply aggrieved. She was the central character. Fair enough. But somehow Kramer came across in this portion of the film the way he did throughout: as the culprit. They turned him into a laughingstock. Truthfully, Kramer commanded respect and deserved it.

A final point must be made. To be sure, Jack Kramer underestimated Billie Jean King, Gladys Heldman and the other women players who fought for their rightful place in tennis. It is always easy in retrospect to question why he and others did not have a more prescient view of the future for the women in the game. But what "Battle of the Sexes" did not examine was this: where would tennis have been in 1973 without the critical work done by Kramer to make it a more prominent sport? Would the tennis boom of the 1970's have been possible without Kramer playing a singularly important role in the growth of the sport for decades? Could the women have been in a position to move out into their own and make it work had Kramer not propelled the game forward in immeasurable ways? I seriously doubt it.

Be that as it may, despite what I believe was a deep flaw in not making Kramer more nuanced the way Riggs and Kings were portrayed, the fact remains that this is a movie which got a lot of things right. Most impressively, the tennis scenes are. I think of other tennis movies like the 1979 film "Players" or "Wimbledon" (released in 2004), and the scenes on the court are abysmally unrealistic. I cringed when I watched the tennis in those movies. This time, we see body doubles standing in for Stone and Carell and the points accurately reflect the way King and Riggs performed in 1973.

A number of points are shown from the match and they could not have replicated the actual texture of the match any better than they did. Vince Spadea, who earned a career best No. 18 world ranking in 2005 and had wins over none other than Federer, Nadal, Sampras and Agassi, was hired by the makers of "Battle of the Sexes" to play the Riggs tennis scenes as the body double for Carell, and he also supervised the tennis segments off camera, doing a phenomenal job. Stone also had a body double playing the tennis scenes and working with her named Kaitlyn Christian and she, too, was terrific. At long last, the tennis in a tennis movie was presented accurately.

Earlier, I mentioned the magnificence of the acting in this movie, most notably by Stone, Carell and Cummings. But beyond the way some of the standouts performed, the movie succeeded in telling a story that moved far past the actual battle between Billie Jean and Bobby on the court. Since these two are the chief characters in the film, the viewers need to understand who they are and what motivated them to wage their battle that in many ways changed the face of the game forever.

That part of the story was covered remarkably well. Riggs had gambling issues to deal with, was bored doing an office job that did not suit him, and was struggling to save a marriage that seemed doomed. He realized a "Battle of the Sexes" would have widespread appeal, and wanted to play King. She did not want to contest that match. He then took on Margaret Court and produced what became known as the "Mother's Day Massacre". Riggs presented Court—played by Jessica McNamee competently— with a bouquet of roses before their California confrontation, and she buckled badly emotionally, giving a desultory display, losing to the hustler 6-2, 6-1. That year, Court won three of the four majors, but lost to Riggs in a match that would forever haunt her.

Once Court bowed out so embarrassingly against Riggs, King realized she had no alternative but to face him. But her marriage was troubled by then. King was involved in a serious relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (played by Andrea Riseborough), who would later "out" King in an ugly palimony suit in 1981 that harmed Billie Jean severely in terms of her endorsements. That happened long after the conclusion of the movie, although it was surprising that the suit was not mentioned in the closing credits along with other information about both Bobby and Billie Jean.

In any event, the movie has a good deal going for it. The characters are predominantly compelling, even if there are some cartoonish moments. King and Riggs are both humanized; their flaws are exposed and their strong points sharply defined.

Much like the King victory over Riggs in 1973 took people from other walks of life and got them immersed in tennis, the "Battle of the Sexes" movie will bring those in search of entertainment into the theaters, and some of them just might find themselves becoming absorbed in a sport they never knew much about. That is so only because a wide range of actors, producers and directors did such a laudatory job in making a memorable movie.

Read more articles by Steve Flink

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