40 Years Ago, in 1973

40 Years Ago: Separate to Be Equal

Thursday, December 05, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Here's part two of my talk with Kamakshi Tandon on Grace Lichtenstein's book A Long Way, Baby, about the women's tennis tours of 1973. You can see part one here.

*****

Kamakshi,

So not only have you read A Long Way, Baby, but you have a copy autographed by Martina. Not bad—though hopefully she's forgotten about its portrayal of her as the pound-packing, "I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Thing" kid. By the time we get to the book's postscript, from 1975, Navratilova is starting to look less like a JFJ—junkie food junkie—and more like a GOAT. It's interesting to remember that some of her emotional aggression on court was inspired by Billie Jean King's foot-stomping ways. (Did you know that Elton John says he came up with the beat to "Philadelphia Freedom" by thinking about how BJK stomped around a tennis court? There's your random fact for the day, if you needed one.)

I'm glad you brought up the rivalry that's at the heart of this book, Billie Jean King vs. Margaret Court. I had read very little about their co-history, and most of it came from the (obviously slanted) viewpoint of Billie Jean. I don't think it ever registered how long they were at the top together, and how intertwined their careers were. King had her first major singles success in 1962, when, as Billie Jean Moffitt, she upset the top-seeded Court (then known as Margaret Smith) in the second round at Wimbledon. They dominated for most of the next decade, though Court dominated more. She finished with 24 majors to King's 10, and a 22-10 head-to-head record against her. In '73, the year of A Long Way, Baby, King won Wimbledon, but Court won the other three Slams.

Which makes me wonder whether a tiny part of the reason Billie Jean has continued to savor and celebrate her win over Bobby Riggs for so long is that it was, finally, a way of one-upping Court. King always said that she had to be No. 1—"Numero Uno," as she referred to it. But for the most part she was No. 2 in her era, behind the Aussie. Fortunately for Billie Jean, the most famous match either of them played was against Bobby Riggs. Court lost hers, King won hers, and that’s what people—with a little friendly reminder from Billie Jean now and then—remember 40 years later.

It's unfortunate that Court's achievements have been overshadowed since, and it was nice to get an idea from this book of what a force she was. There's a good case to be made for Court as the greatest player in tennis history, yet no one seems to want to make it (she obviously didn't score any public-relations points when she criticized gay marriage a couple of years ago). The most amazing thing I learned about Court from Long Way is that her arms are a full three inches longer than normal for a woman her height. Rosie Casals had it right when she nicknamed her "The Arm."

It was also interesting to a get a thoughtful look at Court's personality; as you say, Kamakshi, the author went from finding her "dull” at the start, to "classy" by the end. She would never be a fan of Big Maggie's, but she became an admirer. I was also unaware of how much the conservative Court and progressive King hated each other. That may have been inevitable, being rivals for so long, but it went beyond tennis and into their philosophies of life. Lichtenstein quotes the player Peachy Kellmeyer saying, "Margaret represents everything Billie Jean hates, and Billie Jean represents everything Margaret despises." Forty years later, that doesn't appear to have changed much.

Is there something about the sport that creates polar opposites at the top of the rankings? In this book alone we see two of them, Court-King and Evert-Goolagong. Since then, there has been, to name a few, Borg-McEnroe, Evert-Navratilova, Sampras-Agassi, Serena-Sharapova, Nadal-Federer. Is this something unique to tennis, do you think? The sport does have a way of transforming attitudes toward life into styles of play—it makes sense that Billie Jean King would be an aggressive net-rusher and Chris Evert would be a careful baseliner. Or does this just prove that we're all different, and that you can take pretty much any two people, put them on either side of a net, and call them opposites?

As far as the WTA 1973 vs. the WTA 2013 goes, I think you have the basic differences right. In those days, the Slims had a pioneering, outlaw quality—its existence alone was exciting and new, a political statement of its own. Today, for better or worse, we're used to seeing women get paid well for competing at sports. The fact that it’s no big deal is a sign of success, but sometimes it can seem as if prize money is the WTA’s only success. The tour has made a few of its top players into wealthy superstars, part of the entertainment machine, but it hasn't led to a wholesale revolution in women's professional sports.

Yet when you listen to Billie Jean King talk in 1973, you have to believe that she would have considered this to be triumph nonetheless. The WTA is criticized today for overselling its players' sex appeal, but King was OK with sex appeal—she thought it was inevitable, and that anything that could attract people to tennis should be put to good use. She also always emphasized money; after her years as a starving amateur, she wanted the pro game to be as commercial as possible. Women getting paid to play sports—i.e., getting paid to work, like men—was an important part of the revolution to her. Before their match, Bobby Riggs said that if she couldn't beat an old man like him, "she didn't deserve half her dough." Proving that she and her fellow women players deserved their dough was another motivation for her.

When I look at Serena Williams now, I see a victory for Billie Jean King then. Serena isn't overtly political, or a spokesperson for women everywhere, but she doesn't need to be. Who doesn't respect her as an athlete?

Finally, there’s the question of game style: There was more variety in ’73 than today. I agree that variety is good for the sport, and that we need more of it now. On both the men’s and women’s sides, we need a talented young player to commit to being a serve-and-volleyer, with a one-handed backhand—done well, by the right man or woman, it can still work. Not allowing juniors to play up is an interesting idea, but whatever the rules, it requires one player, and one coach, to do it early and stick with it. One trailblazing player can enough: No top woman player, as we’re reminded in A Long Way, Baby, had used the two-handed backhand before Chris Evert; 40 years later, they all do. Now we’re looking for a Chrissie with a one-handed backhand.

*****

Hi Steve,

I think it's the rivalry that makes the contrast, more than the contrast making the rivalry. If Bob and Mike Bryan were facing each other in Grand Slam finals, we would probably somehow find a way to set them off against each other as well.

Generally any two people, examined closely, will be different enough from each other to be divided along some lines—offensive-defensive, introvert-extrovert, fiery-calm, and so on. And the tension and drama of big matches can intensify such differences till they seem like polar opposites. But there are some pairings that contrast more vividly than others, like Borg-McEnroe and, as we're seeing, King-Court. But what's remarkable is how their differences captured the larger social and political themes the tour itself was going through at that very time.

I'm not sure King thinks of the victory over Bobby Riggs in terms of her rivalry with Court in any significant way—the match was almost too big. Of course, King does say she was opposed to Court playing Riggs in the first place, and it was Court's loss that made her feel she had to face him as well.

But I think you're on to something—there is an impression that King resents Court for piling up titles while King's own energies were split among competing and fighting equality battles. And for not backing the breakaway tour but then taking the prize money it generated. (Court, for her part, said that she hadn't wanted a separate women's tour because she had a lot of friends among the guys and wanted to keep playing and travelling with them.)

In the end, however, King did win in the recognition stakes. You're right that Court's achievements are often underplayed—it's pointed out that 11 of her Grand Slam titles were at the Australian Open, which few top players played, and that somehow leads to dismissing the rest of what she did. But if it helps, there seems to be little question in Australia that she is the greatest, with Steffi Graf getting an occasional look in.

As far as the tour goes, the question of whether money was the achievement is a good one. I feel it must be more than that, but at the same time, money is often the first thing looked at—less money indicates inferiority. And the usual benchmark is the guys. The issue of men's tennis vs. women's tennis is a thorny one, and I won't get into it here (did I hear a phew?). But I think the women have benefited from being alongside the men, and the men have also benefited from being alongside the women—cramped practice courts notwithstanding. The idea was not to be separate but equal; it was to be separate to be equal.

Five years ago, I did an anniversary piece (their time has returned) on the ATP boycott and the formation of the WTA in 1973 that was titled "Declarations of Independence." Just as the men declared independence from the amateur establishment that sought to control them, the women declared independence from the male establishment that sought to pay them less. Showing that they could go out on their own, hold tournaments and draw crowds, was a step in demonstrating their value.

Declarations of independence have the convenience of being quick, but messy. A transition is more stable, but slower. Had the women stayed with the traditional tournaments and just campaigned for more money, they would probably have achieved increases, but the idea of equal prize money might still be a distant goal today. After all, it was just the size of the disparity—20 percent of the amount for the men, frequently—that drove the "outlaws" to the decision that they could do better on their own.

But striking out themselves and having some success, combined with the political atmosphere of the time and the galvanising effect of the Riggs match—it fused the idea of equal prize money with equality of the sexes. The U.S. Open moved to equal prize money in 1973, even before the Riggs match, a huge shift from just a few years earlier. That created a marker that eventually all the Slams would be held to, and now many combined events as well. The Slims tour forced the USTA to come up with more money for its women's events, and also demonstrated that a women's sport could be an economically viable enterprise. Their payments were no longer something given, but earned. The organizers and players (it wasn't just the players) took a risk, but it paid off. It's hard to believe that any of this could have been done as quickly if the tour had not been established.

As King and Lichenstein both had occasion to say, "It's not the money. It's the respect."

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