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Man vs woman

Paula Fleri-Soler takes a behind-the-scenes look at Battle of the Sexes.

Emma Stone and Steve Carell in Battle of the Sexes.

Emma Stone and Steve Carell in Battle of the Sexes.

In the wake of the sexual revolution and the rise of the women’s movement, the 1973 tennis match between women’s world champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and former men’s champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was billed as the ‘battle of the sexes’. It became one of the most watched televised sports events of all time, reaching 90 million viewers around the world.

It was a time when all kinds of walls –of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation – were just starting to tumble. Yet, for women, the doors to opportunity remained slammed shut in every walk of life. There was still a long way to go, but it was a moment when change was palpable.

That’s part of what drew the filmmakers to the story. “The year 1973 was a time of great upheaval,” says Jonathan Dayton, who co-directed the film with Valerie Faris. Referencing major events in the US – such as the Equal Rights amendment, Roe vs. Wade, the Vietnam War and Watergate, which were just some of the watershed events that defined the era – Dayton adds that “suddenly, the debate over women’s equality finds a forum in a tennis match between the 29-year-old woman’s champion Billie Jean King and 55-year-old former champ Bobby Riggs. As silly as it seemed on the surface, it became a huge deal”.

It was Riggs who turned the match into a social debate that rang around the world. King had already been fighting for equality in tennis, where women were still earning as little as one-twelfth of the men’s prize money. She pioneered the Virginia Slims Tour, which for the first time allowed women to set their financial terms, founded the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and become the first female tennis player ever to top €100,000 a year. But it was the match against Riggs that broadened the conversation, as well as King’s faith in what was possible.

Neither could have foreseen just how wild a circus they would create or what it would mean for so many

Riggs had been a Number 1 ranked player of the 40s, winning both Wimbledon and the US Open. By 1973, now retired, he missed the drama of the game and having an outlet for his love of disruption and self-promotion.

Seeing wo­men gaining power in tennis, as elsewhere, he saw an opportunity to create some interesting havoc. Riggs publicly opined that female tennis was inferior – and dared a woman player to prove otherwise by beating him.

He knew the idea had commercial potential, and he knew King was the ultimate rival. When he played and beat women’s Number 1 Margaret Court, King felt she had no choice but to take the risk of taking Riggs on. But neither could have foreseen just how wild a circus they would create or what it would mean for so many.

Says screenwriter Simon Beaufoy: “The match was watched by the largest TV audience since the moon landing. It was a massive spectacle, filled with the sort of hoopla that had never been seen before or probably since on a tennis court. Yet, the match was almost a sideshow to the bigger battle that raged in the US: man versus woman. I’m not sure there’s been such a clear-cut binary debate since, either in politics or sport!”

For King, that day was a game-changer and, what started that day, remains in motion. “Today we’re still having too many of the same discussions,” King points out. “White women still make 78 cents on the dollar, African Ameri­can women 64, Hispanic and Native American women are at 54. We don’t have a Congress of even 20 per cent women. We have few women CEOs. And what people don’t understand is that when women make less that means entire families make less. It’s a no brainer that it causes families to suffer more, so why do we want that? I hope the story of this match will continue the dialogue, will bring people together and remind us to think before discounting others for any reason.

“The things we fought for in 1973 I’m still fighting for and we’ve got to keep pushing.”

The battle carries on…

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