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The true legacy of 'Battle of the Sexes': A look at the lasting effects of the 1973 match and the film's framing of the issues

Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

So which view of the game is now more accurate, nearly a half-century after the match?

Certainly the modern era has brought some issues in this regard. Yes, the sport can at times feel like it exists in a bubble. The champion Martina Hingis, who continues her long reign with a spate of double titles, made homophobic remarks about the retired top player, Amelie Mauresmo, a lesbian, at Roland Garros some years ago. And some deep pockets are still needed to compete at various levels, initiatives like the USTA's youth programs notwithstanding.

The overall picture, though, remains stronger than the popular view.

"I think tennis needs a publicist just to deal with these issues," said Wer-theim, the Sports Illustrated executive editor and ESPN commentator who has written numerous books about tennis. Trans pioneer "Renee Richards preceded Caitlyn Jenner by decades. Long before Jason Collins (came out while playing in the NBA) there was Martina Navratilova. Tennis is very progressive, yet it's held up as this country-club redoubt, white, elitist sport."

Indeed, the Williams sisters have ushered in a new era of fans and competitors -- witness both the women's and girls' finals at the U.S. Open this year, which had exclusively African American players.

And the idea of tennis as a sport for the aristocracy has eroded too, as champions like Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, along with the Williams sisters, come from more hardscrabble backgrounds.

"Go down the list of the top players, where they come from and how they came to the game," Wertheim said. "The idea of it as this 'Trading Places' (scene of) 'and then he stepped on the ball' just isn't true anymore."

Equal pay

The '73 match didn't happen in a vacuum. King and other women's players had been waging a fight for equal pay on the tour -- one smaller tournament was set to pay men eight times as much as women in prize money, prompting the women to start their own tour, the Virginia Slims Circuit, which would evolve into the present-day Women's Tennis Association. (WTA).

When King accepted Riggs' challenge, it was to popularize the equal-pay cause and pressure tournament organizer to bring money into gender alignment.

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