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

That has now become de rigueur in tennis: Federer fans see themselves as graceful purists, Nadal supporters relate to the all-out passion; Murray enthusiasts champion the grit and working-class sweat.

"The idea of tennis as representation -- I'm a fan of Serena, and I may never even have seen her play -- I think can be traced to this match," Wertheim said. The 1960s legend "Rod Laver was a great, but I don't know that anyone was saying 'I'm a fan of Rod Laver, and that means something.' But Riggs and Billie Jean King and (earlier Riggs antagonist) Margaret Court all stood for something, even if you didn't like what they stood for."

Whether this increased emphasis on tennis personality is a good thing remains an open question. For every person who embraces the cast of characters, some would say the interest in personalities has detracted from the play itself.

(And whether some of these personality traits have been tamped down in an era of more corporate money and social-media scrutiny is a separate but not small concern; it's hard to imagine any player today ever engaging in the kind of bald showmanship that Riggs did.)

Whatever your view, Dayton and Faris accentuate these personal elements in the film; it's clearly a 2017 view on 1973's events.

"I feel like personal change breeds political change," Faris said of their reasons for making King's closeted relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett a key story element.

"We talked about how a secret identity was beneath her fight for equality, and how that makes the Battle of the Sexes contain not just an important struggle but a fascinating character," Dayton added.

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The movie, it should be said, takes its liberties: In real life, the Barnett relationship ended less happily when she sued King for a portion of her assets. And the film elides the question of whether Riggs threw the match for gambling or mob-pressure reasons.

But the movie underscores a truth: The match, improbably, shaped a sport and even a world that was decades away.

"In one sense, the match was this kooky one-off, this very '70s thing you could make fun of," said Wertheim. "But it also has all these resonances that continue today."

(c)2017 Los Angeles Times

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