Battle that women deserved to win

Billie Jean King's victory over Bobby Riggs may be in dispute but there's no doubt that in tennis at least equal pay is justified

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 4:41am

Is there any battle older than the one between the sexes? It's as old as humanity and even in these so-called enlightened times of ours it is still being fought. Forty years ago a decisive blow was thought to be landed for women's rights when 29-year-old Billie Jean King soundly defeated 55-year-old former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs in a prime-time tennis match that was watched by over 50 million viewers in the US.

Despite the disparity in ages, the fallout of King's victory has been cited as the impetus for pay equality among men and women players and one week from today - weather permitting - the winners of the US Open, both male and female, will be crowned on the courts of the Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre.

Three months shy of her 70th birthday, King has long been a respected and visible presence during the US Open fortnight. But as the 2013 Open kicked off this past week she found herself suddenly on the defensive when a story on ESPN claimed that Riggs threw the match 40 years ago to cover his substantial gambling debts to the mob.

According to the report, Riggs claimed he would first beat world number one Margaret Court, which he did convincingly in straight sets, and then play King for really big bucks. A conversation from a group of mobsters at a golf club in Tampa, Florida, about Riggs offering to tank in order to wipe clear his debts was overheard by a gentleman who has sat on it for 40 years out of fear for his life.

It’s not about the amount of time you work. It’s about the revenue your work generates

All the mobsters involved and Riggs, who passed away 18 years ago, are long gone now. However, the notion of Riggs tanking has been floating around for years and anybody who watched the much-ballyhooed match can see his effort was certainly sub-par.

Riggs made no secret of his underworld friends. He often bet with mob bookies on NFL games and was also renowned for being the ultimate hustler and gambler. "When I can't play for big money, I play for small money," he once told 60 Minutes. "And if I can't play for little money I stay in bed that day."

But he went to his grave crediting King for beating him fair and square and, not surprisingly, she also dismissed the notion of a fix. "A lot of people, men particularly, don't like it if a woman wins," she told ESPN. "They make up stories. They start just thinking about it more and more. It's hard on them. It's very hard on their egos."

The truth is that the truth will never really be known. Compelling or laughable, it's all conjecture and innuendo and always will be. More importantly is how this seminal moment in sports has affected the landscape of sexual equality. The 1970s was perhaps the most militant phase of women's lib and King's victory galvanised the movement in a number of ways.

But while I am for equal pay for women for equal work, there is also no question that when it comes to tennis, men and women do not do equal work. The men play the best of five sets, while the women play two out of three. Last year at the Australian Open, the men's final lasted close to six hours while the women's final was all of 70 minutes. And yet the champion's pay was equal for both in what has become something of a contentious issue.

Still, it's not about the amount of time you work. It's about the revenue your work generates. The highest paid player in the WNBA makes significantly less than the lowest paid NBA players because the NBA is a multi-billion-industry while the WNBA most certainly is not.

Tennis is really the only sport where both men and women compete simultaneously in the grand slams so the pay comparisons are inevitable. Traditionally, more people watch the men's finals than the women's, particularly now with compelling stars like Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic vying for titles.

In the women's bracket there is Serena Williams and everybody else. But women are by far the more conspicuous consumers and the target of most of the advertising and marketing dollars. It was King who first realised this and tirelessly fought for equal pay. Forty years ago, on the back of her widespread name recognition, she convinced the US Open to pay women the same as men. Over the years the other three slams eventually followed suit and while her win over Riggs may now be in dispute, King's victory in equal pay for women is not.