Ms. Billie Jean Moffitt King—the wonder woman of tennis or the dingbat of tennis or both, depending on your point of view or maybe your gender—hurried off the jet at Honolulu International Airport last May 13. She and her secretary, Marilyn Barnett, and fellow pro Rosemary Casals were on their way home from a tour of Japan and hoped that during the stopover they could locate a television set and watch Margaret Court play against the nation's foremost male chauvinist pig, Bobby Riggs. King herself had turned down just such an intersexional match.
"They have these little TVs in the airport," said King. "I said, 'I bet they'll delay it a week because Hawaii always runs everything a week late.' And if they did I was going to be furious because we had made it to the airport in time to see the match. We put quarters in the TV, turned it on and flipped the channels—and, sure enough, no match. I was just furious. Rosie was furious. Marilyn was laughing at us.
"We were going to get back on the plane but Marilyn turned on the radio to listen to some music and heard, 'Bobby Riggs has just defeated Margaret Court 6-2, 6-1,' and I said, 'WHAT?' Now I really got angry. Rosie and I were hopping around that plane for five hours all the way to California. I was SO mad!
"I said, 'Well, that's it, that's it. I gotta play this guy now.' "
And as everyone between the polar caps must know by now, she is going to play him. Furious Billie Jean King, 29, vs. aging hustler Bobby Riggs, 55, in a best three-of-five sets, $100,000 winner-take-all match in the Houston Astrodome, Thursday, Sept. 20 at 8 p.m. E.D.T. before what is certain to be the largest live audience—close to 40,000—in the history of the sport. (The biggest previous crowd was 25,578, gathered for the U.S.- Australia Davis Cup matches in White City Stadium, Sydney, on Dec. 27, 1954.) At last check the Astrodome had sold 18,000 tickets and stacked up $225,000 in the till, the biggest advance sale the indoor stadium has had this far ahead since it first turned on the air conditioning eight years ago.
ABC will televise the match nationally, and since two such notable bigmouths as Riggs and King are involved, the network, for contrast, named Howard Cosell to do the stroke-by-stroke in his usual humble fashion. In the booth with him as colorperson will be Rosie Casals, who already has described Riggs to the world:
"He's an old man, he walks like a duck, he can't see, he can't hear and, besides, he's an idiot."
"I was going to lodge a very big complaint," said Riggs, "and say I wouldn't play if she was going to be in there, until I heard that for the male color man they selected Jack Kramer. So I have a good friend up there in Kramer and he'll be able to support my side...."
ABC forked over a reported $700,000 to Promoter Jerry Perenchio for the TV rights—which seems like a reasonable sum when one considers that the show could attract more than 20 million viewers. CBS, which televised the Riggs-Court massacre and claims it is legally entitled to this sequel, has filed suit in Los Angeles asking for an injunction to prevent the playing or the televising of Riggs vs. King. Even if it loses the suit, CBS will take a measure of revenge, rolling a first-class, first-time-on-TV movie one hour after the tennis starts. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, mixed-doubles competition across the airwaves, Billie and Bobby against Bonnie and Clyde.
The hoopla surrounding the Astrodome show has taken on gigantic proportions, even to the point of Riggs and King re-creating The Bickersons, a show from bygone radio days: