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Because of Billie Jean alone, who was representing a sex supposedly unequipped for such things, what began as a huckster's hustle in defiance of serious athleticism ended up not mocking the game of tennis but honoring it. This night King was both a shining piece of show biz and the essence of what sport is all about.
Since Matches of the Century or Battles Between the Sexes only come around every four months or so, it is necessary to get a fix on one quickly. This one is easy. The fact that Billie Jean thrashed Bobby no more means that women are bolder, stronger and more likely to become a different type of creature now than Riggs' massacre of Margaret Court on Mother's Day meant that they were enfeebled and representative of the earth's inadequate.
Even before the match, spokesmen for the Virginia Slims circuit down-played the importance of victory. "No matter the outcome, neither women's tennis nor the movement will be hurt," said Ted Tinling, the London designer who created King's "menthol green and Italian sky blue" ensemble. "If she loses, nothing will change."
Afterward, even King seemed bothered by reference to anything more cosmic than women's tennis. "This is the culmination of 19 years of work," she said. "Since the time they wouldn't let me be in a picture because I didn't have on a tennis skirt, I've wanted to change the game around. Now it's here. But why should there be a rematch? Why any more sex tennis? Women have enough problems getting to compete against each other at the high school and college levels. Their programs are terribly weak. Why do we have to worry about men?"
From the moment King arrived in town she had looked amply worried. She set about a stringent program geared to night play and concentration. She went to bed late, woke up late and turned down "about 2,000" interviews. She lacked her spontaneous warmth and good humor. She withdrew inwardly. Zealously shielded by her secretary, Marilyn Barnett, a former Beverly Hills haircutter who at times literally threw her own wispy body between King and the onrushing media, Billie Jean went through the motions of winning two matches in the Slims' Houston tournament and began practice sessions inside a large plastic "Bubble" erected in the Astrodome parking lot.
The Bubble, containing the Sportface surface that was to be used for the match, took on all the earmarks of a fighter's training camp. King would work out first in the evening, hitting with Pete Collins, a teaching pro from Hilton Head Island, S.C. Then Riggs would arrive with his touring medicine show featuring sons, relatives, land developers, starlet-models, and Bobby's favorite nutrition specialist, Rheo Blair, whose yellow Jos� Greco bell sleeves rippled in the breeze and whose suitcase of vitamin pills shimmered like a rainbow.
Spectators were charged $5 to sit inside the Bubble, watch the workouts, guess which celebrities were on hand (former Monkees singer Mickey Dolenz was the most notable—it was that kind of a Bubble) and freeze to death in the air conditioning.
There was much concern that Billie Jean was not practicing enough against soft junk, but Collins kept winking and saying she'd be there, lending credence to the suspicion that for the 10 days King was in Hilton Head she was not contracting hypoglycemia or hepatitis or cancer at all but practicing lobs against duck-walking Tibetan trolls.
One evening while Marilyn the Secretary held off autograph hounds by passing out white cards with King's name pre-signed in turquoise ink, Billie Jean's father, Bill Moffitt, expounded on the enemy.