At this point in time it is perfectly clear that what this country needs is a tennis match between a baboon and a cucumber. We have handled man vs. woman now, twice, with considerable grace and style. It is time to move on to the biggies.
For example, as accompaniment to Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs right there on the floor of the Astrodome, America's Indoor Taste City, the temptation must have been to avoid decency and present us with all manner of tacky stuff: dwarfs singing at the champagne bar, Liberace riding in a Naugahyde Skylab.
But no. All Promoter Jerry Perenchio displayed in front of 30,472 people live, and a few dozen more watching around the world, was King-Riggs straight up, Riggs-King unadorned; Billie Jean against Robert Larimore for $100,000 winner take all.
Of course, there were the obligatory band musicians by the hundreds, dancing girls by the thousands; hardhats and hippies, libbers and lobbers, chauvinists and charlatans; handsome gladiators with no outerwear, nubile maidens with no underwear; aliens dressed up in tuxedos, local gentry dressed up as skunks and elephants; zillions of celebs ranging from out-of-work Tarzans to out-of-work Monkees; trillions of dollars, including basic and ancillary; television, radio and closed-circuit theater; a man with two horns sticking out of his head, a woman with a diamond-encrusted cross dangling around her neck, a banner from Oconomowoc, Wis., an all-week caramel sucker (gift from Riggs to King that she said she would donate to an orphanage), a live pig with a pink bow (King to Riggs) and a grand entrance by the two of them—she borne aloft on an Egyptian litter, he propped into a Chinese rickshaw—that should have been directed by Fellini and scored by Handel.
Nevertheless, what kind of In happening can it be when Eva Gabor skips it just to get married again? How big a sporting event can it be when Richard Nixon doesn't even telephone? What in the world kind of occasion was this in which the woman not only defeated the man but swamped him; outplayed, outclassed, outpsyched, outnerved and beat the living bejeezus out of him as well. Perhaps it was something like life. Or death.
Though the atmosphere surrounding King's shocking 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory over Riggs took on all the conflicting tones of a political convention, championship prizefight, rock festival, tent revival, town meeting, Super Bowl and sick joke, what the match finally got down to was a dazzling clinical exhibition of tennis by Billie Jean.
She both first-served aggressively and attacked Riggs' own softball deliveries with authority. She rushed to the net and commanded the territory by whipping stunning volleys off her backhand and by taking Riggs' infamous moon-shot lobs out of the Dome lights and rifling overheads right back past him.
She varied pace on ground strokes, kept Riggs moving from corner to corner and played consistently to his weak backhand. She concentrated on hitting behind her opponent, wrong-footing him time and time again, then surprising him with some of his own beloved spin garbage. Everything worked.
Eventually, King's aggressive play dictated the tempo completely and forced Riggs to hit the ball harder than he likes. Now he had to match her net play, her speed and movement. He had to abandon his kit bag of drop shots and chicanery and hope to prevail in a contest of sheer athletic warfare. In such a confrontation no 55-year-old man holds much hope against Billie Jean King. As Riggs was to say later, "She played within herself all night. She was never extended. The girl was all over me the whole time. I didn't know Billie Jean was so quick."
On King's part it was a brilliant rising to an occasion; a clutch performance under the most trying of circumstances. Seldom has there been a more classic example of a skilled athlete performing at peak efficiency in the most important moment of her life.