Politics & Policy

Tennis, Women, and Equality

Bobby Riggs (left) and Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King didn’t advance the cause of women by beating an older player.

You can tell who the keepers of American culture are by, among other things, the anniversaries they mark. We’re currently being invited to revel in memories of the “iconic” tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, the so-called Battle of the Sexes. Robin Roberts of ABC News recalled King’s “stunning triumph.” ESPN explained to younger viewers that King “won for all women.” The New York Times’s Gail Collins gushed that King’s victory was a message “for any woman who had ever worried about being laughed at if she stepped out of line.”

The reminiscences generally echoed the tone of the New York Times editorial 40 years ago, which proclaimed that “in a single tennis match, Billie Jean King was able to do more for the cause of women than most feminists can achieve in a lifetime.”

#ad#Really? One tennis match decided all of that? First things first: The notion that women’s equality rests upon women being just as physically powerful as men is both wrong and doomed. It’s wrong because women do not merit equal treatment under the law because they have the identical abilities to men. Equality under the law is a matter of legal and moral standing — not equality of condition.

It’s doomed because it’s crazy to suggest that women and men are equals in physical strength. That we still argue about these things is more worrying evidence of resistance to science than skepticism about global warming will ever be. Though you can lose the presidency of Harvard for saying it, there are differences between the sexes. Among the least interesting, but undeniable, is the differential in upper-body strength.

So a 29-year-old five-time Wimbledon female champion, Billie Jean King, was to play a 55-year-old former Wimbledon male champion, Bobby Riggs, and this was supposed to prove that women were in some cosmic sense just as “good” as men or maybe better?

Why was there no match-up, ever, as far as I know, between male and female tennis players of the same age? Who wants to place bets on a contest between Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, the winners of this year’s U.S. Open? No takers? Not surprising. Men use their stronger and larger bodies to hit the ball harder. The New York Times analyzed serve speeds at the 2012 U.S. Open and found that Serena Williams had a serve speed of 125 mph (the fastest among women players). Sixty-nine of the 94 men players served faster than Williams, and John Isner’s serve clocked in at 144 mph. Only five of 82 women players hit a serve at 120 mph, whereas only five of 94 men failed to achieve that speed.

With speed come aces. Only 20 women were able to get ten aces in a match, compared with 67 men (though men play more sets).

I happen to think that the lack of serving power makes women’s tennis more enjoyable for the audience. It leads to more volleys, net play, and lobs. Watching a guy rocket the ball so fast that his opponent cannot return it is impressive, but not as fun to watch. The top ten earners in professional tennis are now divided equally between men and women, according to Forbes. I say, if more people want to watch women play tennis than men, women should earn more — and vice versa.

The point is, the ridiculous circus show of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs didn’t even change tennis — far less America. Did men and women start playing one another after that? Of course not.

The match wasn’t so much a set as a set piece. Riggs and King played their assigned roles to the hilt, Riggs pretending to be a “male, chauvinist pig” as the epithet of the time had it, who claimed to believe that women belonged in the kitchen, and King doing her earnest women’s-lib thing. Before the match began, she presented Riggs with a squealing piglet. Everyone at the time acted as if something were really at stake in the outcome.

It may even have been fixed. ESPN has published an interesting piece suggesting that Riggs threw the match to settle his gambling debts. That he was a lifelong gambler with ties to the Mafia is undisputed. He had trounced reigning champion Margaret Court four months before. His son and others confirm that he had visits from mob leaders in the weeks before the King match. This has renewed debate about the game and about whether the 55-year-old was beaten fair and square by the 29-year-old.

The game didn’t prove anything and didn’t change anything. It was a confection of hype, publicity, money, and show biz. Leave it to the keepers of our cultural flames to treat it like D-Day.

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2013 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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