Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Rant #1,030: Tennis Bawl

I am not much of a fan of tennis.

Hitting the ball back and forth really isn't my idea of real sports drama.

But for maybe one day I was a tennis fan, but you have to go back to 1973 for that to have happened.

This was at the height of the woman's liberation movement, and Bobby Riggs, a former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion, had been mouthing off on every TV show that would have him at the time that he, 55 and long past his prime, could beat any woman at tennis, even champions of the game.

So on Sept. 20, 1973, millions watched as ABC aired his "Battle of the Sexes" match against Billie Jean King, who was decades younger than Riggs and at the peak of her sports prowess.

Riggs lost--I remember that it wasn't even close--and as the villain, most people wanted Riggs to lose anyway.

But now, we find out that the match was probably, err, Riggsed, um rigged.

Now ESPN's "Outside the Lines" show claims that the whole match was fixed because Riggs owed mobsters thousands of dollars in unpaid debt.

According to the report, Riggs purposely did not play his "A" game, and this allowed him to erase his debt.

Allegedly, the assistant golf pro at a Florida country club overheard two mobsters discussing Riggs and what the tennis player had to do before the legendary match.

Riggs' son does not deny that his father knew mobsters, and he doesn't discount the possibility that his father could have thrown the match to erase gambling debt.

However, King, who was in her tennis prime at age 29 then, disputes the entire possibility of the match being thrown, saying something to the effect of "he wanted that match as much as I did." And that is my paraphrase, but that is essentially what she said.

And you know what? King is 100-percent correct, I believe, in her summation of the whole thing.

Look, Riggs was not going to beat her. He was several decades older than her, she was at the height of her game, and there is no way a 55-year-old has-been is going to beat a 29-year-old champion, whether it was male vs. male female vs. female, or male vs. female.

It's just not going to happen.

What the match did was to elevate tennis' level of popularity to perhaps its all-time high.

I am not a tennis fan, but millions are, watching it and playing it regularly. It's sort of like golf in its stature.

Second, it pretty much gave a boost, maybe the last boost, to the then burgeoning women's liberation, or equality, movement.

It showed that women could be as good as men could be. Sure, the situation was pretty much set up for this to happen, but if you were around then, you know how important this match became.

You think today's hype is over the top ...

Anyway, whether Riggs threw the match or not really isn't that important 40 years after the fact.

And he isn't around anymore to give his own take on this.

But it was another one of those times that television drew us all together in high drama that it created itself, one of the several times that it has accomplished this during its 60-plus year history.

One of the earlier times was when the Beatles were on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and even earlier than that, when Elvis was shown from the top up on the same show.

It showed the eternal power of television, and this still exists today, even with the Internet peaking over its shoulder.

Television continues to stand as probably the most popular, and important, mass medium that was ever created, and in its own small way, this tennis match demonstrated that TV could not only show the news, but make its own news too.

And that really is the everlasting importance of this match, not who won or who lost.

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