The Most-Watched Tennis Match Ever Happened in Houston

Stages Repertory Theatre reimagines the Battle of the Sexes, shot by shot.

By Morgan Kinney August 21, 2017 Published in the September 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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It sounds like an exaggeration, but the whole world really did look to Houston on September 20, 1973. Almost 40,000 people crowded together to see Bobby Riggs roll into the Astrodome on a chariot like a triumphant gladiator, many cheering the self-proclaimed “chauvinist pig” who had baited Billie Jean King into the tennis-showdown-of-the-century, billed as The Battle of the Sexes.

Riggs had drawn the feminist King in by crowing that a middle-aged male player could beat a female champ in her prime, and also by making statements like this one: “Number one, the woman should stay in the bedroom. Number two, they should get to the kitchen. Number three, they should support the man!”

More than 90 million viewers worldwide tuned in to watch King crush Riggs in consecutive sets and, in the process, wrote the New York Times, do “more for the cause of women than most feminists can achieve in a lifetime.” To this day, the game remains the most-watched tennis match ever.

Now, it’s been 44 years since that girl-power beat-down, and we’re still parsing exactly what it means. A 2013 ESPN article posited that Riggs had thrown the game to pay off a mob debt, an allegation that, true or not, has done nothing to detract from the match’s cultural impact. The movie Battle of the Sexes, a “sports comedy-drama” out this month, will pit Emma Stone against Steve Carell in the umpteenth retelling. And next month, in a co-production between New York’s One Year Lease Theater Company and the Bayou City’s Stages Repertory Theatre, the curtain will rise in Houston on the world premiere of Balls, written by Bryony Lavery and Kevin Armento.

“We thought all of a sudden: This is a Houston-born historic event that more people than watched the Super Bowl that year witnessed,” says Natalie Lomonte, a Sugar Land native and movement director for One Year Lease, who helped bring the story to its ancestral home before it moves on to a run in New York.

The battle for gender equality certainly never ended, of course, and the title is a not-so-subtle nod to that reality. “It captures the spirit of the play,” says Stages Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin, “and it also captures a little bit of that political power the play talks about.”

Creating the show, the biggest challenge the two companies faced was producing a play as dramatic as the real thing. The match was conceived as a spectacle intended to reassert male dominance, while making a buck along the way: Could King, the 29-year-old top-ranked women’s player, somehow muster the strength to defeat Riggs, at 55 a past-his-prime tennis legend? Could they cram it all into the Astrodome, that newfangled monument to artificial turf and air-conditioning, and televise it the world over with sponsors’ names plastered everywhere?

By the time the day rolled around, newspapers struggled to capture how over-the-top the match had become. A Chicago Tribune report ahead of the showdown—datelined “HOGSTON,” in a nod to the “sooey, pig” catchphrase used by Riggs’s supporters—mixed its metaphors to frame the event as a carnival, a football match and a prizefight all spun together.

That story’s (male) writer also described each player’s game-day attire, approving of Riggs’s “stunning” getup—a sponsored Sugar Daddy jacket—while deeming King to be “far more pretty than any of her pictures have ever led one to believe.” (Journalists practice their backhand, too.)

“While history tells us it really was a marketing PR event more than anything at all,” McLaughlin says, “it’s interesting to think about in the context of the women’s movement in general.”

For Balls, Stages will feature a shot-for-shot reimagining of the famous match, albeit without anyone serving an actual ball—“Very quickly,” Lomonte says, “we found out we weren’t capable of doing that with tennis balls.” Instead, actors portray both ball and net in speaking roles.

The play’s cast of characters also includes King and Riggs, of course, plus the ball boy, various celebrities and a few added clowns, all undergoing their own drama. “By doing this, you get a sense of ... how big this was, not just end to end of the court, but the seismic international event scope,” McLaughlin says. “Where is Billie Jean now? How does she feel today?”

While the play will offer its own answers, King is still in the game. At age 73, she recently gave a speech on the same issues of gender equality she’s been vocal about since the Astrodome was in its heyday. The message was bittersweet: She cited a recent projection that women in developed countries could close the gender pay gap “as early as 2044.”

“I was hoping I’d see this in my lifetime,” King said, “but I don’t think it’s gonna happen. What a bummer.”

Balls runs Oct. 1–29 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, Suite 101. 713-527-0123. 

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