It's nice to hear Andy Murray and Serena Williams laugh about the fun they could have together. In response to a suggestion delivered on Twitter this week, Murray floated the idea of a match with the world's No. 1 women's player. Williams responded generously. The best part is, neither player made it a big deal. The relative stature of men and women would not be at stake. Oddly enough, we have Bobby Riggs to thank for that piece of common sense. I'll explain.
Riggs was the ancient, conniving coot who challenged Billie Jean King 40 years ago. Playing the chauvinist pig role as if born to it, Riggs hyped the match with oinks that included his declaration that a woman's place was "in bed and in the kitchen, and in that order." King, on the other hand, was an icon of the then-burgeoning feminist movement who, by the power of her personality and talent, made tennis the forerunner of all women's professional sports.
That said, I paid no attention to the "Battle of the Sexes." It was winner-take-all, $100,000. It was played in the Houston Astrodome with 30,000 people there and television claiming 50 million viewers. Few sports events ever produced such a steaming pile of hoohah. Howard Cosell, the time's pre-eminent TV sportscaster, did the play-by-play in tones suggesting Ali-Frazier had been a tea social. King came to the court seated in a sedan chair carried on the shoulders of bodybuilders in Roman-warrior armor. Be still my heart.
King, at age 29, was still a force at world-class levels. Riggs had been a very good player. He won Wimbledon in 1939 and the U.S. championship in '39 and '41. But that night in the Astrodome, he was 55 years old. Balding, bespectacled, and bandy-legged, he might have passed for the withered father of the tiny, scrawny, crafty kid who won at Wimbledon four years before BJK was born.
The match with King happened only because, four months earlier, Riggs had beaten Margaret Court, then the world's No. 1 women's player. He bewildered Court with drop shots, 6-2, 6-1. King, who earlier had turned down a Riggs challenge, then changed her mind, at least partly with a thought to redeeming women's honor. Unlike Court, a fragile personality who had been flummoxed by both Riggs's theatrics and his unorthodox game, the fiery King came prepared.
She won in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
As I watched the match with my wife and another couple, my reaction was a yawn. I mean, so what? We'd seen a great athlete in her prime beat a geezer who couldn't reach any shot three steps away. But soon enough, and by that I mean immediately, I knew my reaction was misguided. The women in the room were ecstatic.
Apparently, I was the only person who cared that as a sports event, it was bogus. That was my mistake. It was never a sports event. It was, without the capital letters, a battle of the sexes. In the larger, cultural sense -- in the sense of sex, tennis, and other games that men and women play -- all that mattered was that a woman had accepted a doddering fool's challenge and kicked his wrinkly butt.
That September night in 1973 in the Astrodome -- here's the part where we thank Bobby Riggs -- was one of a kind. Riggs played so miserably that never again would such a match be taken seriously. We needed no more. We didn't need Jimmy Connors beating Martina Navratilova 7-5, 6-2 in 1992 (using one serve, giving her half of each doubles alley). After King-Riggs, no matter the hype, we all recognized the difference between Sports and Entertainment.
For instance, Andy Murray against Novak Djokovic is Sports.
Andy Murray against Serena Williams is Entertainment.
I'm good with that. Bring on Williams-Murray. "I'd be up for it. Why not?" Murray said. "I've never hit with her, but she's obviously an incredible player and I think people would be interested to see the men play against the women to see how the styles match up." About here, I'm thinking, "Oh, come on, Andy, we didn't just fall off the turnip truck." Then came seven words that more honestly explain his proposal. He said, "How about Las Vegas as a venue?"
Williams would be the draw in the match. Murray's a nice player, maybe on the cusp of greatness, but he's a Scot, taciturn on the cusp of dour. Williams is a tabloid's dream, a diva whose achievements and outrages keep her in the headlines. She is the winner of 16 Grand Slam events. At 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds, she comes, too, with a powerful model's body that makes her the strongest women's player ever, capable of serves of over 120 miles per hour.
Not that any of that would mean much against the 6-foot-3, 185-pound Murray, as even Williams acknowledged. "I doubt I'd win a point," she said, "but that would be fun." It would her second match against a man. At 16, she lost a one-set challenge, 6-1, to a German nobody. "I was really young," Williams said. "I'm a lot more experienced now." She's now 31, King's age against Riggs.
King asked for no rules changes. Williams knows better. She said she'd want a clay court to minimize Murray's serve (over 130 mph). Also, laughing: "I get alleys. He gets no serve. I get alleys on my serves, too." She then had another thought about Murray, who covers every inch of every court, an indefatigable retriever with a sprinter's speed. She said, "He gets no legs."
She'd be best served by a Way Forward machine.
She could strap Murray into it.
Then make him 55 years old.