A Never Ending “Battle of the Sexes”

On May 13, 1973, the former number one ranked male tennis professional took on the then top ranked female player in what would go down in history as the “Battle of the Sexes.” Bobby Riggs, a California native who first reached the number one ranking in 1939, regarded the age difference between him and Margaret Court as unimportant. He considered the greatest factor in determining the ultimate winner as gender, and gender alone. During this particular match, his theory proved correct, as he beat Court in straight sets (6-2, 6-1).

In 1973, Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs faced off in what would be known as the "Battle of the Sexes." King ultimately beat her competitor in straight sets.
In 1973, Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs faced off in what would be known as the “Battle of the Sexes.” King ultimately beat her competitor in straight sets.

Unlike other prominent sports in American athletics, tennis has substantial support for both its male and female athletes. For every grand slam tournament (the most important venues in the sport), the prize money is of equal value for each gender group’s champion. Men and women play on the same courts, often times competing back-to-back with one another. Much of the gender equality that exists within tennis is the result of the sport’s lack of physical aggression and requisite brute strength. Tennis stars aren’t expected to meet certain height and weight requirements to succeed. Effort and commitment define the modern tennis stars of our generation.

In Professor LaVaque-Manty’s The Playing Fields of Eton, it becomes clear that being a woman in an athletic context is a disadvantage. A provocative comparison between women and the disabled is made to highlight the underlying similarity gender can have on one’s ability to compete. Naturally, men are larger, stronger and have greater lung capacity than women. The two sexes rarely compete with one another on a professional level because of the obvious challenges inherent in cross-gender contest. Our country’s athletic conferences are strictly divided by gender so not to spoil the joy of “fair” competition. As we spoke about in section, part of what makes sporting events so exciting is equal odds for success. This means that on any given day, one player or team can outperform their opponents and walk away victorious. In the “Battle of the Sexes,” this rationale was implemented, though it uniquely broke the standard rules of gender competition in sport.

After beating Court in 1973, Riggs’ open willingness to challenge and defeat a competitor of the opposite gender became a topic of national conversation. Later in the same year, Billy Jean King challenged him in what was dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes Round II,” seeking to avenge the defeat suffered by her friend, Margaret Court. For Riggs’ encore performance, he would end up losing three sets to none against his opponent. King made comments after the match explaining that she felt Rigg’s intent was to demoralize the notion that women could find success in professional athletic events.

This example serves to explain how our ability—whether gender related, or not—can impact our potential of achieving athletic “excellence.” Professor LaVaque-Manty explains that fairness, “isn’t about dumbing down excellence in sport, but simply about showing that disability (in this case femininity) can be perfectly compatible with excellence.” What Riggs neglected to understand was that all human excellence can be valued, though the process by which it is evaluated must be entirely objective.

Serena Williams is seen hitting the ball during the Wimbledon tennis tournament. Williams is considered to be one of the strongest and most influential female athletes of her generation.
Serena Williams is seen hitting the ball during the Wimbledon tennis tournament. Williams is considered to be one of the strongest and most influential female athletes of her generation.

Today, many argue that the best player in both male and female tennis is Serena Williams. With her dominant serve—one of the fastest in the women’s game—and uncanny strength and endurance, Williams is redefining what it means to be a female athlete in modern-day sports. It seems, in recent years, she has been the obvious favorite in nearly every match she plays. When healthy, she appears nearly impossible to beat. William’s dominance makes me think of the point introduced in The Playing Fields of Eton regarding the “Clydesdale divisions.” These divisions promote the belief that variable physical attributes should be considered in assessing the fairness of athletic competition. To that end, Lavaque-Manty says, “equality requires eliminating the “arbitrary” effects of agent-independent factors for how a person’s life turns out.” Does that mean new divisions in professional tennis should be created to level the playing field for women not named Serena Williams? Maybe, but the only definitive answer that arises from this debate is that it’s time for a “Battle of the Sexes Round III.”

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2 thoughts on “A Never Ending “Battle of the Sexes”

  1. As an avid tennis player and fan, I found this article extremely interesting. Tennis is not known as a sport that requires a specific height or weight to compete at an elite level. However, in today’s game it is more and more common to see short players at the top of the men’s game. The vast majority of the men in the top 100 of the rankings are over 6 feet tall. Furthermore, to say that women can compete with men in tennis is a very false statement. As great as Serena Williams is, she can in no way compete with any elite man in a match. Even though Billy Jean King beat Bobby Riggs quite easily, that was many years ago and the game has evolved greatly since then. Modern tennis is slowly becoming a more and more physical game, in which taller, stronger, and quicker athletes are the ones rising to the top level, and there is no way Serena could compete with guys like Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal. The problem is that she is so much stronger than every other woman on tour, leading some people to believe she has an unfair advantage over the competition, just as Caster Semenya did. Just because she is bigger and faster and better than everyone else doesn’t mean there should be other divisions. She was born with an advantage and she has worked extremely hard to achieve greatness. Physical advantages have been and will always be a key part of sports, and there is no reason to create different divisions because of it.

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  2. I found this article extremely interesting and amusing, mostly because I love watching tennis. As an avid tennis watcher, I actually prefer women’s tennis over men’s tennis. Men’s tennis’ rallies are often short, and end with winners, or aces. Women’s tennis, on the other end, has more rallies, and provide spectators with a more exciting game, in my opinion. I also disagree with he fact that Serena is regarded as the best player between men and female. Of course she is one of the best, if not the best, in women’s tennis. But, if she were to take on the top men in tennis, I would not say she can compete with them. Also, I disagree with when you said: “Does that mean new divisions in professional tennis should be created to level the playing field for women not named Serena Williams?” Does this also mean new division should be created in the men’s league? This is just not feasible, and besides, the best players deserve to be the best players, and should not be put in different leagues based on skill. But overall, I loved the article, and how you compared the game of tennis, both men and women, to The Playing Fields of Eton.

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