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).
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.
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.”