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TENNIS / THOMAS BONK : Twenty Years Ago, She Reigned as the King of the Courts

September 19, 1993|THOMAS BONK

What was the biggest moment in tennis?

Was it Big Bill Tilden towering over the U.S. Championships for six consecutive years? Or scruffy Bjorn Borg taking the Wimbledon title five years running? Was it plucky Martina Navratilova winning Wimbledon a record ninth time? How about the iron will of Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe's tortured genius or the grace of Chris Evert when she won every match she played on clay for nearly six years?

Sure, these are great events, fabulous feats and enduring moments to remember, but they all may meet their, ahem, match in both historical and theatrical aspects when they are compared to what happened in Houston 20 years ago Monday.

On Sept. 20, 1973, 29-year-old Billie Jean King defeated 55-year-old Bobby Riggs in the so-called "Battle of the Sexes." A crowd of 30,472 in the Astrodome and an estimated 50 million more on ABC-TV watched King defeat Riggs, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

Tennis was changed forever. According to Bud Collins, the Kings-Riggs match was equal parts tennis, carnival and sociological phenomenon.

"(It) captured the fancy of America as no pure tennis match ever had," Collins said in his "Modern Encyclopedia of Tennis."

King and Riggs will re-create their two-decade-old duel Wednesday night at the Forum as part of an AIDS fund-raiser organized by King and Elton John. Among those scheduled to play in a TeamTennis format are Navratilova, Evert, Connors, McEnroe and Tracy Austin.

Looking back, King said she was well aware of the importance of the match against Riggs long before she walked on the court.

"It went well beyond tennis," King said. "It was at the height of the women's movement, women's lib. It just amazes me the impact that match had. I knew my life wasn't going to be the same, and it wasn't."

Riggs, who had enjoyed a reputation as a tennis hustler, won Wimbledon and the U.S. Championship in 1939. He set the tone for the match by deriding the women's movement and by defeating Margaret Court, 30, in straight sets in a similar man-against-woman challenge on Mother's Day in Ramona.

These days, Riggs sounds secure with his place in history: "Billie and I did wonders for women's tennis. . . . They owe me part of their checks."

King said the match helped men's tennis as well, because the open era was beginning and interest in the sport was not great. But she admitted that the self-esteem of women probably benefited more than anything else.

Said King: "I know a lot of women came to me and said they asked their boss for raises the very next day."


Andre update: Andre Agassi still hasn't decided whether to continue with Pancho Segura as his coach. Their deal was to end after the U.S Open, which ended suddenly for Agassi when he lost in the first round.

Agassi said he is struggling to find a reason to play tennis that doesn't involve the pressure of having to win.

"I've got to be comfortable with me or else what he tells me is just more stuff in my head," Agassi said.

Agassi's schedule for the rest of the year includes Davis Cup play against the Bahamas followed by three weeks off, then indoor tournaments in Vienna, Stockholm and Paris.


Quotebook: Overheard at the U.S. Open:

--From Agassi after losing to Thomas Enqvist in the first round: "I am not the type of player that responds well to a lot of thinking."

--From USTA President J. Howard (Bumpy) Frazer, responding to Andrei Medvedev's complaint that the pasta in the players' lounge was 'poison': "It's pretty obvious no one has been poisoned."

--From Frazer on players' criticism that the food was always the same: "I am told . . . there is not enough variety. There is a lot of variety, but I think it is the same variety every day."

--From Cedric Pioline after beating Wally Masur in the semifinals, asked if he could say in his own words what the problem was in the second and third sets: "Yeah."

--From Pete Sampras, asked the score from his match against Alexander Volkov in the 1992 U.S. Open: "(Six)-four, tank and tank."

--From Volkov this year after losing to Sampras (four, three and tank) and asked to describe how well Sampras was playing: "OK, he will be here in five minutes, ask him."

--From Volkov after the same match, asked if he was mad: "No, I am happy."

--From Helena Sukova after sharing in winning the women's doubles title, the day after losing the singles final, asked if it made up for the day before: "What was yesterday?"

--From Gabriela Sabatini after defeating Ginger Helgeson in the third round, asked how she felt: "You mean right now?"

--From Boris Becker after winning his second-round match in straight sets, following a five-set first-round marathon, asked the difference between the two: "About three hours."


Satellites: The USTA Satellite Circuit comes to Southern California with four tournaments worth $12,500 in prize money. They are Monday at Rio Bravo in Bakersfield, Sept. 27 at Whittier Narrows in South El Monte, Oct. 4 at Anaheim Tennis Center and the finals Oct. 11 at the Los Angeles Tennis Center at UCLA.

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