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Jones: 'Battle of the Sexes' brings greater appreciation for Billie Jean King

This image released by Fox Searchlight Pictures shows Emma Stone, left, and Steve Carell in a scene from "Battle of the Sexes." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Fox Searchlight Pictures via AP) NYET614
Published Sep. 29, 2017

She is the most important and influential figure in the history of women's sports. No one has fought harder or risked greater or meant more in women's struggle for equality in and out of the sports arena.

She is wise and charismatic and a visionary, but she can be gruff and stubborn and even a little mean. And she has used all those qualities to help women break through a wall constructed and defended by men, especially during a time when women were still patted on the head for wanting to play sports just like the guys.

She's Billie Jean King, and thank God for her.

We should celebrate King every day. But now there is a pleasant reminder of her impact.

Battle of the Sexes, the movie about the 1973 tennis match between King and self-described male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs, opens this weekend in Tampa Bay. Go see it. It's terrific.

I had a chance to watch a screening, and honestly, it's not a perfect movie. Like many Holly­wood productions of true stories, it plays a little loose with the facts. Still, it's well worth two hours. Emma Stone might get an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of King, and Steve Carell is spot-on as Riggs.

Best of all, it tells an important story, one that everyone needs to know. And it's perfectly captured in one line, even if we can't be sure that line was actually said in real life.

RELATED: Tampa Bay Times movie critic Steve Persall gives Battle of the Sexes B+.

King is told by a friend, "Times change. You should know, because you just changed them."

Now that is absolutely true.

You might not be old enough to remember the story.

King was 29 at the time and the best female tennis player in the world. A former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champ, Riggs was a 55-year-old gambling addict and hustler always looking for the next get-rich scheme. In May 1973, Riggs demolished Margaret Court in a battle-of-the-sexes match that became better known as the "Mother's Day Massacre."

King had already boldly led women to break away from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association because of the wide gap in prize money between men and women. But when an old-timer like Riggs crushed a 30-year-old Court — at the time a winner of 21 major titles, including a career Grand Slam — it made it seem silly for women to think they should be treated the same as men.

That's why King accepted Riggs' challenge to play on Sept. 20, 1973, for $100,000 at the Houston Astrodome, which was at the time the fanciest stadium in the country.

The weeks leading up to the event were a circus with Riggs, ever the showman, talking trash and building up interest. The entire country took sides in this battle of man versus woman. Stories about the match led the evening news, dominated the sports pages and became daily conversation at every water cooler in every office in the country.

I was 8 at the time. I remember being swept up in the hoopla just like the rest of the country. I remember watching the match on TV along with 50 million other Americans and 90 million worldwide. It really was one of those where-were-you moments. As best as I can remember, I rooted for Billie Jean in what was probably the first tennis match I ever watched.

It all seemed like great fun. But it wasn't to King, even as she smiled and clowned around with Riggs leading up to the match to help drum up interest.

We had no idea the pressure King was under and how critical the outcome was.

Years after the match, King said, "I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match. It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self-esteem."

King won in three straight sets.

A valid argument could be made that two events paved the way for greater female participation in sports in the decades that followed. One was 1972's passage of Title IX, which banned sex discrimination in all federally funded school programs, including sports.

The other? King's victory against Riggs.

King's impact has gone far beyond that night in Houston. Her renegade women's tour became what we now know as the WTA Tour. She continued to fight for bigger prize money. She helped found the Women's Sports Foundation, which champions the rights of female athletes and has become Title IX's staunchest defender.

She has expanded her efforts beyond tennis, advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. In 2009 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At 73, she's still going strong.

There's more to Battle of the Sexes than the match itself. The film delves deeply into the personal lives of King and Riggs. It's not 100 percent factual, but it's close enough and certainly entertaining.

When it's over, you walk away knowing King a little better and understanding just how important that match was. You walk away realizing what Billie Jean King means to our world.

And you're thankful for it.

Contact Tom Jones at tjones@tampabay.com. Follow @tomwjones.

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