Tennis has had a number of figures involved in key social issues in the 20th and 21st century. Arthur Ashe’s stance on both Civil Rights and the HIV/AIDS crisis come to mind along with Billie Jean King’s pursuit of equal prize money for women. Venus Williams has been lauded as the successor to King’s drive for equal prize money. Andre Agassi’s foundation seems to have inspired a lot of philanthropy from Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Roddick. Conversations about social issues have been sparked by statements from tennis figures such as Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams, and Margaret Court. John McEnroe hosted a short-lived political commentary program on MSNBC. Being an individual sport has likely helped tennis to produce larger than expected social ripples.
The same is true when one looks at the cultural impact of tennis. For many, Bjorn Borg was the definition of 1970s cool. ESPN’s 30 for 30 series as well as 30 for 30 shorts have focused on a number of tennis stories. Serena Williams appeared in Beyonce’s “Lemonade” video while Redfoo, Brooklyn Decker, Drake, Barbara Streisand, Brooke Shields, Tatum O’Neal, Patti Connors, Enrique Iglesias, JJ Watt, Kaley Kuoco, Patty Smyth, and others have been and/or are linked romantically to tennis players. I have to say that I don’t care about who is dating different tennis players as I figure that is their business, but I can’t deny that it has led to a lot of media coverage over the years.
One Big Event
Still, the 1973 Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs is one of the most culturally and socially relevant events in tennis history. King and Riggs helped to sell over 30,000 tickets at the Houston Astrodome for the largest tennis crowd in US history. It was the #3 ranked show for the week and pulled 28.1% of US homes in the TV ratings. King’s win helped the cause of the WTA Tour in its ongoing battle for prize money.
A match between a 55-year-old retired pro holding an oversized “Sugar Daddy” candy and the #2 player on the WTA Tour being brought to court side on a throne carried by bare-chested men can’t really have had a lot importance from a pure tennis perspective. However, the circus side of things drew a lot of eyeballs and fans to see a match between the personification of chauvinism (Riggs did this through his own promotion of the match despite many reports that it didn’t match his actual views on women) and a redeeming warrior intent on erasing the Mother’s Day Massacre. The match itself strikes me as something we’d see in a morality play rather than a sports contest.
The cultural relevance can be seen in two areas. First, it spawned a sequel of its own in 1992 when Jimmy Connors beat Martina Navratilova 7-5, 6-2. Connors played under a different set of rules as he only had 1 serve and had to defend half of the doubles alley. Connors apparently bet $1 million on himself to win while surrendering under 8 games. Riggs apparently made the same bet and seemed quite nervous when Connors fell behind early in the match. By the end, Jimmy lost 7 games and won his bet (Bobby Riggs picked up some money too).
Bobby Riggs won himself a Butler
I came across the second piece of cultural relevance when channel surfing a few months ago. A 1974 episode of the sitcom The Odd Couple, entitled “The Pig who Came to Dinner”, featured Riggs for most of the episode as well as a Billy Jean King cameo. The show ended with the two playing table tennis in the closest thing we ever got to a rematch of their tennis match in Houston.