By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
7:38 PM CDT, September 9, 2013
Forty years ago, Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs in the most famous tennis match in American history. Dubbed "The Battle of the Sexes," it was as much a contest of ideologies as athleticism.
King represented the fight for women's rights, and Riggs, who proudly identified himself as a male chauvinist pig, stood in for the patriarchy. Millions tuned into the wildly hyped telecast, many of whom had never seen a tennis match.
When King soundly beat Riggs (who, though a former champion himself, was 26 years her senior) in three straight sets, women around the world cheered and an icon was born.
But that match, which King had participated in only reluctantly, was certainly not the most significant contribution King made to women's tennis, the women's movement or American culture, as "American Masters: Billie Jean King" makes very clear.
James Erskine's inspiring documentary, which airs Tuesday, marks the first time "American Masters" has profiled an athlete, but then King is much more than an athlete. What Jackie Robinson was to the battle against institutionalized racism, King is to the fight against sexism.
Although raised in an open-minded, supportive home in Long Beach, King had few outlets for her natural athleticism. Beyond shooting hoops with her brother and father, there were few competitive teams for girls.
Then a friend introduced her to tennis, a sport King instantly recognized as being the definition of elitist — the clothes were all white, the players were all white and a membership to a country club was all but required. But King found free classes at a local park, worked odd jobs to buy a racket and was soon claiming she would become the best player in the world.
When she did, she realized that wasn't enough.
Women's tennis was still viewed as an afterthought, a ladies auxiliary to the real game. Prize money was often one-tenth what it was for the men because, as the argument went, not enough people would pay to see women play.
But, King and a few of her peers argued, part of the problem was prestige — high stakes made for more thrilling games, which in turn brought more fans. And if women couldn't make a living playing tennis, even the top players would drop out before they had completely mastered their craft.
So King and some of her peers formed the Virginia Slims Circuit and later the Women's Tennis Association, changing the sport, and women's athletics, forever.
Passionate, funny and insightful, King is the best teller of her own tale. Archival and original interviews with her form the film's spine. But her brother and ex-husband share anecdotes and memories, as do King's tennis peers including Rosie Casals, Margaret Court and Chris Evert.
Also on hand to frame the importance of King are current champions, including Venus and Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, as well as non-tennis admirers former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett and Elton John.
Of course, King's influence did not end with women's tennis, or even women's rights. After being outed during a palimony suit, King became one of the first openly gay American athletes.
Although after her outing, her endorsements vanished almost overnight, her influence did not. She soon became a spokesperson for the LGBT community as well. In 2009, she became the first female athlete awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
There may not be anything new in "Billie Jean King" — among other things, she is one of the better documented female athletes in history — but it is a story worth retelling. And it is told very well here.
While this generation of girls often drives their parents to distraction (and the ends of the earth) with their commitments to tennis and track, basketball and soccer, it's easy to forget that just a generation or two ago, even a girl as naturally gifted as Billie Jean King had to fight just to find a sport to play.
And we should all be grateful she did.
'American Masters: Billie Jean King'
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
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