For 27 years, the PBS series American Masters has presented documentary profiles of artists and entertainers, cultural icons and institutions. To date, more than 190 films have been produced under the American Masters title.
This week, for the first time, the series adds a sports figure to its roster. And fittingly, the subject is an athlete whose accomplishments far transcend the sport in which she gained fame and amassed a fortune.
Billie Jean King, which airs tonight at 7 p.m. on Prairie Public TV, is a fascinating 90-minute documentary that examines the career and life of a woman who recognized at a very young age that success as an athlete would provide an opportunity to be a catalyst for cultural change.
The winner of 39 Grand Slam tennis titles, the co-founder of the Virginia Slims Series tour (a precursor to the current WTA tour), the first female pro athlete to earn more than $100,000 in a year and a tireless supporter of both women's rights and gay rights initiatives, King is -- for better and worse -- probably best remembered by most as the female tennis pro who took on self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs in the 1973 exhibition match dubbed "The Battle of the Sexes."
When she met with TV critics recently during PBS's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles, King said the relentlessly hyped tennis showdown -- largely the product of Riggs having created a second career for himself as a feminism buster long after his best tennis-playing years were behind him -- was a match she had tried to avoid playing for at least a couple of years.
"I definitely did not want to play Bobby," she recalled. "He followed me around for two or three years, but when he played Margaret (Court) and she lost badly, I had to play him. I was worried about Title IX (U.S. equal-rights legislation). I was worried about our tour. I was worried about a lot of things, and I was worried about perception, and I had to play him. I just didn't have a choice."
The match was preceded by weeks of heavy promotion in which Riggs was shown clowning around and poking fun at female athletes and the women's rights movement. For King, who went into seclusion and trained fiercely, there was nothing amusing about the contest.
"It was not fun," she said. "Maybe for (people) watching, but not for me playing or Bobby playing. It was not fun. I knew the implications. I knew what it stood for. I knew that it was very symbolic of the women's movement and what we were trying to do... I mean, women, men were talking, betting.
"If you just really analyze the times, you knew this was a moment where we could help to move forward understanding each other and bringing us together, for women to have more pride, for men maybe to think differently... It was huge, and what it was about was about equality. It was about change."
The documentary includes comments of several who watched the King-Riggs match, including Hillary Clinton, Elton John, Gloria Steinem and many of King's contemporaries on the women's tennis scene.
Despite its high-profile nature, of course, the straight-sets rout of Riggs is really only a minor moment in King's extraordinary life. Her accomplishments as a crusader for equal pay for women, her place in the battle for women's rights and, later, gay rights, and her commitment to creating opportunities for sports and fitness for children are also explored in extensive detail.
King, who will turn 70 in November, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- the U.S.'s highest civilian honour -- in 2009. Three years earlier, in 2006, the headquarters of U.S. tennis in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., was rededicated to become USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
An athlete as an American Masters subject? In this case, the title seems a perfect fit.
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