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Being a good loser in my ’Battle of the Sexes’

The Houston match was not the only battle of the sexes in that era and they continue today. I know because I am involved in one.

The American Express Gala & European premiere of

The American Express Gala & European premiere of "Battle of the Sexes" during the 61st BFI London Film Festival on Oct. 7, 2017 in London, England. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Vittorio Zunino Celotto

Let us take a break today from the usual diet of depressing news, looking instead to the silver screen for entertainment.

At a cinema near you, a film titled “Battle of the Sexes” has lately been playing. This depicts the much-ballyhooed tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King in September 1973.

The match was a cultural phenomenon and was played at the Houston Astrodome, not the usual venue for a game of tennis. Besides the crowd in the stadium, millions of people tuned in on TV. Next day the newspaper hawkers - they had them then - were shouting: “Read all about it. Billie Jean beats old guy.”

Yes, the fascination with this event takes some understanding. It is tempting to think that in 1973 people were starved for entertainment but clearly the match was a proxy for something bigger - and still is, given that a major motion picture has now been made with Emma Stone and Steve Carell in the starring roles.

When Billie Jean King beat the loudmouth who thought women’s tennis inferior, a great blow for the women’s game was struck. Respect and equality were ready to be served up. That said, the match was a novelty act. The sadness was that women’s tennis needed a silly sideshow to win it respect.

Billie Jean King was 29 at the time, a champion in her prime, and Bobby Riggs was 55, a former champion whose prime had come and gone, although his ego was still in working order. She had everything to lose but she won in three straight sets. That was a good thing, as we may never have heard the end of it otherwise, men being what they are.

The Houston match was not the only battle of the sexes in that era and they continue today. I know because I am involved in one.

I am a tennis player. My wife, Priscilla, is a tennis player. Before we were married, I played her in tennis in order to impress her. She was not impressed. After losing almost all the points and all the games, I was depressed.

What was irritating to me was that the balls she hit bounced very high. My strokes are better when the ball keeps low; when they are high, I feel like I am swatting butterflies with an inefficient net. Some might say this is topspin but I believe that she somehow inflates the balls with helium.

The actual process of helium delivery remains a mystery to me after years of observation. She may keep the helium tank in her tennis bag, together with a little syringe, but these articles also could be hidden under her tennis skirt. Women used to hold spare tennis balls in their underwear so a helium tank in their drawers is not out of the question.

Of course, practice might explain why women players like Priscilla are so formidable. She has always played tennis - as a little girl, through the middle years, and now, in retirement and living in California, where the sun shines more and she can play every day. At last count, she is on two teams at two different clubs but she also regularly plays friendly, pick-up games.

How friendly these games are is not clear. Years ago, I described the sporting behavior of women who played paddle tennis - which she also played - as having the politics of the Balkans without the courtesy. The same deal appears to apply out here with tennis.

Many controversies seem to occur. Her partners on her teams send emails and messages constantly, starting at 6 a.m. and going all day. The president’s tweets have nothing on these ladies.

This is the sort of discipline that makes women players such a challenge. Men can’t bring this devotion and intensity to the tennis-playing task. This surely explains, better than my lack of talent, why I have beaten Priscilla only once in more than 40 years. That once was when she was 7 months pregnant.

A gallant person would not claim this victory but, hey, I need a win in the series.

I now play three or four times a week in order to catch up with her. The trouble is, I play with a group of guys who on a hot day will say: “Shall we play another set or go drink beer?” This is not helping me win my own Battle of the Sexes, which luckily you will never see in a stadium or a cinema.

Reg Henry is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist.

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