Second Serve by Renée Richards with John Ames

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Taking a quick break from my usual historical novels to read a tennis-related book –  the story of Renee Richards, born Richard Raskind in a family of New York doctors, who, after transitioning from male to female, won a legal battle against the US Tennis Association to be able to compete in women’s events, reached the final of the ladies’ doubles and (partnering Ilie Nastase) the mixed doubles at the US Open, and later coached Martina Navratilova.  It’s not particularly well-written, and says disappointingly little about actual tennis history, but it makes some interesting points, including about the way in which sports players from minority groups attract a lot of press attention which other players don’t have to deal with.

There isn’t actually that much tennis in the book.  A lot of it details Richard (Dick)’s female conquests and Renee’s male conquests, which the reader probably doesn’t really want to know about, especially not in quite as much detail as it gives.  It also gives the impression of someone who was rather confused, rather than that of a transgender person who knew that they were a woman in a man’s body.  Young Dick seems to have had unhealthy relationships with both his mother and his sister, and in fact all the relationships within the family seem to have been strained.

They (I’m initially using gender-neutral pronouns because they write about Dick and Renee living inside the same body and vying with each other to get out) were a top student, who went to Yale, captained the tennis team there, qualified as a doctor and became a leading ophthalmologist, and also spent time in the US Navy, and had a lot of girlfriends.   They at one point made the decision to transition, and went as far as having hormone treatment and developing female characteristics, but then decided to go back to being a man, stopped the treatment, had surgery, and married a woman and fathered a child.   It’s very unusual to hear of someone going backwards and forwards like that.  It’s very sad: they said that they suffered periods of depression and contemplated suicide, and weren’t really able to find help despite seeing a number of very prominent psychiatrists.

Eventually, they came to the decision to undergo gender reassignment surgery, and moved from New York to California to begin a new life as a woman.  A lot of good points are made about the practical problems of passports, driving licences, certificates showing professional qualifications, etc, being in the name of a man when the person is now a woman.  These days, people would just explain, but, in the 1970s, Renee felt unable to acknowledge her previous identity as Dick in her working life, and had to try to establish her professional reputation all over again.  She was told that, as Dick had been quite well-known in the tennis world, she would probably be recognised if she took up playing tennis again, but she did so anyway – and was indeed recognised.

She was in her forties by this time, which is very late for someone to try to begin a professional tennis career, but she felt that she was playing well and had a chance of success in the big events, but was refused permission to play because of being transgender.  After various legal battles, and with the support of some big names, notably Billie Jean King and Gladys Heldman, she was allowed to compete in women’s events – although only in the US and South America, because there wasn’t a unified tour in those days and she didn’t feel that she wanted to fight any more legal battles in order to try to win the right to compete in Britain, France, etc.

The issue of transgender athletes is very much in the news now, thirty years later.  Several leading athletes have called for medical research to be done to establish whether or not a transgender woman has an advantage over a cisgender woman, but it all seems to be up in the air at the moment, and has been complicated by the separate issue of cisgender women who have naturally high testosterone levels … which seems rather an odd thing to penalise people for, as a lot of athletes have a natural advantage due to height or build, and no-one suggests that they shouldn’t be allowed to compete.

This book really isn’t very good, but, as I said, it does raise some good points.  One that’s very relevant at the moment, with the ongoing issues of a) racism in sport, very much in the news this week following the disgraceful scenes during England’s match in Montenegro, and b) why there are still no openly gay top level male footballers, is the amount of attention which players from any minority group attract, and how they’re expected to be spokespeople for the community concerned.  Hopefully most of that attention is positive and supportive, but many people may neither want nor be able to deal with that.  It would have been better to have heard more about that, and more about Dick/Renee’s personal issues and feelings, and less about all of Dick’s women and Renee’s men, but, hey, the book is what it is.  I wouldn’t spend too much money on it, but, if you happen to stumble across a cheap copy, it might be worth a read.

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Battle of the Sexes

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Billie Jean King is an icon of tennis, the women’s rights movement and the LGBT rights movement. This film did so poorly at the box office that I assumed it hadn’t done her justice – it was only on at the pictures very briefly, which is why I missed it – but it turned out to be superb.  Very impressed. I’d love to know what Margaret Court, about whom there’ll no doubt, and with good cause, be another row come January, thought about being cast as the villain of the piece.  Bobby Riggs, meanwhile, just came across as a bit of a prat.

Sports films can be awkward. Nobody particularly wants to see actors and actresses and their body doubles pretending to play a tennis match.  If I want to watch tennis (which I do, pretty much all the time!), I’ll watch a proper match involving professional players.  But this wasn’t really a sports film, or a film just about the famous match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs: it was a film about people standing up for something they believed in.

The issue of equal prize money between men and women in tennis is still ongoing. It was only in 2007 that Wimbledon and the French Open began awarding equal prize money across the board, and the question still comes up umpteen times a year.  Back in 1970, a tournament was organised in which female players were offered only one-eighth of the prize money being offered to male players.

Billie Jean King and eight other women players, championed by publisher and former player Gladys Heldman – the Heldman character in the film also made a point about the anti-Semitism prevalent in some American sports clubs at that time – set up their own tour, sponsored by Virginia Slims cigarettes. I’m so ancient that I can still remember the days of Virginia Slims tournaments (I mean in the late ’80s and ’90s, not the ’70s!)!   It eventually became what we now know as the WTA Tour.  They were banned from tournaments organised by the USLTA (now the USTA), and a lot of women’s events outside the US were also dropped.  However, they stuck to their guns, and formed the Women’s Tennis Association, and their position gradually improved.

Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs, a retired player in his mid-’50s, had got his life in a mess because of gambling. Whilst his gambling addiction wasn’t the main focus of the film, it did raise the important issue of the number of professional sports players who struggle to cope with retirement, and fall into gambling or alcoholism or other addictions.  He came up with the idea of a match against a top female player, but, although he made a lot of remarks about women belonging in the kitchen and so on, it was clear that he didn’t really mean it, and that he was desperate for money and playing up the image of himself as a male chauvinist pig because he knew it’d gain publicity.  It’s known that he and Billie Jean King kept in touch after their match, and remained friends until his death.

Margaret Court, on the other hand, was depicted as an absolute bitch. I don’t honestly think that’s accurate: there’s never been any suggestion that there was bad feeling between her and Billie Jean King when they were playing.  Billie Jean King had a husband at the time, but had begun a relationship with … I thought Marilyn Barnett was her secretary, but she was portrayed in this as her hairdresser.  Anyway, they began a relationship, which went on for around a decade.  Eventually it all ended very unpleasantly, with Barnett revealing the relationship publicly and suing her for palimony, but that was years after the period covered by the film.  The way it was shown in the film was that Margaret Court had realised about the relationship, and she was shown making homophobic remarks and saying that she hoped Billie Jean’s personal life would fall apart and cause her tennis to do likewise.

I’ve never heard anything to suggest that that actually happened. However, in recent years, Margaret Court has been very outspoken against LGBT rights, and that’s led to calls for the Margaret Court Arena, the second court at Melbourne Park, home of the Australian Open, to be renamed.  Several players, including Andy Murray, have spoken of the possibility of boycotting the court, or even the whole event. Some of her comments, especially about transgender children, are just beyond appalling, and really have disgusted players, fans and everyone else.  She didn’t attend the Australian Open last year, knowing that she wouldn’t be welcome.  So it wouldn’t surprise me if she had made comments like that, but I’ve never heard it suggested that she did.

She, then the world number one, played a “battle of the sexes” match against Bobby Riggs, and he absolutely routed her. It was hinted in the film that maybe she lost deliberately.  Again, I’m not sure that that’s ever been suggested.  There have been suggestions that Bobby Riggs lost his match against Billie Jean King deliberately, which wasn’t suggested in the film; but I don’t think that’s true either.

Teddy Tinling, the British dress designer and former player, who famously upset the powers that were at Wimbledon by designing lace pants for “Gorgeous” Gussie Moran in 1949, and designed Billie Jean’s match for her match against Riggs, was, by contrast, shown as being absolutely lovely – incredibly supportive of all the women players and, openly gay himself, supportive of Billie Jean in her personal life too. The film didn’t show too much about her family, but she’s spoken openly about how she was frightened of coming out because of the attitude of her very conservative and religious family.  It did show her being warned that the women’s tour could suffer badly if sponsorship were to be withdrawn by businesses with homophobic attitudes – and, when her relationship with Marilyn Barnett was made public, she did indeed lose millions of dollars in endorsements.

After defeating Margaret Court, Bobby Riggs challenged any other female player to play him. Billie Jean King accepted.  He might have been doing it for the publicity and the money, and she might have felt that it was all pretty stupid, but, as she’s said, if she’d lost, live on prime time TV, to a retired player 26 years older than her, the reputation of women’s tennis and the morale of all the female players would have been badly damaged. The film made the match look a lot more serious than it was in real life – there was a load of silly OTT pre-match stuff in real life, dressing up and so on – but, even in real life, it was a big thing, and attracted a huge amount of attention.

Billie Jean won the match, 6-4 6-3 6-3. How much of an effect it actually had on women’s tennis, and on women’s sport and indeed feminism in general, is a moot point, but she’d certainly never have heard the end of it had she lost.  Maybe it was a big moment.  It’d be nice to think so.

However much effect that match did or didn’t have, Billie Jean King is a heroine, both as one of the greatest tennis players of all time and as someone who’s fought for equal rights. It’s a great shame that this film didn’t do better at the box office, because it really is worth seeing – not just by tennis fans, but by everyone.