Excerpt from Healthy Aging Magazine Article: Tennis Anyone? A Social Game for the Ages
By David Chauner
Humphrey Bogart, lore has it, wearing a natty blue blazer with tennis racket under his arm, bounced on stage in a forgotten 1927 play and uttered the famous line, “Tennis, anyone?”
True or not, this ubiquitous cliché arguably defined the early days of tennis as a social sport played on grass courts at the private estates and clubs of the well-heeled. The image of slicked back hair, white flannel pants and sweaters knotted jauntily over the shoulders was one of the first upscale fashion statements of the Roaring Twenties and beyond.
Back and Forth Popularity
In fact a good case can be made that the back and forth popularity of tennis, perhaps more than any other sport, has mirrored the evolution of how society sees itself and plays and watches its games.
The popularity of tennis spans the male dominated and genteel all-amateur philosophy of early 20th Century sport to today’s nondiscriminatory era of sweat-soaked action athletics. Along the way tennis caught on in recreational popularity, spawning the development of community courts and tennis clubs where the price of entry was often as low as the cost of a wooden racket and a can of tennis balls.
And believe it or not, the modern boom in tennis popularity can be traced to one seminal event that occurred in Houston, Texas on September 20, 1973. It was one of those rare moments in sport when the game itself became secondary to a message that resonates beyond athletics.
“Battle of Sexes” Contest
In 1973 the great social debate of the day was the feminist movement, an often shrill argument that questioned male dominance in everything from the board room to the playing field. So Bobby Riggs, an aging tennis player and self-promoting impresario, loudly proclaimed that he, as a man, was still good enough to beat even the best female tennis player on any day, on any court. At the time, the world’s top ranked player was Billie Jean King.
Tennis, as a sport, became center stage for what was labeled the “Battle of Sexes,” the once-and-for-all contest to dispel the conventional wisdom that men were better than women in just about anything. Still the biggest ever audience for a tennis match in history—90 million worldwide TV viewers (50 million in the U.S.) and 30,472 ticket holders at Houston’s Astrodome watched King beat Riggs and pocket the $100,000 winner-take-all prize.
Not only was the “Battle of the Sexes” a grand slam for women’s rights, it exposed tennis to a new mainstream audience. The sport exploded. Men’s and women’s tournaments were suddenly televised, Virginia Slims sponsored an all-women’s pro circuit and prize money made players wealthy.