I was really looking forward to this documentary and it didn’t disappoint. I’ve been a tennis fan and a Billie Jean fan since I was old enough to hold a racquet. I remember going out to my neighborhood courts and hitting against the backboard for hours, wishing I could play like she did. And when she spearheaded the women’s tour and fought for equal prize money for women, she became a larger-than-life heroine for me (although I admit it was Chris Evert whose clothes and hair I tried to copy).
Tonight’s PBS American Masters doc covers her childhood in SoCal, how her father encouraged her to play sports, how a girl at school invited her to play tennis at the country club, how she bought her first racquet and practiced on the public courts, how she married her college sweetheart. It moves into her career, both as an amateur and pro player, and there’s lots of great footage of her athleticism and shot making. It explores the feminist movement’s affect on her and vice versa, how she was outed after an affair with her secretary became a public nightmare for her, and of course how she beat Bobby Riggs in the match of the century.
With testimonials from everyone from Hillary Clinton, Elton John and Gloria Steinem to fellow tennis stars like Evert, the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova (where were Martina and Steffi?) to her ex-husband, her brother and her longtime partner, the doc gives us an adoring portrait of King but not a white-wash job either. I came away thinking I wish I could meet her. Her energy and drive are still as contagious as they were back in the day.