Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in a scene from the movie 'Battle of the Sexes.'
Lornie Kuhle, tournament director of the USTA Girls' 16s and 18s Nationals at the Barnes Tennis Center in Point Loma, was a close friend of Bobby Riggs.
The made-for-TV match dubbed “Battle of the Sexes,” which featured self-styled “male chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs versus tennis champion Billie Jean King, broadcast on Sept. 20, 1973 to an audience of an estimated 50 million viewers in the U.S. and 90 million worldwide.
San Diegans can now relive that compelling pop culture moment by watching the upcoming movie “Battle of the Sexes,” which is scheduled to be released Sept. 22. And for one Point Loma tennis instructor, it’s a return to his past.
The plot, loosely based on the Riggs-King match, stars Emma Stone and Steve Carell as King and Riggs, respectively, with Andrea Riseborough, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell and Sarah Silverman in supporting roles.
Lornie Kuhle, tournament director of the USTA Girls' 16s and 18s Nationals at the Barnes Tennis Center in Point Loma, was a close friend of Bobby Riggs and worked as a consultant with film producers to bring the film to life.
Kuhle spoke with the Peninsula Beacon about what the match, and the movie, have come to mean to him, to sports culture and international evolving gender relations moving forward.
“I was the consultant for the movie,” said Kuhle, 69. “I was the person who worked with Steve Carell every day in getting him into the character of Bobby Riggs. I taught him how to play tennis like Bobby Riggs.”
Robert Larimore Riggs, who died in 1995 from prostate cancer, was an American tennis champion who was the world No. 1 player for three years, first as an amateur in 1939, then as a professional in 1946 and 1947. As a 21-year-old amateur in 1939, Riggs won Wimbledon, the U.S. National Championships (now U.S. Open), and was runner-up at the French Championships. He was U.S. champion again in 1941, after a runner-up finish the year before.
At age 55, Riggs competed in the first “Battle of the Sexes” challenge match in May 1973 against Margaret Court, the top-ranked female player at the time, and beat her (6–2, 6–1) in a televised match in Ramona. His easy victory landed Riggs on the cover of national magazines and reignited his fame.
Riggs used his new-found celebrity to taunt female tennis players, which prompted King to accept a lucrative financial offer to play Riggs in a nationally televised match in the Houston Astrodome on Sept. 20, 1973.
Against King, the reigning Wimbledon champion and one of the best female players in the world, Riggs lost in straight sets, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3. Their prime time “Battle of the Sexes” match, which had a $100,000 winner-take-all prize, remains one of the most famous and most watched tennis events of all time.
Kuhle, Riggs' close friend and estate executor, pointed out Riggs, notably macho, had many redeeming qualities.
“The uniqueness of his character was is promotional capacity, his showmanship, his thought process, mannerisms,” Kuhle said of the LA native.
Noting King was 29 when she beat the 55-year-old Riggs, Kuhle believes that her victory helped spur on the women’s rights movement.
“It was not about the money,” said Kuhle of the iconic tennis match. “Billie Jean had won nine women's titles and she couldn't even get a credit card. It had to go in a man's name. She became one of the 100 most influential people in the 20th century because of this match.”
Kuhle added movie producers are now “recapturing this historical match.” The historicity of the match itself was aided greatly, the tennis pro said, by Riggs' promotional abilities, which he likened to “Barnum & Bailey.”
The Barnes Center is part of Youth Tennis San Diego, a nonprofit whose purpose is to promote the educational, physical and social development of all youth through organized tennis and educational activities. Youth tennis' community programs encourage youth participation, personal integrity, leadership and competitive spirit in a frienly environment that builds responsible citizens.
For more information about the movie “Battle of the Sexes” visit www.foxsearchlight.com/battleofthesexes.
Battle of the Sexes
What: The film depicts the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, which became the most watched televised sports event of all time. Trapped in the media glare, King and Riggs were on opposites sides of a binary argument, but off-court each was fighting more personal and complex battles.
Actors: Emma Stone as Billie Jean King, Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs.
Release date: Sept. 22.