Millennium Post

Crossing the threshold

She Dared: Women in Indian Sports is a poignant account of the life stories of some of India’s sportswomen outlining their struggles and undying determination that have made them faces of the games; Excerpts:

There have been two distinct stages in her tennis career. She is the most popular and most talented tennis player in India. But many argue about the 'underachievement of her potential'. She doesn't care. She is a woman of New India who believes in speaking her mind.

Her marriage was a love marriage. Controversy's favourite child dared to go for a marriage that had cross-border ramifications. She had to go through gruelling off-the-court battles after this. She is Sania Mirza, the charm of the city that houses the Charminar.

There is something in tennis that sets it apart from other sports in terms of the emancipation and empowerment of women. The history of the game has been full of contradictions. The game has been fought and won against aristocracy, colour, gender bias and, most importantly, the monopoly of the resources. There are events in the history of the sport that are so bizarre that they don't quite seem true after a point of time.

The nationally-televised 1973 Battle of the Sexes match in which twenty-nine-year-old Billie Jean King beat fifty-five-yearold former champion Bobby Riggs in three straight sets was one such occasion. Thirty-four years after this, when a film was made based on the event, the screenwriter Simon Beaufoy said, 'The actual match was pure pantomime, outright silly. Yet what was going on underneath was incredibly serious. That win had a huge sociological effect.'

That match at the Houston Astrodome in front of 30,000 spectators attracted a televised audience of around ninety million people. Riggs was a former Wimbledon singles and doubles champion who had retired in 1951 at the age of fifty-five. In an act of male chauvinism, he announced that he was still better than any female player, and could beat any woman on court. Riggs managed to challenge and beat the women's no. 1 player, Margaret Court, 6-2, 6-1. It was then that Billie Jean King stepped up.

The match had its impact beyond sports. The event management was wonderfully choreographed, befitting the occasion. In the $100,000 winner-take-all match, King was carried into the arena on a throne carried by four men dressed as slaves, while Riggs was brought in on a rickshaw pulled by barely-clothed women.

As Billie Jean King remembers, promoter Jerry Perenchio had suggested the absurd entrance.

'He said to me, "I know you are a feminist. So you probably won't get on this Egyptian litter, will you?"

'I said, "Yes, I love it! Let's go."

'He was shocked. I got on it, and we walked out.'

King found out that Riggs, who was paid $50,000 to wear a 'sugar daddy'-inscribed jacket during the match, intended to give her a giant 'sugar daddy'-inscribed candy on a stick. Perenchio had a small pig for King to present him in exchange.

'I named it Robert Larimore Riggs, Bobby's formal name, and put a little ribbon around his neck. It was so cute,' King still remembers. She made Parenchio promise that the pig would never end up 'as ham on a table'. 'Let it live a long life at a farm. They gave it to an Oklahoma farmer.'

King's actual match apparel is still housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Riggs was leading the first set by four games to two. But the tie swung in King's favour as she adopted a baseline game and wore down her opponent by forcing him to run. As a result, she eased to victory in three straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. She won the $100,000 (£75,000) winner-takes-all prize, presented by world heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman. But more than the prize money and who gave away the prize, the match had its impact on tennis, sports and beyond the boundaries of sports in many ways.

As a report in the Los Angeles Times, dated 2 October 2017, says, 'In a key scene late in Battle of the Sexes, the new tennis movie about the landmark Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs match, an icon is reminded of her power to influence. "Times change," King, played by Emma Stone, is told by a confidante. "You should know—you just changed them".'

The 1973 exhibition was certainly a study in contrasts – the trailblazer and the showman, the chauvinist and the progressive, the old guard and the new world. What has the match left as legacy for the times to come? In the context of Indian sports, Sania Mirza has been the torchbearer of the legacy of the epochal match.

Firstly, at the heart of professional tennis lies a paradox. The sport has always had a more progressive reputation than its counterparts. It boasted top-flight female professionals decades ahead of most team sports; it counts social activist pioneers like Arthur Ashe amongst its ranks. And tennis was a global mélange of cultures long before the NBA and MLB moved in that direction. And yet, to play the game is to require resources. Historically, the champions used to come from money and more than often were white. Now, the Williams sisters have ushered in a new era of fans and competitors. The idea of tennis as a sport for the aristocracy has eroded too, as champions like Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, along with the Williams sisters, come from more hardscrabble backgrounds.

Sania Mirza represents tennis's non-aristocratic background in India. As she says, 'One of the reasons people think I have not struggled as much as other people have struggled is because we don't talk much about it. We definitely were never in the position where we had to struggle for food. But this does not mean that our struggle was anywhere else. My sister, who is seven–eight years younger to me, must have been one year old when I was nine. My father, mother, sister and myself used to travel in our car which we converted from petrol to diesel because that was the cheapest fuel at that time. To reach in time for matches and avoid hotel stay expenses, we even drove from Mumbai to Trivandrum, which used to take twenty-four hours.'

Her non-aristocratic tennis background is also evident from the manner in which the entire family optimized their thin resources for their daughter so she could live her tennis dream. 'At the age of four or six you don't understand why you cannot afford to play tennis. Now, of course, I can understand the reason. At that time it was difficult for me to reconcile with the fact that my cousins could play the game and I could not. In fact, the first time I held a tennis racquet was in the US. I was bullied on the court by my cousins who said, "You are a girl and you cannot play tennis." Certain things are destined. Had I not come back from America, I would never have been able to afford to play tennis. The first thing that my mom told me once we were back was—let us play tennis and swim and do all the things we were unable to do.'

Secondly, the Battle of the Sexes match in 1973 didn't happen in a vacuum—King and other women players had been waging a fight for equal pay on the tour. When King accepted the challenge from Riggs, it was to popularize the equal pay cause and pressurize tournament organizers, particularly at the Slams, to bring gender alignment. Prize money at the majors is now equal. However, the Battle of the Sexes did not change everything overnight. It took some of the Slams decades to award equal prize money to men and women; Wimbledon, the last tournament to do so, didn't change its policy until 2007.

(Excerpted with permission from She Dared: Women in Indian Sports; written by Abhishek Dubey & Sanjeeb Mukherjea; published by Rupa Publications. The excerpt is extracted from the chapter, Sania Mirza: Changing the Game)

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