Tennis' new version of the Battle of the Sexes

Anyone for tennis? Maybe it's a trick of age, but I'm almost certain there was a time when sport was simply about the best man, or woman, winning the game, set and match.

If only that were still true.

The curtain-raiser to the new season featured Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open draw ceremony. The host broadcaster referred to her "time out".

That, of course, was spin. Sharapova's time-out was her 15-month ban after she failed a dope test when she last played in Melbourne two years ago.

The friendly Channel 7 interviewer dodged that by asking asking her if she felt her time out was of more benefit to her mentally or physically. Sharapova smiled her smile, and catwalked on court with the trophy.

The organisers explained that tradition required the presence of a former champion, and Maria won there in 2008.

Reigning champion Serena Williams is back home in America after the birth of her baby. Going further back in time is stirring less wholesome negativity that the game could do without.

However, Ms King is less sanguine towards the Rev Court these days.

They are on opposite sides of the gender debate. Court last year denounced tennis as "full of lesbians".

American Billie Jean King is being honoured by Tennis Australia as "woman of the year" to mark the 50th anniversary of her Melbourne women's singles trophy in 1968.

Margaret Court, the Aussie who won that particular Open 11 times between 1960 and 1973 (and whose name adorns Melbourne's Margaret Court Arena), is not in attendance.

Court has taken annual holiday from the Pentecostal church in Perth where she is senior pastor. But, rather than tennis, the Reverend Dr Court prefers to fish for crabs. Literally.

The ladies, both now in their seventies, appear to have lost little of their competitive edge.

Way back in 1973, they each took on Bobby Riggs in the so-called "Battle of the Sexes", man against woman showdowns. Riggs, then aged 55 and 1.7m, beat Court in two sets, but then lost over three straight sets to King in a winner-takes-all event.

Riggs, long dead, was a renowned hustler and gambler. Rumour, never proven, was that he let King win the US$100,000 (S$133,000) prize, but that he had bet heavily on her at generous bookmakers' odds against a woman beating (an elderly) man.

America recently released a heavily fictionalised movie Battle Of The Sexes featuring Emma Stone and Steve Carell as King and Riggs. And Billie Jean endorses that as great entertainment.

However, Ms King is less sanguine towards the Rev Court these days.

They are on opposite sides of the gender debate. Court last year denounced tennis as "full of lesbians". And she denounced the Australian government for legalising same-sex marriage last November.

"I believe in marriage as a union between a man and a woman as stated in the Bible," Court said.

King, as well as Martina Navratilova, who called Court a homophobe for making "sick and dangerous comments", have been tearing into their former tennis sister.

"She won 64 grand slams," said King of Court yesterday. "She won more than anyone else." So when the Melbourne Arena was named after Rod Laver, King actively supported Court to be equally honoured.

"I said, what are you going to do for Margaret," Billie Jean reminded people this week. "I was fine with it until lately when she said so many derogatory things about my community.

"I'm a gay woman, that went really deep in my heart and soul, things she said about the LGBTIQ community." And then, asked at a media conference in Melbourne yesterday, King came right out with it. "I don't think she should have her name on it any more," she said.

In New York, Navratilova backed King. "You keep her (Court) in the Hall of Fame, no question," Navratilova told the New York Times. "But you do not name a building after her. Would you be naming a new building after her now? No chance."

At the heart of this acrimony is the extremely personal comment Court made about lesbians in tennis. "Even when I was playing," she said, "there were only a couple there. But that couple led, they took young ones onto parties. And what you get at the top is often what you'll get right through the sport."

One woman's truth is another's anathema.

But do I still think sport is simple? Or that it is the haven many of us wish it to be from this horrible world?

I do. Or at least I hope that it is capable of being that haven. Anything else would destroy the main purpose, the faith, in all the games we play, and like our children to play.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2018, with the headline 'Tennis' new version of the Battle of the Sexes'. Print Edition | Subscribe