Sport on TV: Outing for the pioneering spirit of a King

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The Independent Online
IT IS impossible to say for certain who, in the entire history of professional sport, has made more money than anyone else, but after last Monday night's edition of Reputations (BBC2), it is tempting to nominate Billie Jean King. Sadly for Billie Jean, of course, the money was made not by her personally, but rather by the generations of women tennis players who emerged after she had spent a decade roughing up the authorities in the battle for equality of status and reward. Much of what she did manage to accumulate for herself, meanwhile, was then swallowed up by lawyers during one of the most unpleasant court cases which even the American legal system has seen.

Not that King appeared at all bitter in the course of a rare interview for Reputations, which for once enhanced the stature of its subject, rather than becoming a forum for a spot of International Pro-Celebrity Mudslinging. One contributor argued early on that her impact on sport compared favourably with that of either Jackie Robinson, the first black player in Major League Baseball, or Muhammad Ali, and by the end of the programme the case, while still arguable, had certainly been well made.

What a strange world it was that King set out to conquer in the mid-1960s. A smug, black-and-white commercial of the time insisted that "you're always welcome in the one world of tennis", but made no effort to disguise the fact that the courts were swarming with WASPs. The prize for her first singles title at Wimbledon was a pounds 45 Harrods voucher, and when it became clear that King was actually quite interested in winning, the British public, who had once welcomed her to the Centre Court, quickly revised their opinion.

King's struggle was one which, like so many, required the occasional unlikely compromise to succeed. In her case, it arrived in the long, cool- smoking shape of Virginia Slims cigarettes, whose extraordinarily patronising commercials - "You've got your own cigarette now, baby, you've come a long, long way" - were overlooked in view of their decision to sponsor a breakaway, women-only tour.

"Cigarettes are legal," she argued in justification. "I had no problem with that, and I still don't." To which you can only point out that so, in America at least, are handguns, but no one wants to see the Smith & Wesson "Widowmaker" Tennis Championships.

More positive was the story of her Battle of the Sexes match-up with the 55-year-old Bobby Riggs, a man for whom 30-40 was not merely a score, but also a fair estimate of his IQ. The most extraordinary thing about King, though, was that even 15 years into retirement, she can still drive men to tetchy chauvinism, even those who had apparently come to praise her.

When discussing the agonising court case which "outed" her against her will, a sports writer by the name of Michael Mewshaw had the gall to accuse her of failing to be entirely candid about her sexuality. Mewshaw himself, needless to say, was not about to discuss the finer details of his own sex life, or their relevance to his ability to do his job. Whether in America or Britain, the prejudice which was ultimately to blame for King losing her endorsements, or Justin Fashanu hanging himself in an East End lock-up, is proving much more resilient than Sixties sexism.

It was a depressing moment. So too was the thought, after this exemplary study of a woman who transformed her sport, that for all her efforts, next month's Wimbledon coverage in every British newspaper from the Daily Mail down will almost certainly revolve around the colour of Anna Kournikova's knickers.

There was more to stimulate the mind on Tuesday, when I Dreamed I Won The FA Cup (ITV) studied our most cherished competition from the early qualifying rounds involving Wivenhoe Town, North Ferriby United and Kingstonian, through to the semi-final between Sheffield United and Newcastle.

It was not a particularly original idea, nor a finance-heavy production number, but when your researchers turn up characters like Jack Goodchild, Kingstonian's terrace cheerleader for countless decades, and Timothy Wells, the anorak's anorak, you can hardly fail to stick the ball in the onion bag.

Wells had spent nine months - "I felt like a woman having a baby" - compiling an exhaustive record of Kingstonian's not-very-glorious history. Why? "Because if someone says to me, `My dad used to play for Kingstonian', I can tell them how many games he played, and how many goals he scored." In order for anyone to ask the question in the first place, of course, Wells might just need to get out a little more.

But this was more than a freakfest in the murky depths of footballing ditchwater. Rather, it was a touching celebration of the game's greatest icon, worshipped with as much reverence by the fans at Cheltenham FC as it was by those of Arsenal and Newcastle at Wembley yesterday afternoon. It was an important study too of the grass roots on to which some chairmen are at present heaping their own pernicious brand of Agent Orange. If there is an ounce of shame in their bodies, this film must surely have coaxed it out.