Tennis: Cashing in on an age-old conflict: Phil Reeves reports on the case of man versus woman which goes to court again in Las Vegas today

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The Independent Online
TURN the clock back 19 years, to September 1973. At one end of the court, there was the ageing American Bobby Riggs, self-appointed prince of male piggery. At the other, a smouldering Billie Jean King, heroine of women's sport.

A record 30,492 fans had filled the Houston Astrodome, and millions more were watching on television around the world. Here, at last, was a chance to settle the debate over whether women's tennis was essentially a side-show to the men's game, or deserved to be taken seriously as a big-money professional sport.

Riggs, a flamboyant self-publicist with a long rap sheet when it came to scoffing at the women, arrived for the match accompanied by a pig. It was, by coincidence, Mothers' Day.

Earlier in the same year, Riggs, the 1939 Wimbledon champion, had delivered an ungentlemanly pounding to the Australian champion, Margaret Court. But this time, things went badly wrong. Billie Jean won in straight sets,

6-4, 6-3, 6-3. The fact that, at 55, he was more than 25 years her senior did not diminish the delight of her supporters. In one American bank, employees celebrated by turning up for work dressed in tennis clothes.

Later today an attempt will be made to rekindle this small, but famous, episode in sporting history when Jimmy Connors meets Martina Navratilova in a pay-per- view challenge match at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

Connors has already been dipping into the porcine book of quotations in an attempt to catch a few headlines. 'I am playing for every guy who has a wife, every guy who is a boss, every guy who has a sister or girlfriend,' he announced recently.

Riggs, now aged 74, has also been doing his best to drum up public interest. He has agreed to act as commentator, and is already rehearsing some of his old rhetoric. 'I helped push the women's movement ahead 20 years by losing to Billie Jean,' he told reporters, 'Now Jimmy can put it back 20 years. . . Jimmy's going to make up for my loss.'

The truth, of course, is that the encounter is an exhibition match - albeit an entertaining one involving two of the best players tennis has ever produced. The 35- year-old Navratilova, nine times winner of Wimbledon, is five years younger than her opponent, and is still in the top handful of women players in the world. But she has won some important concessions. Connors, who is still in fine fettle, will only be allowed one serve, while she will play into an expanded court (she can use half the doubles alleys).

One person who will not be paying dollars 25 ( pounds 15) to tune in on pay- per-view television is Chris Evert, the former women's champion. She has already dismissed the whole affair as having no place in tennis. 'We have our game and the men have their game. The top men can beat the top women - they're stronger and faster. It's not an issue.'

The match is far more likely to be a battle of the grunts, than of the sexes. Navratilova (who recently complained about the noisy Monica Seles) has already observed that her hardest task will be to keep Connors quiet. It will, of course, also be a battle of the purse. The prize for the victor is a mere dollars 500,000.