"Battle of the Sexes," the movie about the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs tennis match in 1973, opened in the Coachella Valley this week. Rosie Casals, a contemporary of King's, was one of the original nine female players who had excused themselves from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association to form their own tour in protest of the tournament purses they received compared with those of male players. They accepted token $1 contracts, established a distaff tour sponsored by Virginia Slims and struggled to bring something approaching equal treatment into America's sporting consciousness.
Casals, portrayed in the movie by Natalie Morales, lives in the Coachella Valley, and was on hand last night In Rancho Mirage for a Q&A after the movie's premiere. Luminaries in the audience included former tour player Tory Fretz, who started the nonprofit Love & Love Tennis Foundation with Casals, and cabaret singer Iris Williams. Among Casals' observations:
On Natalie Morales:
"She has longer legs and is much taller than me. ... But I'm sure I was a better tennis player."
On Howard Cosell, her co-commentator on ABC's broadcast of the King-Riggs match:
"He didn't know a thing about tennis."
On Marilyn Barnett, the hairdresser depicted in the film as the catalyst for King's sexual awakening:
"The movie portrayed Marilyn as a very nice person. I wish she was, but she wasn't. ...The movie portrayed that she cut everybody's hair, but she did not."
On John McEnroe's recent comments that if Serena Williams played on the men's tour she would be ranked "like 700 in the world":
"They don't warrant repeating."
On the current state of women's tennis:
"I think women tennis players have gotten complacent."
On comparing men's and women's tennis:
"It's apples and oranges. We're entertainers -- is a guy singer better than a woman? You wanna see Iris Williams or Elton John?"
Photo: Ellen Alperstein