History on the Line: Battle of the Sexes
This article was featured in the 2020 September/October edition of Inside Tennis Magazine.
On September 20, 1973, a raucous crowd packed into the Houston Astrodome for one of the most legendary and groundbreaking tennis matches of all time, the “Battle of the Sexes” exhibition between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. One of the most famous figures in Texas tennis history was on court that night under the watchful eyes of thousands of eager tennis fans. But that night he wasn’t swinging a racquet, instead he was calling the lines
Ken McAllister is synonymous with Texas tennis. If you can think of a job in the tennis industry, there’s a good chance Ken has held it. He’s also an incredible storyteller, which led to him writing Cattle to Courts: A History of Tennis in Texas.
McAllister’s involvement in that legendary match came at the hands of another Texas Tennis Hall of Famer.
“Tim Heckler, who was a friend and a mentor of mine, was appointed referee, and he wanted to pick his linesmen,” McAllister says. “I happened to be President of the Houston Tennis Umpires Association at the time and did lines at River Oaks, WCT and Virginia Slims -- all the tournaments that were in the Houston area -- so I was picked as a base linesman.”
Nine linesmen were picked in all. McAllister had several years of experience calling professional matches, but the other line judges were not as well versed in officiating.
“All the other people on the lines were top tournament players,” McAllister says. “They weren’t officials at all. I believe I was the only certified official in the group and I was criticized for it by other officials. Back in those days, [officials] weren’t paid. We got sandwiches and a place to sit to watch matches in between.”
McAllister first met Bobby Riggs the night before the match. Heckler served as part of a promotional group that held a cocktail party where Riggs was “lively and oh-so-comfortable at a party of wealthy people.”
Riggs had been partying heavily the week leading up to the big night. However, the atmosphere at those parties was nothing like the atmosphere at the match the next day.
“The atmosphere was circus-like,” McAllister recalls. “There wasn’t an empty seat. When each of them came in with their different entourages -- with sexy girls bringing him in and big muscular guys bringing her in -- it was so much fun. It was just a hoot.”
Everyone knows how the match played out, with King winning in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. What almost nobody knows is that Riggs had foot faulted several times during the match, but McAllister chose not to call it. However, on match point, Riggs’ foot went completely over the line.
“I just did it automatically and called a foot fault,” McAllister says.
“Then I stood up to get the attention of the umpire and by that time, they were shaking hands at the net. I sat my butt right down. Talk about -- that would have been a terrible way for a match like that to end. I would have needed a police escort to get out and it probably would have ended my whole tennis career.”
The match was a momentous turning point not just for female tennis players, but for women everywhere. During the match, “it almost became a women vs. men thing in the cheering,” with the women getting louder for King as the match wore on. While women’s tennis had a footing before the match, it exploded soon after it.
“All of a sudden, almost the next day, all of us who were teaching were teaching more women than men,” McAllister says. “It probably had as much effect of kicking off the tennis boom of that time, which has not been matched since then. It put tennis on the map.”
In the years since that match, McAllister had the chance to get to know both Riggs and King on a more personal level. With his various roles in the sport, McAllister saw the duo in the boardroom, at conferences, and of course, out of the court.
“Three of four years later, I ran a fundraiser at Rice University where Bobby came into town and for $1,000 each played eight different people, one set, all in a row,” McAllister says. “He was a good guy. The $8,000 went to polio and children’s paralysis research.
“Billie Jean is exactly what she appears to be. I always considered Billie Jean as the ultimate idealist who didn’t care if she made friends or didn’t make friends. She just believed what she believed in and I’ve always appreciated that.”
For more of McAllister’s amazing stories, his book Cattle to Courts: A History of Tennis in Texas is available for purchase on Amazon.
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