By the time Bobby Riggs played Billie Jean King in 1973’s “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match at the Houston Astrodome, he was 55 years old and looked rather schlubby, not like much of an athlete. However, Riggs was a world-class tennis player in his prime, once ranked No. 1 in the world and winner of three Wimbledon championships (one singles, one doubles and one mixed doubles).
Paul Giamatti might not be the first person who comes to mind when casting a professional tennis player. But he will be playing Riggs in a HBO movie depicting the events surrounding the “Battle of the Sexes” match. Elizabeth Banks will portray King, who was 29 years old at the time and ranked No. 2.
After retiring from professional tennis in 1951, Riggs still worked to promote himself and the sport. He believed there was an opportunity to generate publicity and make money by asserting that female tennis was inferior and he could beat the best player, even at the age of 55. Riggs challenged King to a match, but she turned him down. Instead, he played Margaret Court, the top-ranked woman at the time, and defeated her decisively.
The victory received national attention, which emboldened Riggs to challenge King again. This time, he raised the stakes by getting promoters to put together a nationally televised match with a $100,000, winner-take-all prize. King finally accepted Riggs’ challenge and the two played in front of 30,000 people at the Astrodome, along with an estimated TV audience of 50 million viewers throughout 37 countries. King studied how Riggs played against Court and was prepared for his game. Spoiler alert: She won the match in three sets.
The film does not yet have a title, but will be written by David Auburn (who authored the play Proof). Auburn is also an executive producer on the project, along with Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, whose company Playtone will oversee the production. No director is currently attached to the movie. Giamatti and Banks haven’t officially signed on yet either, though that is apparently close to a done deal.
Interestingly, a big-screen film about the “Battle of the Sexes” is also in development. That movie is based on Don Van Natta’s 2013 long-form feature for ESPN the Magazine titled “The Match Maker,” which investigated allegations that Riggs intentionally lost the match with King to settle massive debts he owed to the mafia. Steve Conrad (Unfinished Business) is writing the script, with Will Ferrell set to play Riggs in this project.