Nothing ruins a sports movie worse than an actor who, to put it mildly, stinks at sports. Like William Bendix playing Babe Ruth and swinging a bat like a Little Leaguer – the kid who bats ninth and plays right field. Or Raquel Welch playing a Roller Derby queen in Kansas City Bomber and wobbling around the track, trying not to fall. Or Gary Cooper playing lefty slugger Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees and looking so uncoordinated that producers had to film him batting righty and running to third base – and flipping the film in post-production.
Michael J. Fox as a basketball player in Teen Wolf, Tim Robbins as a pitcher in Bull Durham, Anthony Perkins as a ballplayer in Fear Strikes Out, Keanu Reeves as a quarterback in The Replacements – all had movie-goers thinking, “I can play better than that guy.” And being right.
Battle of the Sexes, starring Steve Carell and Emma Stone, debuts in Houston and nationwide on Friday (September 29). You will believe, without squinting even, that it's Bobby Riggs vs. Billie Jean King in the famous 1973 tennis match at the Astrodome – maybe the most famous tennis match ever played.
Former pro tennis player Vince Spadea made sure the tennis scenes – really the final 16 minutes of the movie – look authentic. Spadea is listed in the final credits as “tennis choreographer/technical advisor.”
“I went to Steve Carell’s house a bunch of times to work out some of the tennis sequences, but mainly my job was to make Emma Stone a believable Billie Jean King,” Spadea said. “I don’t think Emma had played any tennis at all before this project. I wasn’t going to turn her into a competitive player, a real-life Billie Jean King, overnight. Instead we concentrated on helping Emma imitate Billie Jean’s athletics, her demeanor, how she held her racket, how she hit her strokes."
“We worked on technique and set-up, where Billie Jean’s hands and legs and eyes were when she hit the ball, how high she took back her racket, where her shoulders were, her follow-through. It was more about nuance and geometry, grips, and racket angles. Plus, we hit tennis balls repetitively for several months.”
Billie Jean King dropped by a session to share how she tossed the ball for a serve and other inside tips.
Spadea certainly has the resume to teach an Academy Award winner (Stone for La La Land in 2017) how to hit a cross court forehand. He played on the pro tennis tour from 1993 to 2011, cracking Top 20 in the world in 2005. Along the way, he defeated a few so-so players named Roger Federer, Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal, and Pete Sampras. He once took a set, 6-0, from the great Federer. Spadea made more than $5 million for smacking a yellow ball over a net.
Spadea now runs Vince Models, a small talent agency in Los Angeles. That’s how he got the call for Battle of the Sexes. He knew a casting director who told the producer… “hey, I got a guy who can help you.”
“I was thrilled when they asked me to help out. I went to the premiere in Los Angeles, so I’ve seen the movie. I think it’s great. Some of the effects are pretty incredible. We shot the whole thing in Los Angeles, but they make the match look like the original in the Astrodome,” Spadea said.
In addition to teaching Stone how to play tennis like King, Spadea had to get inside Riggs’ game, too. Spadea is Carell’s stunt double as Riggs for many of the tennis scenes. Current player Kaitlyn Christian is Stone’s double.
I asked Spadea, how much of the tennis match is you, how much is Carell?
“A lot of it is me,” Spadea said, although you won’t be able to tell where Riggs starts, Carell ends, and Spadea fills the gaps.
“All the points you see from a distance, that’s me. The closeups are Steve Carell, of course. I watched a video of the match practically every day for long time. It was fairly easy for me to imitate Bobby Riggs, his eastern grip on his forehand, and slice serve.”
Here’s some background on the "Battle of the Sexes" that I didn’t know.
The match, which aired on ABC in prime time and attracted 50 million viewers in the U.S. (90 million worldwide), was played on September 20, 1973 – a Thursday night.
The match was billed as “$100,000 Winner Take All.” Riggs was paid another $50,000 to wear a Sugar Daddy jacket during the match. He wore it during the introductions and warmup and start of the match, but took it off after three games.
King, 29 and at top of her game, was carried to the ring on a Cleopatra-style carriage by barechested men. Riggs, 55 and a tennis hustler, was carried on rickshaw by scantily clothed female models. Before the match, Riggs presented King with a giant Sugar Daddy lollipop. King gave Riggs a live piglet. And it was on.
King won the match in three straight sets, but Riggs was ahead 3-2 with a break in the first set. That’s when King started running Riggs side to side and wore the old guy out. Riggs, thinking he would win easily, as he had done against women’s No. 1 player Margaret Court several months earlier, was not in the best of shape for the match.
A week before the match, legendary tennis writer Neil Amdur wrote in the New York Times: “Don’t sweat it guys, Bobby Riggs will beat Mrs. Billie Jean King Thursday night at the Astrodome in Houston. Easily.”
Tennis great Jack Kramer, an outspoken critic of the women’s game, originally was part of the ABC broadcast team. However, King insisted that the network drop Kramer. “Either he goes, or I go,” King famously threatened.
If Riggs had won, there was a plan for him to face Chris Evert on a clay court. Evert was just beginning her amazing streak of 125 consecutive wins on clay.
The "Battle of the Sexes" drew the biggest crowd, 30,472, in tennis history … at the time. The record stood until 2010, when 35,000 fans watched Kim Clijsters beat Serena Williams in an exhibition match in Belgium.
And here’s the factoid that surprised me the most. The same week as the "Battle of the Sexes," King played in a Virginia Slims tournament at the Westside Tennis Club in Houston. King may have won $100,000 for beating Riggs, but the tournament (and $7,000 first prize) was won by Francois Durr. King, the No. 1 seed in the tournament, was defeated in the semifinals.