Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Visiting Column #2 -- Omission in the News

The other day I happened to have come across an interesting article regarding the former tennis great and notorious bad boy, John McEnroe.

John McEnroe is now 60 years old, and apparently over the years it has been suggested that he take on, in an exhibition match, one of the current female tennis stars, generally one of the Williams sisters, as they have been among the top few female players in that time.  McEnroe appears to be the go-to guy for that kind of match, mainly because he is, to say the least, outspoken and quite loud, in a New Yorker sort of way.  Good TV, we assume.

The idea for this, of course, dates back to 1973.  Bobby Riggs, who was 55 at the time and the 1939 Wimbledon men's singles champion, had declared that, even at that age, he could defeat the best women players currently on tour.  He challenged the best to a match.

Margaret Smith Court, who was then the #1 player in the world, accepted.  She would ultimately win no fewer than 64 Grand Slam titles, including 24 singles wins.  She would win the Australian, French and US Open titles that very year and was clearly the best woman player in the world that year, with or without the rankings to confirm it.

Mrs. Court accepted the challenge and, on Mother's Day  1973, the two played a match.  She was the best woman tennis player on the planet; Riggs was, well, 55.  He had won Wimbledon, all right, but it had been 24 years since and, well, he was 55.

It was not close.  Riggs won the match, 6-2, 6-1, and it took less than an hour.

Why do I feel the need to mention all that history?  Because, as we all know, about four months later, Riggs tried it again, this time against Billie Jean King, also then a highly-ranked player.  This time, Mrs. King won, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

The key is my phrase "as we all know."  You see, the match against Mrs. Court seems never to have been mentioned in any story that mentions the Riggs-King match.  That's odd, since Riggs's thesis was that an old, old long-retired top male player could beat an active women's Grand Slam champion, and he had already proved it before playing Mrs. King.

If anything, the King match, given the score, and certainly when considered along with the Court match, provided a couple data points that demonstrated, at the least, that the long-retired man was a comparable skill measure to an active woman champion.  Were John McEnroe to take on a Williams or two, given enough time to get back into whatever a 60-year-old would think of as "playing shape", we should expect him to hold his own in a close match.

Now this will not happen.  McEnroe, though he says now he thinks he could win, has no interest in such a match, and so we would not expect it to happen, ever.

But that is not the point.  Today's media narrative and, to be fair, the narrative for about 45 years, has totally ignored the fact that Riggs defeated the #1 woman player in the game despite a 24-year age difference.  Totally ignored it -- if you ask people in their 30s and 40s (i.e., mature but too young to have seen it) who will have heard about the Riggs-King match, I would opine that fewer than 1/4 of them would know that it was the second match and that Riggs proved his point in the first.

Yes, this is a commentary on the media and their narratives.

The article from the Australian author, the gentleman that I cited in the beginning of this piece, was a perfect example; it mentions the King match but there is no allusion to the Court match at all.  Now to the gentleman's credit, he did tweet back to me, when I pointed it out, to apologize for it as an oversight, and I thank him for that.  I don't actually lump him in with that "media", since I truly believe it was an oversight on the part of a younger writer.

But as I always say and more frequently hear, the media influence as much or more by what they do not say as by what they do say.  The true outcome of the 1973 Riggs matches was that, even at 55, a male tennis player could compete on a level basis with an active champion female.  That is not the media's interpretation, which is that "women can compete with men in anything", but which the two matches together would have refuted.

Except that the Court match, the crushing by a 55-year-old man of the then-top female player, would render that narrative as hogwash.  Therefore, it was to be ignored, forgotten and left out of the story totally.  And the media continue to do so to this day.

Unfortunately, history is a pesky thing, and facts can be inconvenient.

Copyright 2018 by Robert Sutton
Like what you read here?  There are over 1,000 posts from Bob at, and after four years of writing a new one daily, he still posts thoughts once in a while as "visiting columns", no longer the "prolific essayist" he was through 2018, but still around.  Appearance, advertising, sponsorship and interview inquiries cheerfully welcomed at or on Twitter at @rmosutton

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