A long way, baby, but far enough?

I have been haunted by the Billie Jean King documentary that airs on PBS’ “American Masters” Sept. 10 (8-9:30 p.m.) but never more so than as I sat watching Flavia Pennetta beat Roberta Vinci and Richard Gasquet defeat David Ferrer in quarterfinal action at the US Open.

If you were a girl 40 years ago, as I was, then King’s straight set defeat of the fatuous Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes” match was a defining, shining moment.

King was more than a great player with touch, power and fire. She and eight other women were instrumental in creating the Virginia Slims Tour that paved the way for the Women’s Tennis Association, along with equal prize money and greater recognition. As Venus Williams notes in the “American Masters” program – the first on an athlete in the series’ 27-year history – King helped make it possible for her to live her dream.

Yet as I sat there watching those matches, I couldn’t help but feel – guiltily, I might add – that men’s tennis is just a lot more fascinating than women’s. Now why should that be? Is it because I as a woman like looking at men (I do), as if I were visiting a foreign country? Is it because tennis has become a power game and men are simply more physically powerful than women?

Is it because men’s tennis today is simply better than women’s tennis? Here is what ESPN commentator Pam Shriver, who knows a thing or two about being a successful tennis player, told The New York Times about men’s tennis: “It has never had greater, more extraordinary champions in my view.”

When they talk of men’s tennis, it’s all about the great rivalries on the court – Fedal, Rafanole, Novandy and whatever they call Federer-Djokovic (Fedovic?). The wives and girlfriends are just that – WAGs. (See item here.)

But what’s the centerpiece of the Serena Williams-Maria Sharapova rivalry, if you want to call it that? Oh, right. Maria’s dating Grigor “Baby Fed” Dimitrov, Serena’s ex-beau.

Forty years after King-Riggs, is this how women are still defined – by their relationships rather than their accomplishments?

If so, is it because men remain more single-minded and compartmentalized about their careers while women’s private and professional lives are all of a piece?

And is that possibly hard-wired into our DNA?

For more on “American Masters Billie Jean King,” visit pbs.org.

– Georgette Gouveia

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