As the Australian tennis Open heads towards its final rounds in the men’s and women’s tournaments, Owen Morgan recalls an infamous match in the USA from the Seventies that now has echoes throughout sport in Wales.
The 1970s saw the Battle of the Sexes between women’s tennis superstar Billie Jean King and former men’s number one Bobby Riggs.
The match was arranged to see whether a top women’s player could beat a top men’s player, although Riggs by then was in his mid-fifties.
The event turned into something of a publicity stunt and media circus, with King eventually coming out on top.
Tennis, however, is one of the major sports where men and women can compete alongside and against each other at the highest level.
Mixed doubles has long been a staple of the world game and is increasing in stature. Last year’s Wimbledon mixed doubles tournament received unprecedented coverage thanks to the dream team of Andy Murray and Serena Williams taking part.
The tournament also threw Wales’ Evan Hoyt into the spotlight as he and partner Eden Silva reached the quarter-finals, each securing career-high prize money and hugely valuable world ranking points.
Many other sports, such as badminton, see men and women competing against each other at the highest level in mixed versions of the discipline.
Equestrian sports have long seen men and woman compete directly against each other on an equal footing.
In athletics, mixed relays were successfully introduced for the first time at last year’s World Athletics Championships.
The event pitted teams of two men and two women up against each other over the four legs of the 400m relay.
Mixed teams also compete in relay events at major cross country events, including the recent European Cross Country Championships where Great Britain won a team gold in the discipline.
Athletics has long seen men and women running side by side in road races outside of the major championships, albeit in separate gender categories when it comes to final results.
In domestic track and field, the British Athletics League (BAL) for men and the UK Women’s Athletics League (UKWAL) will next year merge to form a joint league for the 2020 summer season.
This means Wales’ top two clubs Cardiff Athletics and Swansea Harriers will be fielding joint teams in the new National Athletics League (NAL) next season.
The make-up and rules of the league have yet to be finalised and while it is unlikely men and women will compete directly against each other, the teams will be mixed – meaning men and women will be competing alongside each other to achieve the same team goal.
The top flight of the new competition will start with a historic mixed event in Cardiff in May.
Cardiff Athletics chairman Helen James is excited at the prospect of seeing the club’s men’s and women’s sections competing side by side.
“It’ll be great, because they’ve never competed together before. We’re all really looking forward to it,” says James.
“It’s going to boost the camaraderie and the determination to support one another. They will encourage each other and egg each other on to do well.
“It’s generated a lot of interest in athletes wanting to join the club. It’s going to be brilliant. It’s going to be the flagship of the club. Everybody will want to compete. I think it’s going to be amazing.”
Lyn Orbell, chair of the UKWAL, said: “The new National Athletics League brings the senior clubs into line with the rest of the leagues in the country allowing the younger athletes who have competed in mixed teams for a few years to aspire to becoming part of their new NAL.”
Dean Hardman, chair of BAL, added: “It has been clear for some time now that athletes and, increasingly, clubs themselves wanted a senior league competition that sees men and women compete alongside each other as teammates.”
Mixed line-ups in some events at track and field meetings are not uncommon. At Cardiff Metropolitan University’s recent Christmas classic, the shot put competition saw men and women competing side by side with the individual athletes’ distances counted in either the men’s or women’s categories.
A number of the 3,000m heats were graded mixed events, where men and women with similar personal bests ran alongside each other in the same races.
This ensures athletes enjoy added competition, running against male and female opponents of similar ability.
Although they ran alongside each other in the individual races, their results were also compiled individually into men’s and women’s results, just as they are in 5ks, 10ks, half marathons and marathons on the road.
Other sports are starting to embrace the “mixed” ethos at a social level in order to introduce a bigger and wider variety of people to their sports.
Mixed touch rugby tournaments are becoming more popular and netball and hockey have also introduced tournaments and leagues.
Back in July, the Heart of Wales 7s featured a mixed touch rugby tournament at its hugely popular music and sporting festival in Llanidloes and hopes to include an expanded event next year.
One genuinely mixed sport is korfball, which is a cross between netball and basketball played by mixed teams of eight players – four men and four women all competing on an equal footing.
The sport is increasing in popularity here in Wales with teams from Swansea, Newport, Aberystwyth and Cardiff competing in Welsh national league and cup competitions.
The Welsh national champions qualify for the IFK Europa Cup featuring the national champions from around Europe
Aberystwyth University, Cardiff Metropolitan University, Cardiff University and Swansea University also compete in British University and College Sport (BUCS) korfball events.
There is also a Wales national korfball team and Cardiff has hosted international tournaments.
Wales Korfball chair James Wilcox says of the sport: “Korfball doesn’t have one or the other genders taking over or dominating and that leads to quite a nice atmosphere in the sport.
“People tend to say there is nice family spirit to it. A lot of people meet their partners through the sport and then they have kids and the kids can play together in the same team. Whether they are male or female, they can play with their parents, so it’s quite a family orientated sport.
“There are families who play together on the same team and that’s one of the major advantages of it, but even at university level, the atmosphere where you’ve got men and women playing together, it does a lot for respect between the genders.
“There was a good quote from the Dutch coach, recently – they are always the leading nation, that’s where the sport comes from – and he said something along the lines of, ‘you can always tell a korfball player from their emotional intelligence which they get from playing in a mixed gender sport’.”
Mixed sport has come a long way since King met Riggs in Texas all those years ago, with more men and women enjoying the opportunity to play sport alongside each other on an equal footing whether it’s competitively or socially.