Dirs: Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton

With: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough

Runtime: 121 minutes

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TENNIS and cinema have been making quite the doubles partners lately, with mixed results. Borg vs McEnroe had a nifty enough premise, two strong characters, fire versus ice, but turned out to be a slog. Now there is Battle of the Sexes, a dramatisation of the famous match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, which in turn was explored in an excellent documentary of the same name in 2013.

The new Battle of the Sexes arrives promising much, with Emma Stone playing Billie Jean, Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs, and in the directors’ chairs, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton of Little Miss Sunshine fame.

In keeping with the double directing team, Battle of the Sexes is a two hander, comparing and contrasting the lives and characters of King and Riggs. As the film film opens it is 1972 and Billie Jean has just won the US Open. Former champion Riggs, meanwhile, is promising his wife for the umpteenth time that he will stop gambling.

Professionally, King is thriving. Personally, it’s a different matter. She is married but the relationship is more of a friendship, without either party understanding why.

Things become clearer when she meets hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), but with sponsorship deals on the line her new love has to remain a secret. As her friend and the circuit’s dresser, Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming) tells her, “The world isn’t always a forgiving place.”

At the time, King was battling with tennis officialdom to get equal pay for men and women players. Told by the male-run tennis establishment to go and take a running jump over the nearest net, she set up her own circuit for women players. Off court and on, Billie Jean was a slugger.

Riggs was a fighter too, but hustler would have been just as accurate a job title. With women’s rights one of the hot button topics in what was a hot tempered kind of era, Riggs took notice of King’s equal pay fight and saw an opportunity to make some money himself.

Coming out loud and proud as a “male chauvinist pig”, Riggs argued it was ridiculous for male and female players to be paid the same. The men played for longer, their game was faster, required more skill and so on. To prove it, he would come out of retirement to play a female champion. The match that would eventually take place in Houston, Texas, on a night in 1973 was watched by a record 48 million television viewers.

Had Battle of the Sexes been just an account of that match it would have been on to a loser from the start. History has already related what happened ( just in case it hasn’t I won’t spoil the fun, of which there is a lot to be had here).

Moreover, giving equal weight to both King and Riggs’ stories ran the risk of dragging down the pace. While this is a highly entertaining picture, at two hours it can feel at times as though we are never going to get to the big match, and even if we do we’ll be too exhausted to enjoy it. And for all the subtlety it shows in certain areas, the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) can occasionally be as subtle as a tennis racket over the napper in driving its points home.

None of that matters too much when you have the likes of Stone and Carell doing battle on the acting and charisma fronts. Stone looks about as much like Billie Jean as she does Billy Bunter, but she captures perfectly her quick wit, and obvious charm.

Carell, meanwhile, gets to show a bleaker side than audiences are used to, and like all good comedians proves himself remarkably adept at it.

Bolstering this central pairing are the performances of Riseborough, nicely underplaying as always, Cumming, whip smart and funny, and above all Sarah Silverman, another comedian, and one born to play the wisecracking and gutsy Gladys Heldman, the magazine editor who helped King make the women’s tour and equal pay a reality.

Heldman and King were clear-eyed tacticians, political operators to their core. They didn’t just talk a good game, they made things happen. Who knows, in telling its tale with such wit, style and verve, maybe Battle of the Sexes might just start some new fights for equality. Now wouldn’t that be ace?