Riggs, Robert Larimore (“Bobby”)

views updated

Riggs, Robert Larimore (“Bobby”)

(b. 25 February 1918 in Los Angeles, California; d. 25 October 1995 in Leucadia, California), world champion tennis player who contested Billie Jean King in the most-watched tennis match ever, dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.”

One of seven children of Gideon Wright Riggs, a minister in the Church of Christ, and Agnes Jones, Riggs had two life-long passions from childhood: tennis and betting. Since he believed he performed best when betting on himself, his passions frequently intersected.

Riggs’s introduction to tennis came by tagging along after an older brother who was trying out for the high school tennis team. On one such outing, he was discovered by Professor Esther Bartosh, an anatomy instructor at the University of Southern California and a highly ranked player in Los Angeles. She took twelve-year-old Bobby under her wing and showed him the basic grips and strokes of the game. After a few months under Bartosh’s nurturing tutelage, Riggs began entering local tournaments, beginning a two-year winning streak in the thirteen-and-under division. He went undefeated for four years of play at Franklin High School and was the first person to win California’s state high school singles trophy three times.

At age seventeen Riggs became the national junior singles and doubles champion. Ready to test himself, he headed for the bigger East Coast grass tournaments, defying the request of the Southern California Tennis Association (with which he had a rancorous relationship) that he stay and defend his junior title. As it turned out, Riggs’s game, peppered with spins and drop shots, was well-suited for grass, and he won the first grass-court tournament he entered. Soon the cocksure lobber declared his five-year plan: to rank in the top ten in 1936; to move up in 1937; to make the Davis Cup team in 1938; and to become the national amateur champion in 1939. Surprising everyone but himself, he accomplished each of these goals.

Riggs had an outstanding year in 1939. He captured the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles in his first appearance at Wimbledon, the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament. He also collected nearly $108,000 from a London bookmaker with whom he had placed a bet on himself. Only two months later, Riggs followed up this trio of victories by winning the U.S. National Championships at Forest Hills in New York City.

Riggs’s enthusiasm at turning pro after a second U.S. National Championship as an amateur in 1941 was dampened by World War II, which drafted many of the best tennis players and emptied the stadiums. Entering boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1943, Riggs spent two years in the navy, stationed in Hawaii and Guam. His time was spent mostly playing exhibition tennis matches.

Following World War II, Riggs resumed his tennis prominence, becoming co—vice president of the Professional Players Association; winning the 1946, 1947, and 1949 national professional singles titles, and participating in dozens of tournaments around the world. As the years passed, younger players stole the spotlight and the victories, so Riggs played less tennis and instead indulged his growing attraction to golf, a game even better suited to the betting that he so loved. Between 1953 and 1971 Riggs divided his time between his job as executive vice president of the American Photograph Corporation (his second wife’s family business), playing golf, and betting on himself in tennis matches against “weekend players.” Riggs’s competitors, mostly middle-aged businessmen, devised unique handicapping rules in order to be competitive with the former champ. For instance, Riggs might play tied to his doubles partner with rope, carrying an open umbrella or a weighted suitcase, or holding a dog’s leash. He loved the challenge of such feats and usually found a way to win regardless of the obstacles.

As the burgeoning feminist movement gathered momentum in the early 1970s, Riggs incensed women around the country by his outspoken assertions of the inferiority of women’s tennis. To prove his point he issued a $5,000 challenge to the top women players to face him on the court. The Australian Margaret Court was the first to accept his dare, but his decisive 6–2, 6–1 victory against her in a 1973 Mother’s Day match only fueled his vocal assertions of male athletic prowess. Previously uninterested in playing him, the women’s champion Billie Jean King now felt she had no choice but to face Riggs: “I kept thinking this was not about a tennis match, this was about social change.”

The Riggs-King matchup, dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes,” took place on 20 September 1973. It was a $100,000 winner-take-all match that set in motion frenzied media coverage that brought 30,492 spectators out to the Houston Astrodome and produced a record of 50 million worldwide viewers, the largest audience ever to witness a tennis match. The fifty-five-year-old Riggs entered the stadium in a chariot pulled by a group of buxom young women. Not to be outdone, King, twenty-nine, arrived atop a litter carried by college football players outfitted in mini-togas. Before the start of the contest, Riggs presented King with an oversized candy sucker, and King gave the self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig” a live baby sow. In the end, King employed speed and endurance-testing rallies to defeat Riggs handily in straight sets, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3. This watershed match began a solid friendship between Riggs and King. More importantly, it is often credited for helping change America’s perception of women and their abilities on and off the court.

At five feet eight inches tall and weighing 140 pounds during his prime, Riggs was small for a tennis player. However, he made up for any physical shortcomings with natural ability and an unending supply of self-confidence. He married Catherine Ann “Kay” Fischer on 1 September 1939. They had five sons and a daughter and divorced in the early 1950s. Riggs subsequently married Priscilla Wheelan; they were divorced in 1972. Nevertheless, his family life often took a backseat to the tours and tournaments that took him around the country. In the years following the King match, Riggs was active on the senior tennis circuit and participated in several more exhibition matches against women. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1988, he created the Bobby Riggs Tennis Foundation at Encinitas, California, in 1994 to display tennis memorabilia and to spread awareness about the disease. Riggs died of prostate cancer at age seventy-seven.

Despite his reputation as a hustler, Riggs was well liked and fair on the court. His abilities as a player were sometimes overshadowed by his bravura and stunts, but he was remembered by world champion player Jack Kramer as “the most underrated champion in the history of tennis.” He was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1967.

Riggs penned two autobiographies about his life in tennis: Tennis Is My Racket (1949) and (with George McGann) Court Hustler (1973). The Game: My 40 Years in Tennis (1979), by Riggs’s friend and competitor Jack Kramer, includes personal anecdotes and an analysis of Riggs’s tennis style. See also E. Digby Baltzell, Sporting Gentlemen: Men’s Tennis from the Age of Honor to the Cult of the Superstar (1995). Obituaries are in the New York Times and the London Guardian (both 27 Oct. 1995).

Carrie C. Mcbride