Riggs, Robert Larrimore ("Bobby")

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RIGGS, Robert Larrimore ("Bobby")

(b. 25 February 1918 in Los Angeles, California; d. 25 October 1995 in Leucadia, California), tennis player and promoter best known for his 1973 win over Margaret Court and defeat by Billie Jean King in the "Battle of the Sexes," one of the most widely watched sports events of the decade.

Riggs was the youngest of five brothers and one sister; he was tutored in many sports by his older siblings. When he was eleven Riggs caught the eye of Esther Bartosh, an anatomy professor and a top-ranked women's tennis player in Los Angeles. She bought Riggs his first racket and helped him obtain sponsorship and funding.

Riggs was a natural on the court. Despite an awkward, toes-out style of walking and his irrepressible clowning, he soon made a mark. At only five feet, eight inches tall and 130 pounds, Riggs was often underrated by opponents, who were beaten by his winning combination of speed, agility, and a relentless competitive spirit. A second woman, Eleanor Tennant, also was instrumental in Riggs's development as a player. She became his coach when he was eighteen, and a year later he was playing some of the best tennis of his life.

In 1938 men's tennis was ruled by Don Budge, the top U.S. and international player who that year won the Grand Slam of the British, French, U.S., and Australian championships. Budge turned professional in 1939, and Riggs quickly filled the number-one amateur spot. At the Wimbledon tournament in England in 1939, Riggs won the singles against his fellow American Elwood Cooke. He then teamed with Cooke to win the doubles and joined Alice Marble to win the mixed doubles. It was a remarkable achievement, worthy of Budge or "Big Bill" Tilden at their best. Yet Riggs was about six inches shorter than either Tilden or Budge, and never had the power to overwhelm his opponents. Instead he outthought them, outran them, and simply outplayed them.

Both amateur and professional tennis suffered during World War II, with no championships held at Wimbledon between 1940 and 1945. Riggs turned professional in 1942 and played a long series of exhibition matches against Budge, Frank Kovacs, and the British great Fred Perry. Riggs continued to be underrated. Many thought the other professionals would eat him alive. Instead Riggs defeated Budge in exhibition matches in 1946, and then won a brilliant straight-set victory over Budge at the first U.S. national professional singles championship, held later that year in Forest Hills, New York. For spectators who thought Budge was unbeatable, Riggs's victories were incredible.

Riggs soon faced another keen competitor, Jack Kramer, who had the offensive skill and the size and power that Riggs lacked. Although Riggs won the opening match of their long exhibition tour, Kramer beat him 82–20 over the course of the year. Riggs continued to perform well on the tour, winning the national professional singles title in 1947 and 1949, but his best days as a player had passed.

Riggs joined Kramer's professional tour. He was known to make large bets on himself and to make fine money in the process. By 1950 Riggs was one of the older players on the tour, and he lacked the offensive punch to compete with players like Pancho Gonzales and Kramer. However, in his book The Game (1979), Kramer placed Riggs among the seven best players of all time, and declared that he was, beyond any doubt, the most underrated of the top rank.

In 1968 the new "open era" began in tennis, allowing both amateurs and professionals to compete in events like the U.S. National Championship at Forest Hills. Players like Riggs, Kramer, and Gonzales were sometimes bitter about the huge monetary awards given to the new young players, when the older greats had played for peanuts in their heyday. In the early 1970s Riggs drew attention back to his contemporaries by asserting that most of the older male players could defeat the best younger female players. The perennial boaster soon received an invitation to test his claim.

In 1973 the United States was in conflict over women's roles, men's prerogatives, and the relationship between the sexes. Promoters quickly came forward and arranged a Mother's Day tennis competition between Riggs and Margaret Court, the great Australian champion. The match seemed ridiculous: Court was taller than the fifty-five-year-old Riggs; she was in terrific condition; and she had proved herself to be consistently the best of the women players. Riggs beat her 6–2, 6–1.

Even the commentators were flabbergasted by Riggs's triumph. He had bet a great deal of money on himself and walked away richer, more famous than ever, and as the recipient of anger from feminists around the world. Riggs, the hustler, promoter, and self-made man, had done it again. Those who tried to analyze the match found that words failed them. How had Riggs's soft shots and moon lobs demoralized Court? How had he kept up with her, the ultimate woman athlete? When asked, Riggs kept to his story line, which was that men were naturally better than women, and that most good male club players could have done the same.

A second match was in order. It came on 20 September 1973, when Riggs met Billie Jean King in an indoor match at the Houston Astrodome. Millions of people around the world tuned in to watch the televised "Battle of the Sexes." King creamed Riggs, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3. He never had a chance to psych her out; she kept him running the whole time, and he was unable to pull off a repeat of his victory against Court. Instead Riggs admitted he had "underestimated Billie Jean and overestimated myself. But I think it helped give women's tennis credibility."

Riggs and King became good friends in the years that followed, and women's tennis not only gained credibility—it boomed. When the women received their own professional tour, the singer Elton John commemorated the new beginning with the hit song "Philadelphia Freedom!" (1975). Riggs remained one of the old men in tennis. He never became a commentator, a profession at which he might have excelled. Instead he played occasional exhibition matches and continued to bet, both for and against his own performances. He died at age seventy-seven after a battle with prostate cancer.

Few tennis enthusiasts appreciated Riggs's complex and multifaceted personality. In 1939 he was the great U.S. hope "after Budge," a role he fulfilled to perfection. As a player who owed much of his success to two female coaches, he later became known as a virulent male chauvinist. He excelled in the gentleman's game of the 1940s, and he lived to make it big in the 1970s world of televised tennis. In his life, career, and eccentricities, Riggs was one of the most visible symbols of tennis as a public sport.

For details about Riggs's life, see his autobiography, with Robert Larrimore, Tennis Is My Racket (1949). See also Jack Kramer with Frank Deford, The Game: My Forty Years in Tennis (1979), and Bud Collins, My Life with the Pros (1989). Articles about Riggs include "How Bobby Runs and Talks, Talks, Talks," Time (10 Sept. 1973), and "How King Rained on Riggs' Parade," Time (1 Oct. 1973). An obituary is in the New York Times (27 Oct. 1995).

Samuel Willard Crompton