Out of Left Field
Bobby Riggs wasn't such a buffoon
Riggs, then 55, poses with giant candy sucker, one of his sponsors.
The real Bobby Riggs learned from his most famous losing match
By STAN ISAACS
ABC'S TELEVISION movie about the time Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the celebrated "Battle of the Sexes" takes the obvious route. It glorifies King for whipping Riggs in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. And it ridicules Riggs for being a buffoon who couldn't live up to his outrageous male chauvinism and boasts that he would shellack King.
Properly so. But there was more to Riggs than buffoonery.
Riggs was an outstanding tennis player in his time. And it was Riggs who created the promotion and talked up the rivalry that got millions of non-sports fans interested in the confrontation. And when it was all over nobody had more respect for King than Bobby. He came to take delight in the positive role the match--his defeat--played in not just raising people's consciousness but actually changing the consciousness about women as athletes.
Riggs was 55 when he played. King in 1973. He had his best year in tennis in 1939 when he became the first player ever to win the singles, doubles and mixed doubles at Wimbledon. Up to their match the only other player to achieve that Wimbledon triple was none other than King.
As Bud Collins, the incomparable tennis expert wrote, "Riggs was one of the smartest, most calculating and resourceful court strategists tennis has seen, particularly in his defensive circumvention. He had a temperament that was unruffled in all circumstances and he hung in the fight without showing a trace of discouragement other than a slight shake of the head."
He was the most frustrating kind of an opponent: a golden retriever, uncanny in returning shots that should have been winners.
And he was one of the world's great hustlers, bringing a pool-room mentality to the tennis courts. He boasted he scraped up every dime he could find to bet on himself with a London bookmaker that he would win the three Wimbledon titles. He came away with $108,000.
He never stopped hustling, at cards, at tennis and golf against country club players. And that all led up to his greatest hustle, the "Battle of the Sexes."
In retrospect it seems ridiculous that the over-the-hill 55-year old Riggs could beat the fit-as-a-fiddle 28-year-old King. But Riggs and his big mouth had brought down Margaret Court, every bit the player King was at the time, earlier in the year in what he crowed was the "Mothers Day Massacre."
The real Billie Jean King
entered the arena in a throne chair to tumultuous applause.
Court couldn't handle his assortment of junk shots. She was psyched out as well by his blather and choked. Only a few hundred people saw that match, but Riggs knew he was on to a good thing in by challenging a top woman. He proclaimed women's lib a farce and proclaimed that even the best woman couldn't beat him "an old man with one foot in the grave."
That created the interest that mushroomed into the big-time extravaganza on Sept. 20, 1973 at the Houston Astrodome that was roughly equal parts tennis, carnival and sociological phenomenon, probably the single most unusual sports event of the century. The crowd of 30,472, some paying as much as $100 a seat was the largest ever at a tennis match and some 50 million people saw it on network TV.
If nothing else Riggs' epitaph could read, "He got 50 million people to watch a tennis match."
Riggs spent more time tub-thumping the match as "king of male chauvinist pigs" than working on his game. He was in no shape to handle the gritty King, and probably would have been beaten handily even in the best of shape. King was a tough competitor and in effect she carried all of women's lib on her racquet.
The naive viewers--many women in particular--came to believe that this meant women could beat men at tennis. This was not so, is still not so when even the top woman can't be expected to beat any of the top 50 or 100 men--young men, that is. It is still a topic to raise hackles, though, as John McEnroe did in a recent New Yorker article in which he said the best male college players could beat the top women of today.
The significance of all that foolishness was that it illustrated that a woman could play even under the greatest pressure. King exulted in her victory, not only as a great personal triumph, but as a culmination of her years of striving to show that women could play.
She felt that while her victory did much to encourage girls, it probably had even more of an effect upon boys. If she gave girls pride, she also made boys doubt all the stereotypes that they'd heard about the so-called weaker sex. She has been quick to point out that recent female advancement in sports is very much the case because of men--fathers especially--who have demanded for their daughters what they had been given as sons.
Riggs, who absorbed all the ridicule while pocketing all the subsidiary cash from endorsements (King won the winner-take-all $100,000 pot), came to realize and enjoy what he had wrought.
In fact, Riggs and King were much alike in many ways. King was a hustler in her own right--for the admirable goal of boosting women's tennis, yes, but she didn't shy from accepting sponsorship from the Virginia Slims cigaret people, turning aside all questions about association with a cancer product.
Many people didn't realize that she and Riggs liked each other. They stayed in touch through the rest of his life. When he was 77 and beginning to decline with cancer in 1995, Billie Jean would call him to chat. She told reporter Frank Deford that the last time she spoke to him--when he knew it would be the last time-he said, "We really did it, didn't we, Billie? We really made a difference."
© 2001 by Stan Isaacs.
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