OBITUARY : Bobby Riggs

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Bobby Riggs was one of the most colourful and compelling characters ever to play the game of tennis, a gambling man off the court who understood the on-court percentages better than anyone, an amiable prankster who was enamoured with competition and explored every avenue leading to triumph. He was one of the leading American players to come along in the first half of the century, and he had a record of remarkable consistency. Riggs was Wimbledon champion in 1939, twice the United States champion at Forest Hills, in 1939 and 1941, and a three-time US Professional champion in the 1940s.

Furthermore, he was twice the top-ranked American in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and an able representative of the United States in Davis Cup competition. By the end of the 1940s, when he was still only in his early thirties, Riggs quit playing professional tennis, becoming a promoter for the tour and signing other competitors to contracts. Later, he captured an immense collection of US National senior events (for players over 45) in the US. But while he had been a superb strategist and an admirable champion in his prime, it was not until he reached the ripe old age of 55 that he gained his greatest prominence.

Always a terrific showman, he challenged the world No 1 woman player, Margaret Smith Court, to a challenge match on Mother's Day in 1973, and the sly Californian won this match with his shy Australian opponent before they even walked on court outside San Diego, California. Riggs presented Court with a bouquet of flowers at courtside, then proceeded to toy with an entirely apprehensive adversary who could not handle the pressure. Riggs moved swiftly and easily to a 6-2, 6-1 victory. And that set the stage for his legendary "Battle of the Sexes" with Billie Jean King at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas on 20 September 1973.

Probably no match has done more to heighten the popularity of the game than this intriguing confrontation. Many authorities believed the wily Riggs would prevail since Court was the best player in the world of women's tennis with King a cut behind at No 2. For months leading up to the contest, Riggs was featured on magazine covers, seen ceaselessly on television talk shows, and heard on every radio station from coast to coast in America. Had he won, he might have continued to compete against top women players for some time to come; but it was King who rose to the occasion and she took Riggs apart 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in a devastatingly efficient and imposing performance. When it was over - and right up until this day - close followers of the sport and fellow players have accused Riggs of deliberately losing, but he insisted that was not the case.

As he told World Tennis magazine in 1990 "I didn't let Billie Jean win. I bet on that match and I bet on Bobby Riggs and I lost. The truth of the matter is I did not play a good match. If I had won I could have had a rematch. It was a bitter, bitter defeat. Throwing the match couldn't be further from the truth. Losing to her was the most disappointing, disheartening experience of my life. I underestimated her and overestimated myself."

Much more often than not, Riggs had a keen instinct for what he could or could not accomplish. Coming to Wimbledon for the first time in 1939, he was convinced he could sweep the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. After a successful run in the junior ranks, he had risen steadily in men's amateur tennis. At 16 he had his first big win, over his countryman Frank Shields. By the time he was 18, Riggs was the fourth-best player in the US, and in 1937 and 1938 he was the US No 2 behind Don Budge. On his debut at Wimbledon Riggs placed bets that he would take all three titles, and stood to win more than $100,000. Somehow undaunted by the enormous pressure he had placed on himself to live up to those large expectations, he became the only player ever to realise the astounding feat of taking the Wimbledon triple on his first attempt, joining his countryman Elwood Cooke for the men's doubles title and partnering his countrywoman Alice Marble to the mixed doubles crown. But his vast financial gain was squandered swiftly as he lost it all on other gambling pursuits. At 21, Riggs had learnt a hard lesson, but he remained a betting man all through his life.

And yet, he clearly had many more successes than failures over the years. And the image of him as a hustler was not entirely accurate. He had too much character to be considered only in that capacity. As his old rival Jack Kramer once said of Riggs, "Bobby was always looking for an edge. If you played cards with him, he would try to get a peek at your hand. To him, that was just part of the game. But Bobby Riggs was one of the most honourable men I've met in my life. And he was a great champion. I guarantee you he is the most underrated champion in the history of tennis."

Six months before he died of cancer - he had battled the disease bravely for seven years - Riggs was given a high honour at the tennis club he owned in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California. With a sterling collection of great players assembled, a sculpture of the Riggs of 1939 was unveiled, and it was announced that the Bobby Riggs Tennis Museum and Foundation would open there this December. Kramer attended that ceremony, as did Pancho Gonzalez, Pancho Segura, Vic Seixas, Ales Olmedo, Ted Schroeder and other notable names. Riggs was buoyant as he talked about leaving behind his scrapbooks and trophies and other memorabilia, and delighted that the public would remember him and recognise what he accomplished and who he was.

As he spoke effusively about the museum and his legacy, Riggs concluded, "People will be able to see all of the stuff that I was able to win in a lifetime of tennis and I hope they will enjoy it. And I hope they will remember me as a guy who didn't ask for any quarter and didn't give any, who felt that on any given day he could beat anybody. I want to be remembered as a winner."

Steve Flink

Robert Larimore Riggs, tennis player: born Los Angeles 25 February 1918; member, US Davis Cup team 1938-39; Wimbledon Singles Champion 1939, Doubles Champion 1939, Mixed Doubles Champion 1939; US Singles Champion 1939, 1941; US Mixed Doubles Champion 1940; twice married (four sons, one daughter); died Leucadia, California 25 October 1995.