Born: February 25, 1918
in Los Angeles, California
Died: October 25, 1995
Bobby Riggs has three distinct chapters in his fascinating tennis career: The prosperous amateur years, the rebellious professional years, and the hustler/promoter years.
There are many who focus solely on the last chapter of Riggs’s stellar tennis career, viewing him as the “male chauvinist” who bombastically boasted at age 55 that the women’s game was far inferior to the men’s game and that a top female player didn’t stand a chance of beating him. Matches played against Margaret Court and Billie Jean King has placed Riggs in legendary status, but to delve into that segment of his career first would be doing him a disservice.
Riggs was a great junior player, deemed to be one of the finest to hail from Perry Jones’s Southern California Tennis Association factory of young talent. He was a major champion, winning all three Wimbledon Championship events (singles, doubles, mixed doubles) in 1939, the year he became the No. 1 ranked player in the world. Riggs was a world top 10 ranked player (1937-39) who won two U.S. National Men’s Singles Championships in 1939 and 1941 and a mixed doubles title in 1940. He was part of the 1938 United States Davis Cup Championship team that defeated Australia at the Germantown Cricket Club in Philadelphia. When he turned professional in 1941, he captured the U.S. Pro Championships in 1946, 1947, and 1949, all coming against Don Budge, and reached the finals of the 1949 Wembley Pro Championships, falling to Jack Kramer. He and Kramer battled each other in venues throughout the country, Kramer holding a distinct 69-20 winning advantage.
When his professional exploits concluded in 1969, Riggs then turned his full attention to becoming a tennis promoter. His over-the-top antics in baiting both Court and King into matches became legendary for not only their disparate outcomes, but for what they were called – Court’s match tabbed the “Mother’s Day Massacre” and King’s known as “The Battle of the Sexes.”
At 5-foot-7, Riggs was clearly not the biggest player on the court, but in his era might have been the most shrewd and calculating, using strategy and tactics to win matches rather than try to bully the ball around the court on every shot. Truth was, Riggs could pound balls from the baseline with the best players in the world – he hit long balls that pinned his opponent on the baseline – but he could disguise his ball placement with terrific accuracy, which kept his foe off balance. He was a master of hitting hard and deep on one shot, then dinking a drop shot on the next. He was prepared to stay in rallies for the long haul, and therein lies how his height and slim build worked to his advantage: He was fast and quick, a tireless retriever who made his opponent do the same, but with far less success.
The Los Angeles-born Riggs began playing tennis at age 11, and was groomed by the dominating Jones, which meant Riggs was prepared for the rigors of junior and amateur competition. By the time he was 16, Riggs was the No. 5 ranked junior player in the United States and at age 17 won the National Junior Championships. As an 18-year-old in 1936 he captured the U.S. Clay Court Championship in Chicago and was primed for his amateur career. He was the No. 1 seed at the 1939 French Championships, but was thumped by fellow American Don McNeill in the final, 7-5, 6-0, 6-3. However, it was the precursor to his best season has he headed to London for Wimbledon.
At the All England Club, Riggs swept all three titles. As the No. 2 seed he had a relatively easy time advancing to the finals, but had a furious final against American Elwood Cooke, and needed five long sets to earn a 2-6, 8-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory. The two then combined for a doubles championship, a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 9-7 victory over Brits Charles Hare and Frank Wilde. The trifecta was accomplished when he and Alice Marble won the mixed doubles title, 9-7, 6-1 over Brits Wilde and Nancy Brown.
Riggs won U.S. National Championships in 1939 and 1941, the first coming over relatively unknown American Welby Van Horn convincingly, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. He advanced to the 1940 championship match where McNeill defeated him in a major final for a second time, this one a grueling five-setter that saw McNeill roar back from a 2-0 sets deficit to win, 4-6, 6-8, 6-3, 6-3, 7-5. Riggs earned a second mixed doubles title that year teaming with Marble to defeat Kramer and Dorothy Bundy, 9-7, 6-1. Riggs was back in the 1941 U.S. Nationals championship match and played yet another five-setter, topping Francis Kovacs, 8-6, 7-5, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2.
When Riggs embarked on his professional career, the lure of money that couldn’t be had on the amateur circuit too hard to ignore, he won three championships and was a finalist in three others (1940 U.S. Pro vs. Budge; 1948 U.S. Pro vs. Kramer; 1949 Wembley Pro vs. Kramer). Riggs had pro victories over the game’s legends such as Pancho Segura and Pancho Gonzales, but nearly two decades playing took its toll and he turned his attention to tennis promotion, the hustling Riggs carving out his final legacy in matches against Court and King.
There’s no denying that in the early 1970s Riggs was a thorn in the side of feminists – adamantly against women’s lib – and the initial pursuit of male versus female matches against Court, King, and Chris Evert were nothing more than publicity stunts designed to make money. Court took the bait first, lured by a $100,000 prize whether she won or lost. Riggs prepared verbally and physically, waging a media bashing campaign designed to get inside Court’s head, combined with months of training. In the match played in Ramona, California on Mother’s Day (May 13, 1973), Court was ill-prepared for Riggs. He played coyly with dinks, drop shots, lobs and thumped Court, 6-2, 6-1, in a match later dubbed by the media as the “Mother’s Day Massacre.”
Riggs targeted King next with a $100,000 winner-take-all purse, and this time King accepted the offer, clearly bent on putting Riggs squarely in his place. This time around, Riggs was overly cocky, spending more time generating publicity and spouting off unfavorable comments directed toward women than he did training. He rarely stepped on a court, and as a result was woefully out of shape and ironically unprepared when the match was played in the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973. King, meanwhile, was 29 (36 years young than Riggs) and in the prime of her career. She trained relentlessly. Despite the differing preparations toward playing “The Battle of the Sexes,” legendary odds maker Jimmy the Greek tabbed Riggs a 5-2 favorite to win.
Riggs rode into the Astrodome in a gilded rickshaw pulled by a bevy of beautiful women. King entered the proceedings like Cleopatra, atop a gold litter held up by toga-wearing members of the Rice University men’s track team. She wore a specially-designed dress created by Ted Tinling, actually a backup option to the first that didn’t feel right to King. It was a menthol green and sky blue outfit that King said “felt absolutely perfect when I put it on.” With Howard Cosell announcing, a record crowd of 30,492 spectators in attendance and a reported 90 million glued to their television sets, King dominated the match from the first point, quieting Riggs with a 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory. Years later, Riggs and Kings became friends, the remnants of Riggs’s pre-match hyperbole about women and their place in society forgiven. It was reported that the two spoke a few days before Riggs died of cancer in 1995.
Riggs, who for the vast majority of his tennis career was a serious and talented competitor, was quoted in Bud Collins’ History of Tennis Encyclopedia saying, “When I was the best player in the world, cleaning up Wimbledon, not many people paid attention. “But now as an old man everybody knows me.”
His life has been chronicled in two books, Tennis Is My Racket (1949) and Court Hustler (1973).