Remembering Bobby Riggs

A Monitor reporter recalls a moment with the brash tennis player

LONG before Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis match in the Houston Astrodome, Riggs had become a legend in his spare time. Whether it was tennis or later golf, Riggs (who died Oct. 25 at his home in California) was King of the Hustlers.

Never mind that Riggs in his early years played tennis with Europe's royalty and footsie with a galaxy of Hollywood stars. Or that Riggs won Wimbledon once (he was 21), the US Open twice, and the World Professional Championship four times. He lived for the hunt and any crazy bet that he could benefit from.

For example, to give his victims a break, Riggs would play them while wearing a heavy overcoat with a brick in each pocket; or while sitting in a rocking chair; running around a park bench; wearing roller skates; or carrying an umbrella or a bucket of water.

Riggs once dispatched his opponent while holding on to the leash of a baby lion. And if any photographers were around, he would bring out the fright wig, the ankle-length dress, and the oversized combat boots.

It didn't matter. Riggs would win anyway.

Back in 1973, two nights before being shockingly defeated 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 by King, I played Riggs in a best-of-five-games set in a plastic bubble in a parking lot outside the Houston Astrodome. By the time Riggs finished me off, even the tongues of my sneakers were hanging out.

The match, originally scheduled to last until one of us won a traditional six-game set by two games, almost didn't take place.

Riggs's nightly practice sessions in the bubble were open to the public for $5. After a short warmup, he would then invite members of the audience to play against him for $100 - winner take all. Since business was so brisk that night, Riggs suddenly didn't want to give up any of that easy money to play me.

It wasn't until I explained to his public relations people that the Monitor was holding space for a Page 1 story and picture of our match that the dollar signs temporarily disappeared from Riggs's eyes.

Although Riggs, to give himself a handicap, had played four members of the Houston media at the same time the night before and beaten them easily, I didn't want any gimmicks. The idea was to find out what a weekend player like me could do against Riggs's drop shots, lobs, darts, and spins.

Oh, my, wasn't Riggs ever the cutie. He beckoned me over to the net, handed me two tennis balls and said: ''Look, I'll give you a break. You can serve first!''

No practice serves. No chance to hit a few overheads. No nothing. You serve before 300-plus spectators because Bobby Riggs has told you to serve.

Anything you have ever heard or read about Riggs's junk game is true. He could serve in a silo and not disturb the cobwebs. One of his underhand deliveries against me soared 30 feet in the air and came down one foot on my side of the net. Another time one of his lobs landed on the base line and disappeared backwards into the crowd.

As a tennis player, I have always lacked all of the necessary skills except one. I can run. And in Game 3 (after losing the first two), I got enough points on several small forays over the net to win the game.

If Riggs had bothered to come in, he probably could have returned those shots for winners. But I think he stayed back because he didn't think I could possibly get to his returns in time.

I should have quit right there, because for the next five or six minutes Riggs made me look like a small animal that eats bananas.

As for Bobby Riggs being a male chauvinist - well, nobody is going to believe this because he played the part so perfectly, but it was all a sham. It was an act, the same way Muhammad Ali's tirades hyped box-office sales.

The truth is the first two instructors who helped him the most when he first started out were women - Dr. Esther Bartosh and Eleanor Tennant, also the patroness of Alice Marble. Riggs married and divorced twice and never lacked female companionship during any of his world tours.

In fact, the person closest to him during those days preceding his Astrodome match against King was not one of his sons but Dolly, his 19-year-old daughter. Caught up in the hoopla and his own verbal snake oil, Riggs never did train seriously or condition himself properly for King, the way he did when he beat Australian Margaret Court on Mother's Day.

That statement isn't meant to detract in any way from King's victory, which was emphatic.

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