Bobby Riggs

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Date: 2014
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,604 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1120L

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About this Person
Born: February 25, 1918 in Los Angeles, California, United States
Died: October 25, 1995 in Leucadia, California, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Tennis player
Other Names: Riggs, Robert Larimore
Full Text: 

Robert Lorimore Riggs was born in Los Angeles on February 25, 1918. The son of a traveling evangelist preacher, he was the youngest of six children: five brothers and one sister. He had a strongly religious upbringing that included evening Bible readings. Growing up with five older brothers, Riggs developed strong competitive instincts. "Sometimes I think I was born in a contest," he was quoted as saying in the Times of London. "I grew up believing I was going to become a champion. At something, I didn't know what." A natural gambler, Riggs won a tennis racket from a friend in a marbles contest. He took up tennis because an older brother needed a practice partner, and he was entering tournaments in southern California's tough junior circuit within a month.

Trained by Female Coaches

At about five feet eight and 130 pounds, Riggs did not fit the usual image of a tennis player, and he had an awkward, toes-out stance. But he was both fast and canny, and he often surprised players with greater reach and natural facility. He was a master of such precise techniques as the drop shot and the lob. As a junior player, Riggs had two coaches, both female: university professor and top amateur player Esther Bartosh and Eleanor Tennant. Riggs would later play the role of a male chauvinist in order to hype interest his match against King, but family members reported that it was all an act, and that he regarded women as equals. Riggs won the United States national junior singles championship when he was 16.

In his late teens, against the advice of family and coaches, Riggs decided he was ready for the world of adult tennis. He acquired an old car and took off for the East Coast so that he could enter tournaments there. The trip was eventful--his clothes and wallet were stolen, forcing him to sell his spare tire and a second tennis racket to raise money. By the end of the trip, the car itself was gone. But Riggs's instincts were vindicated as he quickly rose through the national rankings of adult players. En route he won a national clay court championship in Chicago, but his debut at New York's prestigious Forest Hills was marred when he performed poorly after staying up for all of the previous night playing craps.

In 1938, Riggs played on the U.S. Davis Cup team, winning two matches and losing two en route to a 3-2 U.S. win over Australia. The international Davis Cup competition was one of the most prestigious events in tennis at that time, and it was an honor for such a young player to be named to the team. But during the tournament his tendency toward gambling, present since childhood, showed itself: just before a critical match in the finals, in which Riggs was scheduled to play Australia's Adrian Quist, he could not be located. Officials finally found him a basement room at the venue, shooting pool. Called to the court, Riggs went on to win his match.

The highlight of Riggs's amateur career was the Wimbledon tournament in London in 1939, where he won the singles, men's doubles, and mixed doubles competitions--a feat that remains unprecedented. Prior to the match, Riggs noticed that London bookies had listed the odds against his winning the singles tournament at 25-to-1. Confidently, he bet on himself to win not only the singles but the other two competitions as well. The resulting payoff of $108,000 was worth more than $1.7 million in 2013 dollars. "I blew it all back on gambling like any young kid will do," Riggs recalled in a Tennis Week interview quoted by Don Van Natta of ESPN. "I liked to go to the casinos and bet on the horse races and play gin. I got overmatched a few times."

Served in Navy

With the outbreak of World War II, Wimbledon was suspended, and Riggs never played in the tournament again. In 1939 and 1941, he won the U.S. singles championship at Forest Hills. Then he was drafted into the U.S. Navy and served, reluctantly, on ships in the Pacific. He played and bet on tennis whenever he could, and on one occasion in Hawaii he won a car, a house, and a large amount of money from a player in Hawaii who did not know who he was. Riggs returned the house and the car but kept $500 as a fee.

Discharged from the Navy in 1942, Riggs turned professional. At the time, major tennis tournaments such as Wimbledon were restricted to amateur players, and pros made money mostly through exhibition match tours. Riggs played well against such top pros as Don Budge, and he won the new U.S. national professional singles championship in 1946, 1947, and 1949. In exhibition matches beginning in late 1947 against a new young competitor, Jack Kramer, Riggs dominated the beginning of the series, winning the first match on December 27, 1947, comfortably despite snowfall; a crowd of 16,000 turned out to see the event. But Riggs then began to lose as the younger player evolved ways to deal with his on-court wiles, and Kramer dominated later matches on their tour.

Riggs issued an autobiography, Tennis Is My Racket, in 1950. He retired in 1951 and worked as a promoter of the careers of female players Gussie Moran and Pauline Betz for a time. Riggs was executive vice president with the American Photograph Corporation in New York from 1953 to 1971. He also took up golf and became skilled enough to apply his hustler ways, often devising unusual handicaps to draw wealthy players into matches against him; he used a rake, a hoe, and a baseball bat as clubs playing against singer Bing Crosby. "I love millionaires," he is reported to have said (according to the Times of London). "They're the salt of the earth. Wherever I go, they're lining up waiting for me."

Challenged Female Players

By 1973, Riggs's reputation was fading. So, with American society in the midst of a heated debate about women's roles, he decided to challenge leading women player to tennis matches, accompanying the challenges with a barrage of rhetoric stating that domestic roles were proper for women, and claiming that any good male club player would defeat the world's best women. The world's number-one female player, Australia's Margaret Court, accepted the challenge, and a match was set for Mother's Day of 1973. Riggs handed Court a bouquet of roses prior to the match. Although the six-foot, one-inch Court was several inches taller than Riggs, he dominated the match, winning 6-2, 6-1.

Public interest ran even higher when promoter Jerry Perenchio arranged a match between Riggs and the world's number-two player, the American Billie Jean King, and put up a $100,000 winner-take-all prize, billing the event as the Battle of the Sexes. King had been a vocal advocate for the rights of women tennis players, and Riggs applied a fresh layer of male-chauvinist goading, telling a New York news conference (as quoted by Van Natta), "Personally, I would wish that the women would stay in the home and do the kitchen work and take care of the baby and compete in areas where they can compete in because it's a big mistake for them to get mixed up in these mixed-sex matches." Although he had trained hard for the Court match, Riggs was heavily favored in advance of the King contest and did little training. At the Houston Astrodome, on September 20 1973, a crowd of more than 30,000 attended (still the largest crowd to attend a tennis match), and Riggs faced King on national prime-time television. King won the match in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3, and Riggs, as quoted vy Van Natta, said, "I know I said a lot of things she made me eat tonight. I guess I'm the biggest bum of all time now. But I have to take it."

Van Natta's ESPN article, published in 2013, suggested that Riggs had conspired with organized-crime figures to lose the match intentionally, reaping large profits for those who had bet on King given the strong odds against her. Van Natta relied partly on the recollections of a Florida golf professional, Hal Shaw, who said that he had heard a group of men planning a thrown match; Riggs's motivation was allegedly that he owed large gambling debts to organized criminal enterprises. Rumors about the match had swirled for years, with seasoned tennis observers pointing to aspects of Riggs's play that seemed uncharacteristically lackluster and poorly thought out. However, King herself did not believe that Riggs had intentionally lost the match, and Kramer, a neutral observer who in the past had been critical of Riggs's gambling, also discounted it, as did Riggs biographer Tom LeCompte.

Riggs was married and divorced twice, and had five children. Continuing to play in senior tennis tournaments and achieving top rankings, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1967. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1988, he formed the Bobby Riggs Tennis Museum Foundation, which also included a prostate cancer awareness component. He and Billie Jean King became close friends during his later years. Bobby Riggs died in Leucadia, California, on October 25, 1995.

PERSONAL INFORMATION

The American tennis player Bobby Riggs (1918-1995) was one of the best in the game at the peak of his career, from about 1939 to 1948. He is most often remembered, however, for his part in the so-called Battle of the Sexes, a mixed-gender tennis match he played against Billie Jean King in 1973.

AWARDS

International Tennis Hall of Fame, inducted 1967.

FURTHER READINGS

LeCompte, Tom, The Last Sure Thing: The Life and Times of Bobby Riggs, Black Squirrel, 2003.

Riggs, Bobby, with Robert Larrimore, Tennis Is My Racket, S. Paul, 1950.

American Heritage, August-September 2005.

Economist, November 4, 1995.

Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), October 27, 1995.

New York Times, October 27, 1995.

Times (London, England), October 27, 1995.

"'The Battle of the Sexes': It Isn't What You Think," WBUR Radio, http://cognoscenti.wbur.org/2013/09/03/bobby-riggs-billie-jean-king-tom-lecompte (October 18, 2013).

"Bobby Riggs," International Tennis Hall of Fame, http://www.tennisfame.com/hall-of-famers/bobby-riggs (October 18, 2013).

"Bobby Riggs, the Mafia and the Battle of the Sexes," ESPN Outside the Lines, http://espn.go.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/9589625/ (October 18, 2013).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|K1631010164