Bobby Riggs

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Robert Larimore ("Bobby") Riggs (February 25, 1918–October 25, 1995) was a 1930s–40s American tennis player who was the World No. 1 or the co-World No. 1 player for three years, first as an amateur in 1941, then as a professional in 1946 and 1947. After being mostly forgotten for many years, Riggs gained far more fame in 1973 at the age of 55 than he had ever known before by playing widely televised challenge matches against two of the top female players in the world. The second of these, "The Battle of the Sexes" match against Billie Jean King, was one of the most famous tennis events of all time.

Jack Kramer, the long-time promoter and top tennis player himself, calls Riggs in his 1979 autobiography "the most underrated of all the top players" and says, perhaps surprisingly, that he considers Riggs to be one of the 6 best players of all time. He goes on to say that at his best Riggs was probably even better than Pancho Gonzales, a man still considered by some to have been the greatest player of all time. [1] Riggs, says Kramer, "was a great champion. He beat Segura. He beat Budge when Don was just a little bit past his peak. On a long tour, as up and down as Vines was, I'm not so sure that Riggs wouldn't have played Elly very close. I'm sure he would have beaten Gonzales—Bobby was too quick, he had too much control for Pancho—and Laver and Rosewall and Hoad."

Kramer goes on to say that Riggs "could keep the ball in play, and he could find ways to control the bigger, more powerful opponent. He could pin you back by hitting long, down the lines, and then he'd run you ragged with chips and drop shots. He was outstanding with a volley from either side, and he could lob as well as any man.... he could also lob on the run. He could disguise it, and he could hit winning overheads. They weren't powerful, but they were always on target."

Amateur career

Riggs was born in Los Angeles, California, the son of a minister and one of 6 siblings. He was an excellent table tennis player as a boy and when he began playing tennis at age 12 when an older brother needed a practice partner.[2]. Two prominent women coaches then became important to his early success. First he was befriended and then coached by Dr. Esther Bartosh, who was the fourth-ranking woman player in Los Angeles, just after he took up the sport.[3] Within ten weeks he reached the finals of the most important regional tournament for 13-year olds. A few years later he was coached and aided financially by Eleanor Tennant, the first woman professional tennis player.[4] Depending entirely on speed and ball control, he soon began to win boys tournaments (through 15 years old) and then juniors (through 18 years old). Although it is sometimes said that Riggs was one of the great tennis players nurtured by Perry T. Jones and the Southern California Tennis Association working out the Los Angeles Tennis Club, Riggs writes in his autobiography that for many years Jones considered him to be too small and not powerful enough to be a top-flight player. (Kramer, however, says in his autobiography that Jones turned against Riggs "for being a kid hustler.") [5] After initially helping Riggs, therefore, Jones then refused to sponsor him in the important Eastern tournaments. With the help of Bartosh and other mentors, however, Riggs managed to play in various national tournaments and by the time he was 16 was the number 5-ranked junior player in the United States. The next year he won his first national championship, winning the National Juniors by beating Joe Hunt in the finals. That same year, 1935, he met Hunt in 17 final-round matches and won all 17 of them.

According to his obituary in the New York Times:

By 16, he was the nation's junior singles champion but incurred the wrath of the establishment by electing not to defend his title. Instead, in 1935, armed with the prediction that he would be the nation's top amateur within five years, he hopped in his jalopy and went cross-country to compete against adult amateurs. In the course of his trip, his clothes and his wallet were stolen, and just after selling his spare tires and extra racquet for gas money, he also lost the car[6]

At 18 Riggs was still a junior but won the Southern California men's title and then went East to play on the grass-court circuit in spite of Perry Jones's opposition. Along the way, he won the National Clay Courts Championship in Chicago, beating Frank Parker in the finals with drop shots and lobs. Although he had never played on grass courts before, Riggs had a successful summer, winning two tournaments and reaching the finals of two others. Although still a junior, he ended by the year by being ranked number 4 in the United States men's rankings. Kramer, who was 3 years younger than Riggs, writes "I played Riggs a lot then. He liked me personally too, but he'd never give me a break. For as long as he possibly could, he would beat me at love.... Bobby was always looking down the road. 'I want you to know who's the boss, for the rest of your life, Kid,' he told me. Bobby Riggs was always candid." [7]

Small and wiry, he lacked the power of his larger competitors such as Kramer and Don Budge but made up for it with brains, ball control, and speed. A master court strategist and tactician, he worked his opponent out of position and scored points with the game's best drop shot and lob as well as punishing ground strokes that let him come to the net for put-away shots. Kramer, one of the very few players who was undeniably better than Riggs, writes that there is a major "misconception" about Riggs. "He didn't play some rinky-dink Harold Solomon style, pitty-pattying the ball around on dirt. He didn't have the big serve, but he made up for it with some sneaky first serves and as fine a second serve as I had seen at that time. When you talk about depth and accuracy both, Riggs' second serve ranks with the other three best that I ever saw: von Cramm's, Gonzales', and Newcombe's." In his own autobiography, Riggs wrote, "In the 1946 match with Budge [for the United States Pro Championship], I charged the net at every opportunity. Employing what I called my secret weapon, a hard first serve, I attacked constantly during my 6-3, 6-1, 6-1 victory."

As a 20-year-old amateur, Riggs was part of the American Davis Cup winning team in 1938. The following year, he made it only to the finals of the French Open but then won the Wimbledon Championships triple, capturing the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles. He went on to win the U.S. Championship, earning the number 1 world amateur ranking for 1939. Riggs teamed up with Alice Marble, his Wimbledon co-champion, to win the 1940 U.S. Open mixed doubles championship. In 1941, he won his second U.S. Open singles title, following which he turned professional. His new career, however, was quickly interrupted by military service during World War II.

Professional career

After the war, as a pro, Riggs won the Professional American Singles Championship in 1946, 1947, and 1949. In the 1946 tour against Don Budge, he won 18 matches and lost 16, establishing himself as the best player in the world; some sources say the winning margin was 23-21; Riggs himself in his autobiography says that it was 24-22. The next year, according to some sources, he beat Budge again by the same narrow margin; other sources say that he played Budge infrequently and that his primary tour was against Frank Kovacs, whom he beat 11 matches to 10. Budge had sustained an injury to his right shoulder in a military training exercise during the war and had never fully recovered his earlier flexibility. Now, in 1947, according to Kramer, "Bobby played to Budge's shoulder, lobbed him to death, won the first twelve matches, thirteen out of the first fourteen, and then hung on to beat Budge, twenty-four matches to twenty-two." Kramer himself, however, had a sensational 1947 as an amateur and it is debatable whether he or Riggs was actually the top player for the year.

The promoter of the two Riggs-Budge tours had been Jack Harris. In mid-1947 he had already made a deal for Kramer to would turn professional after the U.S championships at Forest Hills whether or not he was the winner. He also told Riggs and Budge that the winner of the Professional American Singles Championship, also to be held at Forest Hills, would establish the World Champion who would defend his title against Kramer. For the second year in a row, Riggs defeated Budge. Harris signed Kramer for 35 percent of the gross receipts and offered 20 percent to Riggs. He then changed his mind, as Riggs recounts in his autobiography, "saying he could get Ted Schroeder as one of the supporting pair, provided both Kramer and I would yield 2-1/2 percent of our shares in order to build up the offer to Ted. We both agreed — and then Schroeder refused." Harris then signed Pancho Segura and Dinny Pails at $300 per week to play the opening match of the Riggs-Kramer tour. Riggs then went on to play Kramer for 17-1/2 percent of the gross receipts. [8]

In early 1948, Kramer and Riggs embarked on their long tour, beginning with an easy victory by Riggs in front of 15,000 people who had made their way to Madison Square Garden in New York in spite of a record snowstorm that had brought the city to a standstill. At the end of 26 matches, Riggs and Kramer had each won 13. By that point, however, Kramer had stepped up his second serve to take advantage of the fast indoor courts they played on and was now able to keep Riggs from advancing to the net. Kramer had also begun the tour by playing a large part of each match from the baseline. Finally realizing that he could only beat Riggs from the net, he changed his style of game and began coming to the net on every point. Riggs was unable to handle Kramer's overwhelming power game. For the rest of the tour Kramer dominated Riggs mercilessly, winning 56 out of the last 63 matches. The final score was 69 victories for Kramer and only 20 for Riggs, the last time an amateur champion beat the reigning professional king on their first tour. In many of the last matches, it was assumed by observers that Riggs frequently gave up after falling behind and let Kramer run out the victory. Riggs says in his autobiography that Kramer had made "nearly a hundred thousand dollars... on the American tour alone, while I took in nearly fifty thousand as my share." [9]

In spite of occasionally still beating some of the touring professionals such as Pancho Segura in the following years, Riggs soon retired from competitive tennis and briefly took over the job of promoting the professional game.

As a senior player in his 60s and 70s, Riggs won numerous national titles within various age groups.

Why he wasn't remembered as a great player

Asked by a New York Times reporter in 1995 only a few months before his death why he wasn't remembered "as a great player like Budge," Riggs replied:

Looking back, I should have used more aggressive tactics. I could hit the ball much harder than I did, with great control. But I was content to let the other guy do something, and I would answer it.

When I arrived on the scene, I would play a second- or third-rounder and I wouldn't go out and crush him. I would beat him, 6-3, 6-4. I wouldn't look very impressive. I wouldn't use all my best shots. I would be overqualified.

I didn't impress the newspaper writers or the other players. I made the mistake of not impressing the audience. I didn't beat anybody badly.

That's one of the reasons I didn't go down in the history books as a great, great player. Budge beat everyone love and love, and 1 and 1. People couldn't understand when I was beating Budge.

The players who respected me the most were Kramer, Gonzalez and Segura, players who I had played in the final rounds. They knew what a tough player I was. I brought my game to the peak and played hard.[10]

Tennis hustler

Riggs first became famous as a hustler and gambler, when, in his 1949 autobiography, he wrote that he had made $105,000 in 1939 by betting on himself at Wimbledon to win all three championships: the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. Betting is legal in England, and he parlayed a modest $500 initial bet on his chances of winning the singles competition into a sum that would be equivalent to at least $1 million in 2007 dollars. According to Riggs, World War II kept him from taking his winnings out of the country, however, so that by 1946, when the war had ended, he then had an even larger sum waiting for him in England, fattened by compounding interest.

For many years while in retirement Riggs was a well-known golf and tennis hustler and made a living by placing bets on himself to win matches against other, apparently better, players. To entice fresh victims to play him, he would handicap himself with weird devices like using a frying pan instead of a tennis racquet for the match. Whatever the handicap, Riggs generally won his bets.

A master promoter of himself and the game, Riggs saw an opportunity in 1973 to make money and to elevate the popularity of a sport he loved. Fifty-five years old, he deliberately portrayed himself as a male chauvinist, claiming that the female game was inferior and that a top female player could not beat him even at the age of 55. The cagey Riggs first challenged Margaret Court, 30 years old and the top female player in the world. In their May 13, 1973, Mother's Day match in Ramona, California, Riggs used his drop shots and lobs to keep an unprepared Court off balance. His easy 6–2, 6–1 victory landed Riggs on the cover of both Sports Illustrated and Time magazine.

Battle of the Sexes

Suddenly in the national limelight, Riggs taunted all female tennis players, prompting Billie Jean King to accept a lucrative financial offer to play Riggs in a nationally televised match that the promoters dubbed as "The Battle of the Sexes." On September 20, at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, King entered the arena in Cleopatra style, carried aloft in a chair held by four bare-chested muscle men dressed in the garb of ancient slaves. Riggs followed in a rickshaw drawn by a bevy of gorgeous, scantily-clad models.

When the match began, King had learned from Margaret Court's humiliation and was ready for Riggs's game. Rather than playing her own usual aggressive game, she stayed back for the most part, handling Riggs's lobs and soft shots easily, making Riggs cover the entire court as she ran him from side to side, beating him at his own defensive game. After quickly falling behind from the baseline, where he had intended to play, Riggs was forced to change to a serve-and-volley game. Even from the net, the result was the same: King defeated him handily, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3. According to Kramer, "I don't think Billie Jean played all that well. She hit a lot of short balls which Bobby could have taken advantage of had he been in shape. I would never take anything away from Billie Jean—because she was smart enough to prepare herself properly—but it might have been different if Riggs hadn't kept running around. It was more than one woman who took care of Bobby Riggs in Houston." After the match, Pancho Segura declared disgustedly that Riggs was only the third best senior player, behind himself and Gardnar Mulloy, and challenged King to another match. King refused.

In recent years a persistent urban legend has arisen, particularly on the Internet, that the rules were modified for the match so that Riggs had only one serve for King's two, and that King was allowed to hit into the doubles court area. This is false; the match was played under the normal rules of tennis. Perhaps this assertion derives from the fact that another "Battle of the Sexes" match was played at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, in September 1992 between Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova. For this match, Connors was allowed only one serve per point and Navratilova was allowed to hit into the doubles court. In spite of the handicaps, Connors won 7–5, 6–2.

There was also widespread speculation that Riggs had purposely lost, in order to win large sums of money that he had bet against himself. As Kramer writes, however, "Billie Jean beat him fair and square. A lot of men — especially around our age — were so stunned when he lost that they figured he must have tanked. Budge is convinced of that. But what motive would Riggs have for that? Bobby Riggs, the biggest ham in the world, gets his greatest audience—and purposely looks bad? There's no way. If he had beaten Billie Jean, he could have kept the act going indefinitely. Next they would have had him play Chrissy on clay."

Nearly thirty years later, a 2001 ABC television docudrama called When Billie Beat Bobby recounted the match and the lead-up to it.

These two matches, instigated and promoted by the consummate showmanship of Riggs, did more to increase interest in the game of tennis, especially women's tennis, than any prior championship or other competition had been able to do up to that time. In 1985, at age 67, Riggs returned briefly to the tennis spotlight when he partnered Vitas Gerulaitis to launch another challenge to female players. His return to the public eye was short lived, however, when they lost their doubles match against Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver.

Post-tennis

Riggs was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1988. He founded the Bobby Riggs Tennis Museum Foundation to increase awareness of the disease. Riggs died of the cancer October 25, 1995 in Encinitas, California, aged 77.

During his final illness, Riggs maintained friendly contact with Billie Jean King, and King phoned him often. She called him shortly before his death, offering to visit him, but he did not want her to see him in his condition. She phoned him one last time, the night before his death. [11]

Riggs was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1967.

References

  1. Writing in 1979, Kramer considered the best ever to have been either Don Budge (for consistent play) or Ellsworth Vines (at the height of his game). The next four best were, chronologically, Bill Tilden, Fred Perry, Bobby Riggs, and Pancho Gonzales. After these six came the "second echelon" of Rod Laver, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Gottfried von Cramm, Ted Schroeder, Jack Crawford, Pancho Segura, Frank Sedgman, Tony Trabert, John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Björn Borg, and Jimmy Connors. He felt unable to rank Henri Cochet and René Lacoste accurately but felt they were among the very best.
  2. "Bobby Riggs, Brash Impresario Of Tennis World, Is Dead at 77", by Robin Finn, obituary in the New York Times, October 27, 1995 at [1]
  3. "All The World's A Stage", by Curry Kirkpatrick, Sports Illustrated, July 30, 1973, at [2]
  4. "All The World's A Stage", by Curry Kirkpatrick, Sports Illustrated, July 30, 1973, at [3]
  5. The Game, My 40 Years in Tennis (1979), Jack Kramer with Frank Deford, page 21
  6. "Bobby Riggs, Brash Impresario Of Tennis World, Is Dead at 77", by Robin Finn, obituary in the New York Times, October 27, 1995 at [4]
  7. The Game, My 40 Years in Tennis (1979), Jack Kramer with Frank Deford, page 31
  8. Tennis Is My Racket, by Bobby Riggs, New York, 1949, page 16.
  9. Tennis Is My Racket, by Bobby Riggs, New York, 1949, page 25.
  10. BACKTALK: "I Was Quick. I Was Agile. I Had the Heart.", The New York Times, August 27, 1995
  11. Interview with Billie Jean King, USA US Open telecast, August 28, 2006

See also