THE MATCHUP : Tennis, Anyone? Riggs' $500,000 Challenge Fits Category, Kind of

Times Staff Writer

Vitas Gerulaitis shot his mouth off last year about a battle of the sexes tennis match and, after waving the banner of male supremacy so goadingly that the women cried for his scalp, is now getting what he asked for, kind of.

Martina Navratilova, at whom most of Gerulaitis' garrulousness was directed, is now getting her chance for vindication, kind of.

And Bobby Riggs, who conjured up all this male-vs.-female nonsense in the first place more than a decade ago, is now getting an encore in the limelight, kind of.

Tonight at 6 p.m. (PDT) at the Atlantic City Convention Center, two men will play a doubles match against two women in something being advertised in neon as, simply, The Challenge.

Oh, we shouldn't forget the exclamation point. Make that The Challenge!

The implication of such a title is that we are about to witness something truly momentous, truly breathtaking.

In truth, no one is really sure precisely what The Challenge! is all about and what score, if any, it will ultimately settle.

Gerulaitis' claim that the No. 1 women's player, Navratilova, would get blown off the court by the No. 100 men's player? Well, Navratilova is here and Gerulaitis, who ranks somewhat higher than No. 100, is on the other side of the net, but this isn't one-on-one competition. It's a doubles match, and that's an entirely different proposition.

Navratilova's partner will be Pam Shriver. They won 109 consecutive matches before this summer's Wimbledon final. Gerulaitis' teammate will be Riggs--and therein lies the rub.

Riggs, like Navratilova, is a Wimbledon champion. The difference is that he won there in 1939--17 years before Navratilova was born.

Riggs is 67. His once-legendary baseline sprints now are more like waddles, he wears thick glasses and two hearing aids, and he tries to compensate for a lack of strength by wielding a racket so oversized that it looks like Bigfoot's snowshoe.

Riggs is the weak link, the soft spot that Navratilova and Shriver will undoubtedly exploit. He is Gerulaitis' handicap, the reason the women agreed to such a match.

The women's strategy is simple: Keep the ball away from Vitas and win $300,000. The losers get $200,000.

"I'll be the worst player on the court," Riggs said. "I'll be in triple-slow motion compared to them. But that's the only way the girls would've played this match. If they thought they had a ghost of a chance of losing, there'd be no way."

Nearly everybody has been satisfied that the question of whether a top-ranked female player could compete with an over-the-hill male player was sufficiently answered in Riggs' 1973 mixed-singles match against Billie Jean King. Riggs, then 55, was dusted in straight sets.

But Riggs, a hustler then and a hustler today, has been pining away for a second chance. When Gerulaitis fired off his volleys at last year's U.S. Open, Riggs seized his new angle.

Since arranging this doubles deal last spring, Riggs has been plugging away at reeling in the casual tennis fan again--hook, line and sinker.

"This may have the same impact as my two 1973 matches with (Margaret) Court and King," said Riggs, who modestly refers to his encounter with King as "the biggest thing to happen in tennis, and especially women's tennis, ever."

More hype: "I'm still the best in the world for my age. Nobody in my age group can beat me. But this will be against the best (women's) doubles team of all-time. It's a little something for people to talk about, a good, solid promotion for tennis."

A good promotion for the sport, yes. An event with the impact of Riggs-King? Not likely.

The largest crowd in tennis history--39,472 at the Astrodome, plus an estimated television audience of 50 million--witnessed King's victory over Riggs. That match proved that tennis could go prime time and ushered in the big-bucks era that has so greatly benefited today's net set.

Tonight's match isn't even a sellout. A crowd of about 9,000 is expected at the Convention Center, where capacity is 12,500. And the only television coverage will be on closed circuit and pay-per-view cable coverage.

Riggs-King was a center-stage attraction. The Challenge! is basically a sideshow.

But it should be fun. At a Thursday press conference, Riggs, Navratilova and Shriver played it largely for laughs. Gerulaitis was absent, getting in some practice time in New York against buddy John McEnroe, but his needling spirit was in the air.

Riggs pointed out that he and Malcolm Anderson had defeated Rosie Casals and Wendy Turnbull in a similar match two years ago. "They were the top doubles team in 1982," Riggs said. "And Martina and Pam were the best in 1983 and '84. If we win, we'll have beaten the champions of 1982, '83 and '84."

Said Shriver to Riggs: "If you win, will you come to our awards banquet and accept women's doubles team of the year?"

Answered Riggs: "Those girls (Turnbull and Casals) had one thing going for them. Their overhead (shots). You'd be hard-pressed to match their overheads."

Navratilova said: "Ours are better."

Riggs to Navratilova: "Admit it. You think this is going to be like taking candy from a baby. A cakewalk!"

Navratilova: "Well, maybe a boardwalk."

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