His Last Match Can’t Be Rigged : In Ill Health at 77, Tennis’ Greatest Hustler Recounts His Triumphs--and a Memorable Defeat
When F. Lee Bailey, in one of his other careers, was starring in a 1970s television series, he once summoned former Wimbledon tennis champion Bobby Riggs as a witness.
Bailey, the lawyer now appearing occasionally at the courthouse, strapped a lie detector on Riggs and, standing over him menacingly, asked: “Did you throw that match to Billie Jean King?”
The witness, a noted gambler and hustler, responded evenly: “I did not.”
And that surprised many viewers.
For, at the Houston Astrodome in a 1973 battle of the sexes designed by Riggs himself to demonstrate male superiority, King had whipped him decisively, inspiring widespread skepticism and disbelief.
Hadn’t Riggs, 55, a noted male chauvinist, vowed to dominate King, 29, a renowned feminist?
And only five months earlier, hadn’t Riggs drubbed the world’s No. 1-ranked women’s player, Margaret Court?
No. 2 King took him on anyway. On national television, before a record tennis crowd of 30,472, Riggs lost in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
And to many, that had the look of Part I in a hustle.
In Part II, they figured, he’d win a bundle.
But it didn’t happen. King wouldn’t play him again. And in a recent interview, he confirmed that, as Bailey’s lie detector experts testified, he had spoken the truth.
“You know I’m a male chauvinist,” said Riggs, a Church of Christ preacher’s son. “You know I’m a hustler. Billie Jean just caught me on a bad day.”
Today, Riggs, who lives here on the ocean, is in failing health. He has finally given up hustling. At 77, he is seeing doctors now, instead of tennis players and golfers.
“Healthwise, I’ve broken down,” he said. “I’ve had cancer
problems for seven years. And now it’s getting worse. The doctors tell me they don’t know how many days Bobby has left.”
You couldn’t tell that by looking. A big-time athlete for half a century, Riggs still cuts a small but trim figure--5-feet-7 1/2 and 140 pounds. He still wears those round-rimmed glasses, still has his sense of humor. And he still walks like a duck--a clever, cocky duck, to be sure.
A neighbor guesses that Riggs seems ready for at least nine holes.
“No sir, you can’t tell a book by its cover,” the old champion warns, shaking his head, then adding that he is already at work on epitaphs.
One: “He Served More Aces Than They Did.”
But that, Riggs fears, is “kind of deceptive because I never had many aces--I was just harder to ace than the other guy.”
Also under consideration: “He Had His Ups and Downs, but He Won His Share.”
That’s closer, although he suspects that when he can’t quite get to the last drop shot, the final ode to Riggs will be in six words:
“He Put Women on the Map.”
If Riggs in his competitive years lacked the size and muscle of other winners, his achievements were nonetheless considerable. He was a national tennis champion in the 1930s and world professional champion in the ‘40s.
And he will be remembered, he hopes, for those and the many other achievements that are shortly to be celebrated again in the tennis museum he is planning nearby.
Yet he has spent the last quarter-century another way, happily hustling bets on golf courses and tennis courts.
And it is for that unique career that Riggs seems best known.
Who started him in that direction?
He says it was Hall of Fame ballplayer Hank Greenberg.
As Riggs tells it, the big, hard-hitting Detroit Tiger and the little, weak-hitting tennis champion were sitting around an exclusive men’s club one afternoon discussing the other members, who, Riggs complained, wouldn’t bet with him. They wouldn’t play tennis with a champion, even an old champion.
“Tell you what, Bobby,” Greenberg said. “Put a park bench in the middle of your court, and if one of those rich guys runs you into it, it’s their point.”
“Great idea, I’ll do it,” Riggs said.
But some fine-tuning was necessary. Jumping a bench ruined Riggs’ timing--and his bank account.
Refining Greenberg’s idea, Riggs replaced the bench with three or four wooden chairs. Or he played his wealthy friends wearing a patch over one eye, or carrying an umbrella or a pail of water, or on roller skates. Or while leading his dog on a leash--or a lion.
In no time, he won a lot of their money, and on tours, he won more in stadiums and arenas.
And, he said, he has decided to put some of it into the new Bobby Riggs Tennis Museum, where, a spokesman reported, contributions are also being accepted.
“Moneywise these days, I’m going cancer research and tennis museum,” Riggs said.
The new shrine in Cardiff-by-the-Sea will adjoin the Bobby Riggs Tennis Club, which is owned by his friend and executor, Lornie Kuhle. And it will feature memorabilia from other famous golfers and tennis players as well as Riggs’ restored trophies, 46 of them, plus a half-size sculpture of Riggs by Montanan John Petek.
There will be an unveiling and party at the museum at 4 p.m. on April 29.
“Look for the tennis racket I used against Billie Jean,” Riggs said. “It might be there. Then again, I might have thrown it in the ocean.”
For most of his first 76 years, Riggs confides, he lived a charmed, lucky life, playing tennis or golf or both all day, almost every day--even when, briefly, he worked in his wife’s family business in New York.
And every time, he wagered on himself to win.
“The bigger the bet, the better I played,” he said.
Until nightfall, when he usually read a book a night, usually a mystery, Riggs, who was twice divorced, only made time for sports--unless it rained.
Then he played cards all day.
“The best poker game is seven-card stud, high-low splits,” he said. “I mean it’s the best if you don’t have to declare high or low, and can win it all with a low straight.”
That’s what he likes best, winning it all.
Kuhle remembers one rare day when the little champion couldn’t scare up a live one for anything--tennis, golf, gin or even dominoes.
“He went home and brought back his wife, Priscilla,” Kuhle said. “She told him, ‘I’ll keep you company--I’ll go around the golf course with you--but I don’t want to play.’ “He said: ‘That’s OK, I’ll play two balls, yours and mine. His and hers.’ ”
They agreed on $50 a hole, and on a typically lucky round for Bobby, he won $750, which made his day.
Said Khule: “And Priscilla paid him.”
Mother of four of his six children, she was his second wife. After a long illness, she died last month.
“I loved her so much I married her twice,” he said.
Divorced in 1972, they were remarried on Valentine’s Day, 1991, when they brought in a minister from St. Louis to perform the ceremony. The minister was their son, John.
Bobby was accompanied by his big black dog, Jasper, a standard poodle.
“Jasper was the best man,” Kuhle said.
It was Bobby’s tri-level beach house in Encinitas that brought Priscilla back to him.
“When she decided to live in California again, she went hunting for a place to rent, and came to see me,” he said.
Looking out at the glittering ocean, he added: “She went into every room and said, ‘Hey, I like your place.’ I said, ‘All right, I’ll sell it to you.’ ”
Later, she called to tell him the house was bigger than she really needed.
“So I moved back, into the guest room,” Bobby said. “And back into her life.”
Few good athletes have enjoyed more than one successful career.
Riggs has astonishingly enjoyed not two, or three, but four careers.
As a tennis player, he was the amateur champion in the era when that was synonymous with world champion.
At Forest Hills, N.Y., Riggs, 21, won the U.S. championship in 1939, the same year he had won at Wimbledon in all three divisions--singles, doubles and mixed doubles.
“No one else ever won the triple crown their first year there,” he said.
In a storied second career, after time out for Navy service in World War II, Riggs was the world professional champion when that became the thing. To get there, he had to beat a much better player, Don Budge.
“Budge was kind of lazy,” Riggs said. “When I was a Navy seaman, he was an Army lieutenant, and I knew he would play around with all those officers instead of practicing.
“For three years as a tennis instructor, I worked on beating Budge every day I was in the South Pacific. And the biggest thrill I’ve had was beating him in the finals for the 1946 pro championship.”
The scores were 6-3, 6-1, 6-1.
In the years that followed, full of confidence, Riggs went on beating Budge much of the time.
His third career began when he couldn’t beat the next challenger, Jack Kramer, who suggested, perceptively, that what Riggs really was meant for was promoting.
And in a tricky business, Riggs made a fortune, most conspicuously with the Riggs-King match, for which he held TV and residual rights.
“I paid Billie Jean $100,000,” he said. “But my payoff lasted five years. I made a million and a half.”
Riggs’ fourth career--as a hustler--was the most fun of all, he said, remembering a strange day in Tennessee.
In a tennis match with the Grand Ole Opry’s Minnie Pearl--in the county where Riggs’ grandfather once served in the Confederate cavalry--she insisted on a handicap of 40 kitchen chairs.
Although Pearl’s serves arrived in a service box that, by agreement, had been left clear, there were so many chairs in the rest of the court that Riggs, playing his normal soft-shot game, blew $100 in a one-set match.
The score was 6-0, Pearl.
Afterward, a challenger came down from the stands, seeking the same handicap. Riggs said no.
The guy said, “How about a side bet of $1,000.”
Riggs said yes.
And, suddenly, the 40 chairs were irrelevant. Riggs’ hard serves proved unreturnable--as did his suddenly hard service returns.
The score was 6-0, Riggs.
“The all-time hustle,” he said.
The ocean seems near enough to dive into from Riggs’ dining room, where he is seated. A tape recorder is on because he wants some of his last words preserved for those who visit the Riggs Tennis Museum.
His answer, accordingly, is on tape when he is asked about the biggest bet he ever made.
"(In 1992,) I bet $30,000 to $10,000 that Jimmy Connors wouldn’t lose a set to Martina Navratilova,” he said.
Using Riggs’ rules, Connors was restricted to one serve, and Navratilova was allowed the use of the doubles alley on Connors’ side.
That made things so close that the television commentator--Riggs--could hardly breathe. At times, in fact, he couldn’t get any words out--to the relief of the listening audience, it has been said.
“I was a little bit tongue-tied,” he said.
In the end, he and Connors both won, after which Riggs, banking the $10,000, said he would never make such a bet again.
He’d rather bet on himself, as he first did at 12, when his first interest was marbles. Tennis was then a distant second, in large part because his family couldn’t afford a racket.
“But nothing is forever,” his brother John, 84, said.
John remembers that one day during Bobby’s reign as the marbles champion of Lincoln Heights, in Los Angeles, he won every marble in the possession of a 13-year-old who lived nearby--even his shooter.
When the kid said he wanted them returned--and when he offered, in exchange, his sister’s new tennis racket--Bobby agreed.
Finally, with a racket of his own, he was in position to start another career--but not yet.
“The next day I went out and won the marbles back,” he said.
Bobby was the youngest of seven in the family of minister Gideon Riggs.
“He was a good father,” Bobby said. “But he frowned on card-playing and drinking. Also dancing, and even organ music, and especially gambling.”
Accordingly, Gideon, who was 50 when Bobby was born, often expressed displeasure with the youngest of his six sons, though he learned to take pride in him when he began winning as a teen-ager at the Los Angeles Tennis Club.
Older members recall that after Bobby’s first tournament victory there, Gideon, who was then nearly blind, stood outside beaming and accepting congratulations and shaking everyone’s hand.
“Just like coming out of church,” Bobby said.
That day, of course, Bobby had bet on himself to win.
He said he bet on every tennis match he was ever in.
That isn’t hard to do in London, where bookmaking is legal. And although he tried for better odds, he could only get 3-1, he said, on Riggs to win Wimbledon in 1939. Deciding to make a three-way parlay, the best he could get was 6-1 and then 12-1 in doubles and mixed doubles. So he bet only 100 pounds, about $500 in that era, and let it ride.
The parlay paid off at 21,600 pounds--or $108,000.
“The war was coming,” he said. “I just put it in a safety-deposit box.”
As a tennis champion, where does Riggs rank? Where will posterity place him?
Not at the top, surely, but not far behind, either.
Those who have followed his career report that from 13 to 76--from the amateurs to the seniors and beyond--Riggs was always the world’s best tennis player for his age.
They say he used his powers of analysis and concentration to consistently beat bigger and better, if not younger, players.
His friend Pancho Segura, the former tennis champion who lives down the road at La Costa, attributes Riggs’ success to the simple but decisive fact that he almost always had fewer unforced errors than his opponent.
“I once played amateur tournament tennis six months without double-faulting,” Riggs said.
Segura said: “Bobby has nerves of steel.”
Former football coach Sid Gillman, watching Riggs play golf on their home course, noticed that long ago.
One day when Riggs was playing with a new member, Gillman said, the other guy suddenly picked up the ball and threw it toward the green.
“I couldn’t believe it until they told me Bobby had arranged the game himself,” the coach said. “They were playing nine holes, and he had given the guy two throws a hole.”
And, Gillman said, “Bobby won.”
Throwing the ball can be an equalizer, Riggs said, adding: “One time I told Arnold Palmer that I’d play him 18 holes, for any amount, if he’d give me one throw a hole.”
Palmer thought it over for five or six seconds, then refused.
“Arnie doesn’t like to lose,” said Riggs, who says he taught himself golf by watching Palmer and others. “I can beat any golfer in the world who’ll give me one throw a hole.”
As every gambler knows, however, hustlers sometimes miscalculate. Riggs’ one big miscalculation was underestimating Billie Jean King.
Before their 1973 match, openly describing himself as a male chauvinist pig, he sought to psych her out by forming a Chauvinist Pig Club.
“We had a booth accepting new members at $10 a head,” he said.
King didn’t psych.
“I knew he had made a mistake when he, a 55-year-old man, agreed to three out of five sets with me, " she said the other day.
At the Astrodome, King had four big athletes carry her in on a litter like Cleopatra’s, upstaging Riggs. After they set her down, she stepped off like a queen, nodding curtly, and handed Riggs an exquisitely wrapped box.
When he opened it, a little pig jumped out.
So King was one up before the match began. She didn’t need five sets, taking him in three. But if Riggs still is looking for an epitaph, here’s one:
With chutzpah and style, he took almost everyone else.