Chips, chops, drops and lobs

Bobby Riggs, once Peck's Bad Boy of the tennis world, is back as a senior and a bit more mellow—but not averse to hustling an opponent
January 18, 1971

He has gained a pound or two around the middle and lost a step or two getting to the net, but the grin is as impish as ever and the duckfoot shuffle just as distinct. There is no mistaking exactly who he is—at least with a tennis racket in his right hand. After almost 20 years away from regular tournament competition Bobby Riggs is back, and the bustling senior circuit has taken on a new sparkle. If Riggs has his way, as subsequently will be revealed, his emergence from retirement may ultimately add new sparkle to the ladies' pro tour as well.

Riggs has just been missing, not forgotten. How could anyone really forget Bobby Riggs? The Great Retriever? The little man in the short pants who whipped all those big smash-bang fellows in the long white flannels simply by knocking back all their best shots again and again with an assortment of chips and chops and drops and lobs? Little Bobby, who made strong men seethe and antifans pour out to see him trounced?

Not that the cocky little man got trounced very often. He won the U.S. Boys' Doubles title, the U.S. Junior title and the men's singles at Forest Hills twice. In his first visit to Wimbledon, in 1939, Riggs won the men's singles and the doubles and mixed doubles. He tacked on four professional championships. Finally he faded from the scene in 1949 after a punishing 15-month world tour with the new king of tennis, Jack Kramer—although he breathed one last gasp by returning home from the tour to win the national pro championship for the last time, defeating favored Don Budge in a four-set final.

Riggs was never a terribly popular winner. He bragged about his own game and goaded opponents about theirs. He outslicked people with his gamesmanship as well as with his shotmaking. He hustled friends and strangers out of their money at tennis, craps, backgammon, dominoes, poker, table tennis, golf, marbles and even at flipping coins, but usually with a bravado that was somehow engaging.

"No one who knew Bobby could really dislike him," says another player who was winning national titles during that same era. "We all regarded him as a naughty boy who did naughty things."

"I like to bet on as close to a sure thing as you can find," Riggs once said, but he also liked to have some fun winning his sure thing. He would play you tennis for $500 while carrying a suitcase or an umbrella in his left hand, sitting in a chair between shots or walking to them or even tied to his doubles partner. Stories about Riggs make up a large part of the mythology of hustling.

So this was how Riggs got his sporting jollys—and some nice change—after Kramer drove him off the pro circuit. Meanwhile he also applied his energies to sports promotion, handling the dramatic Kramer vs. Gonzales tour of 1949 (a brilliant success) and a major league baseball barnstorming tour (a notable failure). He added golf to his repertoire, divorced his first wife and remarried, joined his new in-laws' business, the American Photograph Corporation, became its executive vice-president and raised a family of five boys and one girl. And all the while he dreamed of the day that real tournament tennis would go open and he could play full time again.

Riggs was looking very content and prosperous the other day. He wore a glen-plaid sports jacket, a light-blue shirt, dark-blue tie, charcoal-gray slacks, black pebbled loafers and tortoise-shell-framed eyeglasses as he sat behind the wide mahogany desk in his Great Neck, N.Y. office and smoked a cigar the size of a can of tennis balls.

"Looking back, I'm almost mad at myself for quitting when I did," he said. "I should have hung in tooth and nail. I don't like the route I decided to take. You know—if you can't be the champ, to hell with it. That's wrong thinking. But Kramer had established such a clear-cut supremacy I finally had to admit to myself that he was better, which is also wrong thinking. Being No. 2 or No. 3 was not an appealing situation to me. I just didn't seem to have that desire. I thought it would be much better to be a promoter. I could still make deals and smoke big cigars. Be in the act in some way. My ego was still being fulfilled. It made it easier not to be the champ."

Easier but still not easy. Riggs concentrated on his golf and paddle tennis, winning the U.S. paddle tennis championship in 1960, but these outlets didn't go very far toward quenching his thirst for competition. In 1968, when tennis turned open, Riggs was right there at the door with his racket at the ready.

"It was a whole new world to me," he said. "I'd often gone six, eight weeks without even holding a racket in my hand. Now I put my golf clubs in the back of the closet, took up jogging and began playing an awful lot of tennis again. I'm very fit. There is hardly anyone my age, 52, who is as fit as I am."

Even as a youngster Bobby Riggs seemed destined to become the archetypal senior player. Officially a player's senior career cannot begin until he is 45, a time of life when muscle and bone, with only a few exceptions, have become too creaky for effective handling of the big serve, the smash, the killing volley. The bread-and-butter strokes of senior tournament play are more likely to be tantalizing lobs, clever drop shots, maddeningly soft cuts and chops. At its worst, a game between two cautious seniors can deteriorate into what is known on the circuit as a softballing match, an endless duel of high lobs that continues for 60, 80, even 100 shots before a point is won. At its best, however, a game between two deftly confident senior players can achieve high excitement and produce the kind of shotmaking a great many weekend players might do well to emulate. A high degree of shamelessness is required to serve up some of the butterfly pop shots that are so often seen in a senior match, but they win points and, for the spectator, can also provide a refreshing change from serve, volley, smash.

Riggs has never flinched from the necessity of hitting a butterfly pop shot. Billy Talbert, a pretty good senior player himself, once described Riggs in his prime as "a player with no real weakness—and no real strengths, either, except the all-important one: he got the ball into the court. He returned everything. His own shots were delivered—like the pitches of such baseball 'junk artists' as Preacher Roe of the Dodgers and Eddie Lopat of the Yankees—with a baffling variety of speeds. He was the percentage player par excellence."

With these qualifications it is not surprising that Bobby was an almost instant success when he joined the seniors. Riggs' debut was delayed somewhat when he put his right hand through a glass window and severely gashed his thumb on the eve of the 1968 Wimbledon tournament, but in 1969 he swept the courts—grass, cement, clay, what have you—clean. He won the U.S. senior singles and went undefeated in every major national or sectional tournament he entered. Last year he hit something of a down note by losing his U.S. singles title and was put out in the semifinals of the Forest Hills Invitational Open. But his only defeats on grass were administered by foreign players and he will still rank among the top three in the U.S.

"Senior tennis is like the younger game in slow motion," says Riggs. "It is much more of a backcourt game. The player who had a big game in his prime finds it harder to play that same game as a senior. But any senior who could lob well when he was young can still hit a good lob. The drop shots and lobs are very effective in senior tennis. I've lost one or two steps covering the court, and I can't get my racket up fast enough to handle the dynamite serve. My reflexes at the net are a little slower. But I still have great touch and control. I can lob well and put good spin on the ball. If I can get to the ball in plenty of time there is no loss in accuracy."

Two other qualities that have not diminished through the years are Riggs' furious desire to win and the skillful gamesmanship he employs to aid in satisfying that desire. Riggs himself cites a match he played early in the 1969 Pacific Southwest Seniors against Charles Lass, a middle-ranked Californian whose strong suit was steadiness. In its way it was as much of a competitive classic as some of the matches the young Riggs had played against Budge, Frank Kovacs, Don McNeill and Kramer. Not that it started out that way. Just before the match Riggs met Arthur Ashe in the locker room and out of curiosity borrowed one of those gray aluminum-and-fiber-glass rackets of Arthur's that looks like a snowshoe. It was much too stiff for Bobby's soft game, and Lass won the first set 6-0.

"I was really trying to play," says Riggs. "Really trying hard. I thought, 'Hot damn, what can I do here. I'll just have to try harder.' " He also changed rackets.

What happened then was that Riggs and Lass fell into a marathon softballing duel. The match had started at about 11 a.m., and as it pattered into the afternoon word spread around the Los Angeles Tennis Club, where the tournament was being held, and the courtside crowd began to grow bigger and bigger.

"I've lost my confidence," said Riggs in his office, discussing the Lass match. "I'm not even hitting close to the lines, because I'm scared and he's hitting from corner to corner, running me ragged. By sheer determination, giving it the old college try, I win the second set something like 7-5, and then we go the locker room for a 10-minute rest, which is pretty welcome."

Riggs fell behind 3-5 in the last set and, he claims, was running so much he developed blisters on both feet. He sent to the pro shop for a new pair of tennis shoes and two pairs of fresh socks. The rest, while he changed into his new footgear, was pretty welcome, too. There were those present unkind enough to suggest that Riggs was trying to relieve acute exhaustion, not sore feet. When he got back out on the court Riggs suddenly seemed to be having trouble picking up loose tennis balls, and these suspicions were confirmed. Senior tournaments seldom provide the luxury of ball boys, and every time Riggs bent over to pick up a ball he somehow clumsily stubbed it with his toe, bouncing it into a far corner of the court. Then he'd slowly amble after it.

"Sure, some people interpreted this as gamesmanship," says Riggs. "I was tired, and it took time to change my shoes. I couldn't have done that at Wimbledon. I was stretching the rules a little. But it was real tough, we were having long rallies, and Lass had the stamina of a marathon runner. I'm wheezing and puffing, walking over to the corner to pick up balls. If it means I catch my breath, well, that's O.K. I'm old and tired. As long as I don't make it ridiculous. Some of the crowd started to root against me, but what did they want me to do? Run back and forth like crazy and then run to the net to congratulate Lass for winning? It was more important to try hard even if this meant stalling a bit. I'm not trying to prove I'm a good loser. Anyway, after about 65 shots were hit during one rally he hit a cross-court shot into the doubles alley and I won 10-8. The match lasted for something like 4½ hours. Call what I did senior tactics if you like, but Lass never said a word about it."

Lass, apparently, was deficient in an area where Riggs also excels. "Riggs is a big talker and can talk you out of the game before the match," says Torsten Johansson, a former Swedish Davis Cup player and the current U.S. senior titleholder. "When I played him in the 1969 championship in Philly I won the first set 6-1 and began wondering if I was the best player in the whole world. Riggs convinced me I was. He told me I played a fantastic game and fed me that line of talk. I lost the match 6-1, 2-6, 3-6."

The senior circuit is beginning to throng with name players from the past. Vic Seixas, Tom Brown, Gardnar Mulloy, Antonio Palafox, Frank Parker and Jaroslav Drobny rank with Riggs at the top. And a senior player with the time and money can easily find about 20 good tournaments to play in each year. The play, as Riggs suggests, may take place in something akin to slow motion, but its quality is high. Riggs, in fact, is ready to challenge the top women pros, Billie Jean King and Margaret Court.

"It would be close on grass," he says, "but on any other surface I could take them in a one-set match, two out of three or three out of five. I don't think they'd be able to overpower me. I'm a pretty smart tactician. I'd just play my regular game, play them from a defensive point of view. I'd use my excellent lob and drop shot and my good ball control. Billie Jean and Margaret are both forcing players, and they wouldn't have the degree of safety they'd need. I'd be getting their shots back, forcing them out of their natural rhythm and into an unfamiliar defensive pattern. I'd counterpunch, keep the ball at their feet, force them to overhit and to press. It would be close. Maybe they're better than I think they are."

Another fresh cigar had materialized in Riggs' fingers, and he puffed on it, smiling at the prospect of such a match. It would be a good show, whatever the result.

"I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is," he said.

How about you, Billie Jean? Wanna bet?

PHOTO'FAKE AN INJURY? WOULD I DO THAT?'

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)