Surely it was something less than the "Match of the Century in the Battle Between the Sexes," as Bobby Riggs kept shrieking, and something more than "a bit of a Sunday hit," as Margaret Court was wont to say. But the marvelous thing about the Court-Riggs tennis match that flimflammed its way into the hearts of America on Mother's Day was that nobody knew exactly what it was.
It was tennis, of course, but was it sport? It was fun, to be sure, but was it more than just a game? In fact, who were Bad Bob (see cover) and Mighty Maggie? Were they Rhett and Scarlett? Norman and Germaine? Sonny and Cher? And was Ramona, Calif. Granada they saw, or only Asbury Park?
Indeed, there was so much Hollywood and psychology and Madison Avenue and sociology; so much Barnum & Bailey and Esalen and New Journalism and Old Frontier; so many Rolls-Royces and rattlesnakes and male chauvinist pigs and flaming lady libbers; and so many hundreds of tumbling dice and Mickey Mice scampering around the place that it is a wonder Court and Riggs surfaced long enough lo carry out the thing.
But when they did, the event finally transcended all of the spectacular nonsense and somehow nestled itself at the very core of the human relationship. Before the match began he presented her with roses. She curtsied and gave off the hint of a blush. After all was said and done, this really was a man against a woman.
May 20, 1973
The fact that it also was a junk-hitting, scrambling old retriever of 55 against a powerful 30-year-old serve-and-volley advocate at the peak of her career supposedly made it equal. And the fact that Riggs—with his vast assortment of garbage shots, shrewd use of pace and spin and unholy barrage of what Pancho Segura called "cotton balls"—beat Court 6-2, 6-1, made it stimulating. But the result settled little. It does not mean that women's tennis is a fraud, that Chris Evert should switch to darning sweat sox. Nor does it mean that Billie Jean King should be arrested for disturbing the peace and be paid lower wages than Stan Smith. And it certainly does not mean that any creaky old cadaver with a drop shot can beat any strong young thing in a skirt 25 years his junior. (Could even Bad Bob himself, say, repeat his victory four out of seven, NBA style?)
What the match did establish was that Robert Larrimore Riggs, a bespectacled, ferret-faced, squeaky-voiced little gentleman of leisure who had worked long and hard for this moment, had finally done it. He had gone and pulled off the finest pure hustle in the modern history of American sport.
It was almost as if Riggs had picked his spot, too, as if he had realized two years ago when he began his shrill shilling about man vs. woman that, when it caught on, he should be ready to play and in the most romantically obscure setting possible. So it was that he beckoned television and radio and newspapers and magazines and gamblers and goldbricks and princes and paupers and stars of stage, screen and cassette and promoters of everything from copper bracelets to vitamin pills ("How about Bobby Riggs senior citizen support stockings?" he said) to a place called San Diego Country Estates.
They all came, too. Into the orange groves of the San Vicente Valley, over the Cuyamaca mountains, through the Barona Ranch Indian reservation and Wildcat Canyon, where narcotics smugglers from Mexico still make midnight air drops and, finally, to just outside dusty Ramona, which had not seen such excitement since last summer when the temperature leveled off at 117°, and all the chickens died. If Bryan and Darrow could settle the question of the evolution of man in Dayton, Tenn., Court and Riggs could do the same for women in Ramona, Calif.
The game of tennis had never seen anything like it. There had been countless matches between men and women players of quality before, but few were officially sanctioned and the results—almost always favoring the men—were sketchily recorded. As teen-agers in the 1930s, for example, Jack Kramer and Bill Talbert defeated Alice Marble. Prior to that, Bill Tilden played Suzanne Lenglen and beat her easily. Then there was Pauline Betz Addie, who claimed that Tilden could crush her when he was 50 but that, when Big Bill turned 55, she could beat him. More recently, Billie Jean King played former Davis Cupper Gene Scott (29 at the time) after being spotted 10 points in a 21-point pro set. She lost 21-17. But none of these matches had the drama, intrigue and importance of Court-Riggs in Ramona.
Originally, Riggs, claiming that women were receiving too much attention and money, issued his challenge to King, "the sex leader of the revolutionary pack," as he calls her. "If she can't beat a tired old man," he said, "she doesn't deserve half her dough." When King declined, Court, the regal Australian who has won more Big Four titles than any player—man or woman—stepped in. In the three months since the terms of the match were announced—Riggs would put up his $5,000, the resort development $5,000, winner take all, and television would pay off everybody concerned in bushel baskets—Riggs kept talking and Court kept winning (10 of the 12 Virginia Slims tournaments; over $82,000 in prize money) and both in their fashion hyped the gate.
Though to most women she had become a living, breathing crusade more fervid than the meat boycott, Court rejected deep meanings in the match. "I am not carrying the banner for women's lib," she said. "I've never said we deserve prize money equal to the men. I'm playing this match for me. A woman is not supposed to beat a man, so I've nothing to lose."
But some of her sisters on the tour were not so sure. "Why should we have to justify ourselves against an old, obnoxious has-been like Riggs who can't hear, can't see, walks like a duck and is an idiot besides?" said Rosie Casals in a spontaneous burst of diplomacy. King suggested Court wear "psychedelic ear plugs" to combat Riggs' jabbering and admitted, "If Margaret loses, we're in trouble. I'll have to challenge him myself."
Meanwhile Riggs was training diligently. He jogged, cut down on starches, cigars and alcohol and stuffed his face with a staggering 415 vitamin pills every day in what he called a "rejuvenation process." One friend said, "If the pills work, by Sunday Riggs will be four years old."
In addition, Riggs was in a heaven cum hell of his own making. Overnight he had become a symbol of female hatred and the leading chauvinist in 50 states plus Canada (50,000 "Bobby Riggs Bleah!" buttons were manufactured in Toronto). But he loved it. He was prancing and dancing in the limelight.
After all, this is a man whose finest hours in tennis—Wimbledon and U.S. champion in 1939—have paled beside his subsequent exploits at the gaming tables and his renowned skill at trickery. He has proudly hustled golf, Ping-Pong, dominoes, pool, craps, backgammon, gin rummy and marbles. On the court, he has played for huge stakes while buttoning an overcoat, running around chairs, lifting a bucket of water, holding a suitcase, wearing an eye patch with his arm in a sling and tugging a poodle on a leash. He has won and lost kings' ransoms many times over. The only stories he denies are that at birth his opening line was "Wanna bet?" and that he once played a set while clinging to an elephant.
But past adventures were merely preparation for the Court match. Indeed, probably his entire life cycle has been one long rehearsal for Ramona.
"Look at all these telephone messages," Riggs would crow every day in his strange, machine-gun staccato. "This match is unbelievable. The eyes and ears of the world are on me. I am the greatest money player in history. I am the finest defensive player in the game. Margaret is the biggest hitter of the girls. What a match! Nobody has a clue how it will go. The mystery of the age. What a deal!"
Later, in a fascinating non sequitur filled with all sorts of Freudian implications, Riggs angrily announced that he was playing the match out of dislike for women; that women destroyed men's egos and that he would "get back at all of them right here in beautiful San Diego Country Estates." Behind such ranting lurked an interesting history of women in his life.
As a youngster, Riggs' two most significant tennis instructors were women. He has been married and divorced twice. There is no record of his ever lacking for female companionship during his travels around the tennis globe. And last week his only daughter, 19-year-old Dolly, flew in from Florida to be constantly at his side.
Speculation grew each day as to how much Riggs had bet on the match—and, not entirely in jest, which side his money was on—but all he would say is, "I have a few customers stashed away."
A true hustler always controls his odds, naturally, and Riggs did his best to attribute all advantages to the enemy side. They were playing on Mother's Day. The surface was hard cement, better for Court to crash her dynamite power game at him. And what else? Ah, the balls. Riggs made such a production of wanting lightweight balls that finally Court, who had been practicing in Berkeley with heavy ones, agreed in absentia to a coin flip. Riggs, with face straight, called it the "Flip of the Century" and then proceeded to lose it.
When Court finally arrived at the site 48 hours before the match Riggs greeted her warmly. As photographers swarmed around, he edged closer and began his routine. Whispering, chattering, he played to the crowd while talking to Margaret, her husband Barry and even their 14-month-old son Danny.
"Psych the kid out, Bobby baby," shouted a PR guy. Court barely smiled at any of it. Riggs continued his patter and tweaked cheeks all around. Danny stuck out his tongue.
"Do you realize, Margaret, that this is the most important match ever played? Just think how many women are counting on you," said Riggs.
"Get off it, luv," said Court.
Most observers anticipated a close tussle, with Riggs pulling out all his tricks to upset Court's concentration and to zero in on her shaky nerves. "I don't want him hacking me around," she said. "But he can't be up to too much mischief or he'll make a fool of himself. On the other hand, maybe that's the idea."
Court's Sunday, Hustling Sunday, began with Danny Court throwing his mother's tennis shoe in the toilet, and deteriorated from there. In an ironic contest, where the woman was supposed to hit like a man and the man like a woman, Court seemed altogether bewildered, a lamb lost.
Beset by jitters, confused by Riggs' mixing of lobs, drops and slices, she fell apart in the beginning and never regained her composure. She connected on only 18 of 37 first serves, a shocking figure. She made 10 return errors against a serve that came up like a watermelon. And her forehand, which Riggs attacked throughout, seemed punch-drunk.
From the time Riggs, wearing a visor and mincing around like an aging Peter Pan, swept the first three games with the loss of only four points, the match dwindled into an embarrassment. Riggs reached into his "psych bag" just once—on the third point of the day—when he blooped a serve that looked as if it should be arrested for loitering. Court smacked it back for a winner, but it was one of her few solid shots and the ploy possibly shook her just enough to be effective.
Afterward, Court said she lost her rhythm early, and with it all confidence. "I didn't expect so many soft shots," she said. "We girls don't play like that."
Riggs payed tribute to Court's "sportsmanship" and babbled on for nearly an hour about the consequences of the match and his future. Some of it was even coherent.
"I'm like a fire horse when the alarm goes off in a battle against a woman," he said. "Don't ever count me out. Now I want King bad. I'll play her on clay, grass, wood, cement, marble or roller skates. We got to keep this sex thing going. I'm a woman specialist now. I'm going around the world to challenge all the woman champions. England, France, Czechoslovakia, everywhere. Me against them, sex battles. I've found a whole different life."
Whether he knew it or not, Bobby Riggs also had created a brand new term—Male Chauvinist Hustler.