BOBBY RIGGS was my friend. I know some people may be surprised
to hear that, but he was. The Battle of the Sexes irrevocably
bonded us. Even in the heat of our rivalry, Bobby was impossible
to resent or dislike, because he took such joy in the contest.
Bobby was the ultimate opponent; he would play anybody at
anything. When he died on Oct. 25, at age 77, after a long bout
with prostate cancer, I said goodbye to one of the great
adversaries in sports, to a brother and to a fellow champion.
What few people remember about Bobby is that he was once the No.
1 tennis player in the world. He wasn't just a gambler and a
gamesman; he was a legend. Long before I ever met him I felt
that I knew him, because while growing up in the tennis clubs of
Southern California, I heard such marvelous stories about him.
The most amazing of them was about how, as an unknown
21-year-old amateur in 1939, he went to London bookies and bet
heavily on himself, at long odds, to win a Wimbledon triple crown.
And then he did it. He beat Elwood Cooke in a five-set men's
final, teamed with Cooke to win doubles and partnered Alice
Marble to the mixed doubles crown. He went on to win the 1939
U.S. Championships singles title at Forest Hills and collect the
No. 1 ranking--and a few more bucks, no doubt.
The artistry of Bobby's game was later forgotten, when his
hustling became so outrageous. Once he played a British
Parliament member's wife with chairs and umbrellas spread here
and there on his side of the court. Another time he ran a
marathon in Death Valley against a Tasmanian long distance
champion and won. And, of course, he played me in 1973.
I didn't really want to play Bobby. I remember one night
Margaret Court and I were alone in an elevator in Detroit, and
she suddenly said, "I'm going to play Bobby Riggs for $35,000."
And I thought, That's not enough money for the hassle she's
going to get. I wished her luck and told her that it wouldn't be
a tennis match, that it would be a circus. "Do me one favor,
Margaret," I added. "Just beat him."
I was about to board a plane in Honolulu when I heard Bobby had
won 6-2, 6-1. I walked down the aisle of the plane with lockjaw,
because I knew I would have to play him. All of the implications
of the match flashed through my mind: It would be for Title IX
legislation and the women's movement and all of the inequities
women felt so deeply.
I hit 350 overheads a day trying to get ready for Bobby's spins
and lobs. When I arrived at the Astrodome in Houston, where
30,472 people attended the match, there was all kinds of hoopla.
I just sat there while Bobby said things like, "If a woman wants
to get in the headlines, she should have quintuplets." He was
hilarious, in his Sugar Daddy jacket with his briefcase full of
vitamins. It was great. Our sport needed to lighten up, we
needed to take it to the people, and that's what Bobby and I
did. We pushed every button people had.
When I won, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, Bobby was exceptionally gracious. He
jumped the net, kissed me and said, "You were too good. I wasn't
ready for how good you were."
From then on we kissed and hugged whenever we saw each other. He
at first wanted a rematch, but I felt one was all history
needed, and he came to agree with me. Eventually he became proud
that he had played me. He knew he had helped tennis and helped
People ask me if Bobby was really a chauvinist. I think he was
just a man of his era. Nora Ephron, the film director and
screenwriter, was a magazine writer previewing the match, and
she asked him what he really thought about women. He replied,
"All my life everything has been a contest. This so turns me on
and I so love it--I love the competition--and that's the thing I
crave, like some guys crave alcohol and other guys crave women.
I crave the game.... So to answer your question, what do I think
of women, I really never thought about them that much. I don't
really know much about them." Then Ephron asked what he really
knew about women's liberation. "You're not going to believe
this," he said. "Nothing."
Bobby was a hustler and a showman, but he was honest. He took
his defeats and paid his debts without complaint, and he
expected others to do the same. He had honor, and he had humor.
It is so important in any dialogue between opponents to maintain
those two things. In our case, it led to a deep regard for each
I said my farewell to Bobby three weeks ago. He knew it was
time; he was very sick, exhausted by pain, and he spoke with his
friends by phone from his home. One of his few pleasures was the
planning of the Bobby Riggs tennis museum, which is being
overseen by longtime friend Lornie Kuhle. Most of all he was
frustrated by his immobility, his inability to play any game.
"We really did it, didn't we, Billie?" he said. "We made a
difference." Then he said he loved me, and I said I loved him.