Bobby Riggs, the legendary tennis hustler, has a hundred bucks that says he can beat you. Somehow.

Great Top Spin Never Stops

Bobby Riggs and Jimmy Connors. Riggs may be nearly deaf, but he was always a better talker than a listener anyway.
  • Bobby Riggs and Jimmy Connors. Riggs may be nearly deaf, but he was always a better talker than a listener anyway.

The old guy over on court one was causing a scene again, shouting, stomping his feet, threatening to smash his $200 tennis racket on the ground if he didn't get his way, and generally carrying on like John McEnroe or one of the other young tennis stars who set such a bad example for our senior citizens today. Players in the nearby courts looked over and smiled politely at the older man's antics. He looked as though he could be anybody's father or grandfather, retired to a life of warm-up suits, double tennis, and napping in the sunshine of La Costa.

Bobby Riggs, circa 1940. "The grass-court circuit started at the Nassau Bowl on Long Island, then we went to Boston for the Longwood Bowl, then to Seabright, then to Southampton, then to Rye, then to Newport, then the national double at Forest Hills — "

Bobby Riggs, circa 1940. "The grass-court circuit started at the Nassau Bowl on Long Island, then we went to Boston for the Longwood Bowl, then to Seabright, then to Southampton, then to Rye, then to Newport, then the national double at Forest Hills — "

He had hearing aids in both ears, glasses thick and headlights, legs that looked sturdy enough to carry him as far as the nearest bar stool but no farther, and hair tinted a garish red that was growing out gray around the ears. Probably nobody but the three other player on his court knew that he was an ex-Wimbledon champion, the biggest hustler in the history of tennis, and the most famous woman-baiter in the country, who, at the age of 67, made something like $200,000 playing professional tennis last year.

Bobby Riggs.  "And you pulled it out?" Bobby shouted. Larry nodded, trying to hide the obvious pleasure he took in bringing this small victory to his father.

Bobby Riggs. "And you pulled it out?" Bobby shouted. Larry nodded, trying to hide the obvious pleasure he took in bringing this small victory to his father.

Though his tantrums are frequent, explosive, and unpredictable, they always have a purpose--usually to out-manipulate, outmaneuver, and outhustle his opponents. Bobby Riggs' immediate purpose was that he wanted a handicap in the upcoming doubles match. Seeing that his tantrum was having little effect on his opponents (Art Tilton, the club pro at the Olympic Resort Hotel, where they were playing, and Noren Honda, an ex-club pro in Hawaii turned North County businessman), Riggs changed his tactics and pleaded for reason. "I can't remember when I been in such bad shape, "he whined. :I got tendonitis in my wrist-- I hadda have two shots this morning for the pain! My legs are stiff. I havn't even played that much in the last two weeks. You gotta give me something in this match- at least point and serve!"

Riggs' partner in the match, his son Larry smiled and patiently stared at the sky. Even after forty-one years of practice at being Bobby Riggs' son, he still seemed slightly embarrassed by his father's shameless manipulations. How do you tell your own father to mellow out and be a good sport? he seemed to be thinking.

Finally, to get the match under way, Tilton and Honda grudgingly conceded the elder Riggs the advantages he wanted. After all, he was almost as old as the total of both their ages. Then, once that was settled, Riggs immediately launched another attack. "Bet me fifteen bucks! he demanded. "No," Tilton flatly refused. "I don't I did!" Riggs howled. "Three dollars," Honda offered. "You know I don't like to bet less than five," Riggs pouted. And that was an understatement. He generally doesn't like to bet less than twenty-five dollars on a match — and that's with his friends. For strangers, it a helluva lot more.

Once again, to get the match under way, Honda agreed to meet Riggs' demands. "He lost this morning," Honda explained to spectators on the sidelines, "so he has to redeem himself. We're talking about a guy who was Wimbledon champion, on the cover of Newsweek when he was twenty-one, U.S. singles champion twice, and has been champion in his age bracket almost every year since. But if he doesn't get win today, he's likely to go without dinner tonight. I guess that's why he's a winner."

"He hates to lose," son Larry Riggs agreed. "It doesn't matter if it's for five dollars, or for $5000. If he loses, he gets real quiet and won't talk to anybody."

Maybe it's sad that a sixty-seven-year-old man is still so obsessed with pursuing the clusive image of a "winner," particularly if he's already known such success in his youth. Or maybe his determination is inspiring, maybe Bobby Riggs is the champion of the golden years, bravely refusing to age gracefully. At any rate, that desire to be known as a winner is Bobby Riggs, and he seems incapable of accepting anything less. His family and friends understand and tolerate this, the way one might find amusement in the actions of a precocious child.

"Serve 'em up!" Bobby shouted, suddenly looking twenty years younger, magically rejuvenated by the possibility of winning hard cash. He pawed at the court with one foot, like a bulldog scratching for a fight.

As the double match got under way, it became clear that the old hustler in his sponsor's togs — Trump Hotel sweats and a Sugar Daddy baseball cap--had lost any power he may have once had. He can't hit the ball hard anymore, not even on his serve. he moves laterally with the grace of a crab, and his stamina is gone. He looked as though he would be doing well just to finished the set without throwing his back out. Still, he seemed to glow with confidence.

Even when he was in his prime, Bobby Riggs never looked like the champion of anything. He was too short, too skinny, maybe too slow. And for a champion of the Thirties, he was too brash, too rough around the edges, and officials of what had always been known as a gentleman's sport. But he always found a way to win, and during a time when even the best tennis players in the world could barely eke out a living, he made a fortune on the difference between what his athletic abilities appeared to be (not much, according to the sports writers of the time) and what they actually were (good enough to beat the best of his generation).

"What you gotta understand about Bobby," Honda explained, "is that he's going to take your money no matter what. You can't win. If you beat him on the court, he'll bet you at backgammon, Ping-Pong, poker, or pitching cards in a hat. If two dogs are crossing the street, he'll bet you which one gets to the other side first. And he'll take money from his own son, and he was old enough to bet."

For the last eight years, Riggs has lived at the Sea Bluff condominiums near Old Highway 101 and La Costa avenue in Leucadia. Shortly after Sea Bluff was built, the developers offered Riggs free use of a condo for a condo for a year if he would live there. He agreed, then liked the condo so much he offered to buy it. They gave it to him for $85,000, and it's probably worth three times that today.

Though Bobby says he liked Leucadia because he could sit on his porch and watch the waves break below him, other people say he chose Leucadia because of its proximity to L Costa, where there is a constant supply of wealthy quests willing to drop $200 or $300 for the chance to tell their friends back home they got out hustled by Bobby Riggs. "Instead of saying, 'Oh, here comes Bobby working his hustle again." a friend explained, "there are always new faces at La Costa willing to play him." Last year the management at La Costa fired one of their club pros after he was arrested on bookmaking charges (which were later dismissed", and it is said that they asked Bobby to keep his betting at La Costa under control. No one at La Costa would confirm this story, though they admitted Riggs's reputation as a gambler is well known. Regardless, lately Riggs has been playing his tennis just down the road from La Costa at the Olympic Resort Hotel, at El Camino Real and Palomar Airport Road, where he has a free membership.

Because San Diego County has so many tennis courts and tennis players, it's like a gold mine to Riggs, and he works it like a hard-rock miner. His son, Larry, who lives in La Costa, recalls days when his father would start at Point Loma Tennis Club and work his way north through La Joiia and Del Mar. he would play for ten, twenty, or maybe 50 dollars a set, sometimes dropping a set or two just to sucker a player in, then doubling the bet. By the time he finished, under the lights at La Costa, he had played maybe sixteen sets of tennis and left a trail of plucked pigeons behind him. For payment, he had a pocketful of cash, IOUs, and even automobile pink slips.

Some people say Riggs might be the best handicapper in the history of tennis. He has a talent for assessing the skills of his opponents, then arranging various gimmicks to make the game seems to be equal (though actually in his favor). He might ask for , or give, points going into a match. Who gets first serve is negotiable, too, or he might think up some stunt such as placing chairs on the court as obstacles for him to play around. Sometimes his handicaps have a more theatrical flair: in Las Vegas he once played two lesser-skilled opponents at the same time, while he held a sack full of silver dollars in one hand. The winner in that match (Bobby, naturally) got to keep the silver, Another time he played with a leashed poodle on his wrist.

Lately, though, Bobby's age is enough of a handicap in itself, and as the doubles match at the Olympics developed, it became clear that he and his son were going to have to come up with a miracle to pull it out. Bobby still had most of his shots: a good backhand, an overhead, and a lob. He had good hand control and a fine touch. Even more importantly, he had that merciless ability to spot his opponent's weakness, then pick away at it. But today that wasn't enough. "What's the score?" he growled. "Five-two," Larry Riggs answered. "Christ, they're killing' us," Boddy moaned.

Just off the court, Bobby's girlfriend, Miriam, sat bouncing Bobby's year-old grandson, Robby, on her knee. For a diversion, while he caught his breath, Bobby walked over and made goo-goo eyes at the boy. It was very touching, but nobody on the court was fooled by the ruse. "He'll try every trick in the book," Honda sighed, shaking his head.

Miriam, a blond, athletic tennis player of thirty-three, met Bobby about four years ago in Hawaii, where she worked as a club pro. "Of course I knew who he was a long time before that," she said. "I had watched him play in the Billy Jean King match back in 1973, not long after I was out of high school." They share the condominium in Leucadia now. When her parents come to visit them, Bobby finds it amusing to call her father "Dad," even though Riggs is several years older than he.

Riggs has been married twice, divorced twice, and has fathered six children. The life of a professional tennis player meant being away from home most of the time, and even today Riggs can recite the string of tournaments that were on the pro circuit of the 1940s like the scenes of a recurring dream. "The grass-court circuit started at the Nassau Bowl on Long Island, then we went to Boston for the Longwood Bowl, then to Seabright, then to Southampton, then to Rye, then to Newport, then the national double at Forest Hills — those were all grass-court tournaments, and they're all done away with now," Later, when he quit professional tennis and took up quit professional tennis and took up the life of a hotel promoter, gambler, and hustler, his second wife, Priscilla, sent him to a psychiatrist to try to cure him of his gambling habits, which she considered undignified and a poor example for their children. But after the third session, Bobby had the shrink pitching cards in a with him, and Bobby's second divorce soon followed.

After Bobby and his son had lost the doubles set, 6-4, he grabbed Honda by the shirt and said, I'll play you one set, double or nothing — but I got a bad wrist, so you gotta give me first serve." "Okay," Honda shrugged. "Let's play."

At first Bobby and the younger man running all over the court retrieving his perfectly placed placed shots, sweating, cursing, struggling to pull his game together. After a while, though, the strength of youth began to prevail. Between serves Bobby walked back to the service line slowly, with his hands on the small of his back. An older man can play this game, no doubt about it, but if he wants to win, he has to suffer.

On the sidelines, everyone else was soaking up the sunshine, reading the sports pages, talking about the upcoming football play-off games. But Bobby was out there struggling to redeem himself. "Hey, Noren!" Art Tilton called out to his partner. "You're ruthless beating up on an old man like that."

"When did you ever see him give me a break?" Honda replied. "Every point I ever won from him I had to earn." Soon Bobby saw there was no way he could win this set, so he walked to the net and motioned for Honda to join him. He put one fatherly hand on Honda's shoulder, winked, and whispered, with sincerity to spare, "I'll forfeit this match on one condition." "What's that?" Honda asked suspiciously, but curious, too, to see what the con artist had up his sleeve. "That you play my son, double-or-nothing." Honda laughed at Riggs' resourcefulness. "Sure," he said. "I'll do that."

Bobby, tired and stiff, apparently defeated, gave his son a stern warning as ha walked off the court, sounding exactly like Burgess Meredith playing Rocky's trainer. "You gotta outplay him!" Then he limped into the lounge, ordered a Beck's beer, and sat down to lick his wounds.

When Bobby Riggs won at Wimbledon back in 1939, most of the big tournament, including Wimbledon, were still amateur, and prize money was, at least technically, against the rules. "If you were a top player like I was, you could make a little money under the table. But not much," Riggs explained. Not even the few professional. Not even the few professional tennis players were making much money at the game. "The way it worked was, the top amateur of the year signed a contract with the top professional to play a series of matches around the world-and they were the only two people who made any money at the game. We had endorsements, but nothing like today. We might get $5000 from Wilson's [sporting goods]. Now the players get three or four hundred thousand dollars for an endorsement. There's so many millionaire tennis players it's ridiculous. Last year Ivan Lendl won a tournament, and they gave him a solid gold tennis racket worth $750,000! Even the top woman is making six, seven, eight million a year!'

Riggs's official prize for winning Wimbledon in 1939 was silver trophy and a $150 gift certificates don't pay your hotel bills. So it was no doubt an indication of the direction Bobby Riggs's career would take-both as a tennis player and hustler extraordinaire — that he left Wimbledon that year with $100,000 in his pocket. How he wangled that is one of his favorite stories. "In 1939 nobody had ever won all three matches at Wimbledon — the singles, the doubles. The bookies said it couldn't be done. Betting was legal at Wimbledon, and there were hundreds of bookies there were hundreds pounds on myself to win the singles won. Let it ride on the doubles won. Let it ride on the mixed doubles, and won again. When I cashed in, that hundred pounds had turned into more than $100,000. That was my first, and best, hustle of all time."

At age twenty-one, when the rest of the world was trying to log its way out of a depression, Bobby Riggs was financially independent. One of the reasons he was so successful as a tennis player and gambler later on was that he never had to do anything desperate. He could afford to wait for the right situation, the right odds, because he already had the security he needed.

It's the kind of story that can make compulsive gamblers out of people who already have those inclinations — the long shot that sets you up for life. But what would-be gamblers have to understand is that Bobby Riggs isn't so much a gambler as a professional athlete who has almost limitless confidence in his own abilities. He doesn't get the same pleasure out of betting on horse that he gets from betting on himself, because he can't make the horse run faster. He didn't get rich by beating the odds; he got rich by affecting the odds. Also, while it may seem as if he has spent his whole life playing the odds. Also, while it may seem as if he has spent his life playing games, he takes his games more seriously than most people take their work, and if it's true he has been a winner all his life, the price for that has been that he has spent his life obsessed with winning.

Unlike most boys, the young Bobby Riggs had an indetermination to win at everything. He was born in Los Angeles on February 25, 1918. His father was a Church of Christ minister who disapproved of gambling, as well as playing sports on Sunday. Bobby had five older brothers, all of them athletes, and like most boys, he grew up playing sports of all kinds. "When I first picked up a tennis racket, had a background in baseball, basketball, football, and track. I almost felt like a pro athlete at age twelve. So what chance did any other twelve. So what chance did any other twelve-year-old have to beat me, even if he had been taking lessons at the country club? He didn't have my determination, my experience at being a winner. I knew I was supposed to be a winner, and I still feel that way today. Looking back, I sometimes wonder where I got that kind of self-confidence. My inner self just knew I was going to be a champion. I never had to wonder what I would do if I didn't make it in tennis. There was never any question that I was going to make it.

Riggs won his first tennis tournament the same year he took up the game. Then, in four years of high school, he never lost a match, and for three years in a row he was the California state champion in his age group.

Of all the games Riggs could have taken up, tennis was probably the best suited to his abilities. "I was never very big or very powerful," he said. "But tennis happens to be the one sport where you aren't penalized for not being big, and tall, and strong. Tennis is a game of agility, quick reactions, and technique."

Even more than that, tennis is a game of intangibles-of mental toughness, of will power, and of the ability to exclude everything from your mind except the game. Riggs was a natural at this because, truly, nothing else mattered to him except the game. "I was always able to make sacrifices other guys couldn't make. When I was in school, I didn't have to have a job to buy a car, I didn't have to go to dances with the girls. I didn't care about the girls, I had tunnel vision. I only wanted to be the champion. I didn't allow myself to be distracted. I didn't have to have a pretty girl to fall in love with and who would always be wanting me to take her to the movies-and all those other things which can easily distract any young man." If people sometimes have to make a choice between love and success, Bobby never had any doubts about which one he'd take.

But the career of a professional tennis player is a short one, and when Riggs's career ended in the mid-Forties, he worked as a club pro at the Dunes in Las Vegas, and later at the Tropicana. His duties were more to promote the casinos than to teach tennis. He hung around with the big spenders and charmed, cajoled, and dared them into living more dangerously than their instincts told them they should. In a way, he was like a walking billboard for the sporting life. Out of the millions of gamblers who flock to Las Vegas looking for that one lucky break in their lives so they can call themselves a winner, here was one man who seemed to have the ability to capitalize on that, too. And compulsive gamblers will hock their kids' saving bonds just to breathe the same air as somebody with those qualities.

Naturally, running with the high rollers turned out to be very lucrative for Riggs. Once, playing golf in West Virginia, he won $180,000 from an oil millionaire. "This guy had a reputation for being a big gambler," Riggs recalled. "He'd bet a million dollars every weekend on football and baseball. We'd been playing golf together all winter long, until he had to go home to take care of some business for a couple of weeks. When he came back, his game was way off. But he wasn't an athlete, and he didn't understand it was because he was out of practice. He kept he tried, the worse his game got. He kept doubling up his bets, hoping to get back what he'd lost, and by the end of the week he'd lost more than a million dollars. I only got $180,000 of it, but that was still the best I ever did at golf."

The memories of past victories seemed to stir Riggs's juices as he sat forward in his chair in the lounge of the Olympic Resort, ordered another beet, and got down to some serious storytelling. "The strangest bet I ever had was when Evel Knievel bet me $25,000 that I couldn't ride a motorcycle from Las Vegas to Twin Falls, Idaho. It was right before Evel made his jump across the Snake River [in September of 1974]. He held a news conference, and I happened to be there. He asked me if I'd ever ridden a motorcycle, and I said I'd hardly ever been on one. So he said I'd hardly ever been on one. So he said it was harder then it looks and bet me I couldn't do it."

Knievel arranged for the Harley Davidson Company to donate two motorcycles--one for Riggs to ride, and one for his crew to tow along behind in case Riggs cracked up the first one. "The hardest thing about that bet was passing the driver's test. Women's lib was going pretty strong then, and because of some things I'd said about women tennis players, I was known as the number-one chauvinist pig in the country. Well, when I went down to the department of motor vehicles in Las Vegas to take the driver's test, the examiner turned out to be a woman. And she wouldn't pass me! I had to practice doing figure eights for about two hours before she would give me my license."

Riggs took off the next morning and got about 200 or 300 miles into northern Nevada before he hit a rain squall. It was summertime, but at an elevation of about 7000 feet, it was still quite cold. By nightfall, when Riggs finally arrived at the little town where he was to spend the night, he says he was so stiff his crew had to lift him off the motorcycle and put him in a hot tub of water before he could move.

The next day Riggs rode all the way to Twin Falls, and the day after that Evel Knievel made his famous jump. "Maybe you remember," Riggs said, "Evel didn't make it all the way across. He opened his chute and landed in the gorge. My first thought when I saw that was, 'oh, my God, what's happened to Evel?' My next thought was, 'Oh, my God, I'll never collect on my bet.' But Evel was all right, and he paid me the money."

The event that marked Bobby Riggs' comeback as a nationally recognized figure in the world of tennis was his 1973 match with Billy Jean King. On Mother's Day of that year, to the horror of many female professional tennis players, he had defeated Margaret Court, one of the best players of that time. After that victory Riggs immediately began baiting Billy Jean King by saying things to her such as, "You not only couldn't beat one of the top male tennis players, but you couldn't even beat a tired old man like me." Riggs shrewdly took advantage of the political climate of the time by promoting the match as "The Battle of the Sexes." It was classic Riggs style-- more showmanship than tennis--but something about it captured the country's imagination. Before the match, he was on the cover of Times, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated and appeared on The Tonight Show. At a time when most men in the country seemed uncertain about how to react to the women's movement, Riggs went on the attack. "A women's place," he said, "is in the bedroom and in the kitchen, in that order." Jimmy the Greek gave Riggs 5-2 odds in the match while Riggs trained in San Diego. ABC paid $750,000 for the TV rights, even though Wimbledon only brought $50,000 that year. On the day of the match at the Houston Astrodome, with Howard Cosell serving as announcer, 30,472 people- the largest crowd ever to attend a tennis match — watched him get soundly defeated by Billy Jean King, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. But even though he had lost, the match had made Riggs a national media star and a kind of hero to men over 55. One sports writer went so far as to call him Muhammad Ali of the Geritol set. Most women still thought of him as the arrogant little jerk with the big mouth. Riggs seemed to love the attention, good or bad.

More recently, in August of 1985, Riggs tried again. He set up a double match in which he and Vitas Gerulaitis played Martina Navratilova and her partner, Pam Shriver, at Trump Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. Now it was Gerulaitis who shot off his mouth, saying that the top-rated woman tennis player couldn't beat the hundredth-ranked man. But this time nobody cared. The best pr-match publicity Riggs could get was appearing on the Merv Griffin Show wearing his tennis shorts. Merv made fun of his knobby knees. The national media had grown tired of Riggs' promo-hype, and sports writers all over the country wrote cynical stories ridiculing the match. What it amounted to was a promotional stunt for the Trump Hotel and Casino, where Riggs is under contract to appear four days out of every month as their "ambassador of goodwill" — his duties include holding parties in the slot machine room, where he encourages the little old ladies of Atlantic City to go broke. Not even Riggs thought he and Gerulaitis could beat the women. "We had to say we could win to promote the match," he admitted later. The sorry spectacle was carried on pay-cable TV to an indifferent audience. The men lost. "I thought Vitas would be able to intimidate them," Riggs said, "But that didn't happen. I must have looked weak to him, and he tried to take all the shots, trying to do the impossible."

After the match, Navratilova congratulated Riggs by saying, "I hope I'm running around as well as you when I'm your age." Riggs and Gerulaitis divided the $200,000 losers' prize, while the women split $300,000. Win or lose, no other 67-year-old tennis player has ever made that kind of money. Once again, Riggs had managed to turn defeat into victory.

Shortly after that match, Riggs went to little Rock, Arkansas, where he salvaged his dignity by winning the 60-and-over national championship on clay, a title he has held five times, what he has been proving ever since he was a teenager: that for his age, he is the best tennis player in the country. He may be nearly deaf, but he was always a better talker than a listener anyway, so the deafness only formalized what had always been so, he may be stiff, and slow, and short on stamina, but only compared to a man half his age. Foe sixty-seven, he's still a remarkable athlete.

After Riggs had finished his second beer, his son Larry and Honda came staggering into the lounge, still sweating, and sat down next to Bobby, who immediately asked his son. "Well," Larry said, proudly, "he had me four-one, add out." "And you pulled it out?" Bobby shouted. Larry nodded, trying to hide the obvious pleasure he took in bringing this small victory to his father.

Bobby had lost every match he had played that day, forfeited another after his body (but not his spirited) quit on him, and spent most of the afternoon in the lounge sipping beer. Yet he had still managed to squeeze twenty bucks from his opponent. Every day is a payday when you're born to win.

"Now, who wants to play backgammon?" Riggs asked, happy as a kid on a pogo stick.

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