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Mon, July 22

Column: Bobby Riggs earned his reputation as 'The Hustler of Tennis'

At his full height of 5 feet 7 inches - the son of a preacher from Southern California became one of the best known tennis players twice - first as a great player who in 1939 was a finalist in the French, winner of Wimbledon in all three events, the U.S. Open that same year and then the U.S. Open again in 1941. The second time around was as a 55-year-old has-been tennis player who challenged and beat the No. 1 female player in the world, Margaret Court, 6-2, 6-1 and then goaded Billie Jean King to take him on in the "Battle of the Sexes" in 1973.

 The one and only Bobby Riggs.

 A very good junior player who many had doubts about making it to the big time due to his size, Bobby proved them wrong with the type of game that kept the best players in the world on their toes hitting deep groundies followed by drops, angles and lobs. What he lacked in power he made up for in finesse and quickness, not to mention being able come up with solutions in the toughest of matches and situations.

 Along with a game that made fans come to life, Riggs had a special zest for making bets - from early in life to the end of it, Bobby Riggs became known for hustling on everything he could - said it made him feel alive in a way nothing else could - and he was pretty good at it. Tennis, shooting free-throws, cards, golf, and everything in between. 

 One of his earliest best known bets was at Wimbledon in 1939 where he waged he would win all three events, singles - doubles and mixed doubles. The odds were severely against that happening, but it did and he won more than $100,000, which he couldn't get out of the country until after the war ended. That was an enormous amount of money in those days and he sweated bullets not knowing how the war was going to go and if he'd ever see any of it.

 After the war he turned professional and played a few years barn-storming the country, became a promoter after retiring from that and then joined a company away from tennis for 20 years or so. 

And then he returned to the masses with a plan of action that grabbed the country, an old man playing the No. 1 women player in the world - and with women's rights being in the limelight at that time this gig he cooked up made headlines, now known as the "Mother's Day Massacre."  After Court lost to Riggs, he chased the best known women player of the time, Billie Jean King, and locked the then 29-year-old into the most watched match ever - "The Battle of the Sexes" - which was held in the Houston Astrodome, Sept. 20, 1973.

 Thirty thousand people paid to watch the match in the dome and over 15 million Americans saw it on television.

 Riggs, the male chauvinist pig, lost the match badly, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 much to the delight of women around the world.

 But there was more to the story that came out a few years ago by a gentleman by the name of Hal Shaw (79), a former golf pro who overheard some mobsters a couple months prior to the first match Riggs played, saying how Riggs would win this first match and then throw the one after so the money he owed them would be erased. He supposedly had a debt with the mob of over $100,000. This 40-year-old secret reopened the whole question of that match where many at that time felt it had been thrown.

 Personally I challenge any of you to view the video tape of the match and watch the type of errors that Riggs made - many of them glaring, hit softly in the bottom of the net, shots that no professional would ever make. Double faults that didn't make sense, nearly half of his first serves were missed - none of this was the real Bobby Riggs. Add to that Bobby's son Larry said his father had Mafia ties and this scenario was very possible. Bobby also believed he would get a rematch from Billie Jean where he could get his revenge and make even more money, which never happened.

 So, did he throw it? I think he did - but since Bobby died saying he lost fair and square, no one will probably ever know for sure - and that probably irks BJK and the women's rights movement women, but certainly keeps the mystery and mystique of the Bobby Riggs legend right where he'd want it - in the middle of controversy.

Chris Howard is a local USPTA tennis professional with over 40 years in the racquet and fitness industry. He can be reached at 928-642-6775 or


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