It’s not surprising that Bobby Riggs used to live in Palm Beach County. After all, it’s the place where great hucksters come to dwell.
And Riggs was one of the most colorful in modern sports.
The late Wimbledon tennis champion and unrepentant “male chauvinist pig” is being rediscovered this month through “Battle of the Sexes,” a movie about his famous 1973 match with Billie Jean King. Opening Friday, it stars Steve Carell as Riggs and Oscar winner Emma Stone as King.
Riggs would be loving every minute of it. Here was a guy who craved the spotlight of overhyped, outrageous competition — especially if there was a side bet involved. Good or bad, it was all publicity and a paycheck to Bobby Riggs.
For Billie Jean King, it was another story. She spent the early ’70s fighting hard for financial parity in women’s tennis. Riggs’ mocking male supremacy, his taunts that women tennis players were inferior to men, could not go unanswered.
About 50 million people tuned in to watch their gender duel, an early form of reality TV. And after years of loudmouthing, Riggs couldn’t prove his claims on court. He was easily humiliated by King before a national prime-time audience — the libber topping the lobber in a straight-sets victory for the women’s movement.
Not that Riggs acted embarrassed for long. He soon doubled down on his show biz shtick in frequent visits to South Florida, where he would challenge female tennis players such as Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, appear in local charity matches and even take on total strangers at a Roger Dean car dealership.
In 1992, three years before he died of prostate cancer at age 77, Riggs and his wife moved into a condo in Boca Grove Plantation, a south county golf and tennis community where the Post reported that he was planning to spend most of his time.
It brought him full circle. As an amateur, Riggs played in the first South Florida Tennis Championships at Howard Park in West Palm Beach in 1938, five years before Billie Jean King was born.
As King often pointed out, Riggs was the world’s top-ranked men’s player three times in the late ’30s and ’40s, winning Wimbledon and the precursor to the U.S. Open in 1939. By the 1970s, though, he was known more for his alpha-male antics than tennis ability.
He first took on women’s champ Margaret Court, and strutted after defeating her. But his real target was King. After his loss, some argued that Riggs purposely tanked to pay off gambling debts to Florida mobsters. He always denied it, saying he “underestimated” King in their $100,000 faceoff at the Houston Astrodome.
While King used the victory to promote sports opportunities for women, Riggs kept doing what he knew best — hustling. He’d play exhibition matches with a racket in one hand and an umbrella in the other. He’d line up rows of chairs on his side of the net as obstacles. Sometimes, he’d wear combat boots instead of sneakers.
In our photo archives, there is a 1975 picture of Riggs playing 12 nurses from the former Parkway Hospital in Miami Gardens — all at once.
“When one of the girls served, she hit another girl on the side of the head,” said the patronizing photo caption. “Riggs kissed them all before and after the matches.”
The grabbing and kissing was something Riggs wouldn’t get away with today. In fact, he’d probably get arrested for it. But his misogyny was often overlooked, or painted as an aging ham’s harmless lark. And he never hid his main objective — money.
As he told a Post reporter during a Port St. Lucie charity golf tournament: “You know how much I’ve made in public appearances” after playing Court and King? “Since the two sex matches, I’ve made over $1.5 million. I’m doing pretty good.”
He’d do anything. Over the Independence Day weekend in 1975, Riggs appeared at the Roger Dean Chevrolet on Okeechobee Boulevard, where he gamely faced challengers on a specially constructed court, according to a Post story. He wore his candy sponsor’s Sugar Daddy coat, just like he did in his match with King. When asked about her, he said she was “the greatest. Just like a new car from Roger Dean.”
He was always angling for a rematch with King.
“No way, Jose,” King told the Post in 1983. “Bobby bugged me for three years before I agreed to play him 10 years ago and a rematch wouldn’t benefit me any. It would be great for who? Great for Bobby, of course.”
He did get one last hustle in.
In February 1985, Riggs held a press conference at the Lipton International Players Championship in Delray Beach. As the Post’s Dave George reported, Riggs and Vitas Gerulaitas challenged Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver to a $500,000 match. Riggs was wearing a hearing aid and a sign around his neck that read “No. 1,000,” a joking reference to his ranking among pro players at age 66.
“I think we’re going to kill them and it’s going to put women’s tennis back another 20 years,” declared Riggs, proving that he hadn’t grown more enlightened.
But there was one similarity. Just like King did against Riggs, when the August 1985 exhibition doubles match took place in Atlantic City, the women defeated the men in three straight sets. And it didn’t get anywhere near the publicity of his battle with Billie Jean.
King, who briefly ran a professional tennis team in Wellington in the early ’90s, could have been bitter toward Riggs. But she always spoke fondly of his hustling ways.
“We get along great,” she told the Post. “He did a lot for tennis in both playing and promoting.”
Despite the pressure she felt to vanquish him for women everywhere, King once wrote that they were bound together.
In an HBO documentary, she recalled talking to Riggs the night before he died.
Her final words to him? “I love you.”
Sources: The archives of the Palm Beach Post and Miami News, Wikipedia