30 years later, King vs. Riggs still resonates

Posted: Thursday, September 18, 2003

At first, Billie Jean King kept shooing Bobby Riggs away, essentially telling the tennis hustler to get lost. She had too many other things on her plate to be bothered with his hare-brained scheme.

But Riggs was persistent.

So everywhere King went 30 years ago, there was Riggs hanging around, insisting that they play a match, telling her they would make a fortune.

Think about the implications: A 55-year-old man against a 29-year-old woman, a showdown of the sexes at center court.

Consider the time: Title IX, guaranteeing equal opportunity to women college athletes, was in its infancy. King had just launched the Women's Tennis Association. The Women's Sports Foundation and World Team Tennis were in the planning stages. She had no time for Riggs and his tomfoolery.

So the tennis hustler went shopping elsewhere and lured Margaret Court Smith onto the court. Riggs beat her soundly in a winner-take-all $10,000 promotion he called the Mother's Day Massacre.

In an interview taped before his death in 1995 and to be shown on The Tennis Channel as part of its 30th anniversary airing of Riggs-King match on Saturday, the hustler explained his strategy against Smith.

''I got her sidetracked,'' he said. ''I gave her a bouquet of roses. She was bewitched and bewildered. I had her on a slow court with a high bounce. She played a bad match. When I have a high bounce, I have time.''

Now, King had no choice. She would have to play Riggs.

''I understood the consequences,'' she said. ''I knew it was high risk. I didn't want anything to set us back.''

Riggs, the promoter, hyped the $100,000 winner take all match as The Battle of The Sexes. He proudly proclaimed himself a male chauvinist pig and gulped vitamins by the handful. It was a huckster's paradise.

''Yeah, he was popping vitamins,'' said Larry Riggs, Bobby's son. ''He was also smoking cigars and drinking Scotch.''

Bobby Riggs had trained passionately for Margaret Court Smith. He was less diligent in preparing for King, even though the stakes were higher.

''From the time he beat Margaret, he didn't pick up a racket for four months,'' Larry Riggs said. ''I said, 'Dad, we need to practice.' It was always, 'I need to do this interview,' or that 'I need to do that TV show.'

''I kept telling him, 'Dad, you're going to get killed.' He kept saying, 'I know what I'm doing.'''

King was less interested in the hype and hyperbole than she was in the risk.

''I think I had a very good sense of the significance,'' she said. ''It was probably the first time men and women were talking together about sports.

''I was nervous that maybe they would go back on Title IX if I lost that match. I know how things can change very quickly. And I knew the hearts and minds of people weren't matching Title IX.''

Then there was the issue of Riggs.

''I knew his history,'' King said. ''I knew he was one of the great players. I knew what he had done, the triple crown (singles, doubles, mixed doubles) at Wimbledon in 1939.''

The only other person to manage that feat was King in 1973. That made this a natural promotion for Riggs, who knew about such things.

King, however, was not about to be lured into a tennis tour with the hustler.

''I told Bobby that I would play him only one time, win or lose, and never again for any amount of money,'' King said.

The show, on Sept. 20, 1973, was straight out of Barnum & Bailey, set in the Houston Astrodome, billed then as the Eighth Wonder of the World. The players were carried into the arena on floats, like Caesar and Cleopatra. The largest crowd in tennis history, 30,472, packed the Astrodome and 50 million more watched on television with Howard Cosell doing the play-by-play.

This was going to be big.

In the hours before the match, King said she felt calm and relaxed. However, as it drew closer, she became increasingly nervous. Her mouth dry, her stomach churning, she went to work.

There would be no shenanigans, just tough tennis. Instead of playing aggressively, King took the pace off the ball and ran Riggs from one side of the court to the other. Let's see how much good all those vitamins did him, she thought.

After the first set, Riggs looked his age, tired and at a loss for how to counter King's quickness and finesse.

The second and third sets were more of the same. King conquered Riggs decisively, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, making a bold statement for a whole generation of women.

''I made a mistake,'' Riggs said in The Tennis Channel tape. ''When you underestimate your opponent, you're in trouble right away. She played a great match. Her tactics were good. Mine were wrong. I underestimated her.''

The tennis was distinctly secondary to King. This was much more than a morning hit on some country club court.

''It changed the way people looked at men and women,'' she said. ''We made a difference, and it was about social change.''

For his part, Larry Riggs simply shrugged his shoulders at his father's carefree approach to the match.

''I bet $100,'' he said. ''On Billie Jean.''

AP writer Betsy Blaney contributed to this story.

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