Former Wimbledon champion, the American Bobby Riggs has left his mark on the history of tennis. Not for his sporting career, now somewhat forgotten, but for having faced the player Billie Jean King in the famous "Battle of the Sexes" in 1973, when a raging misogynist met the figurehead of feminism, and women’s tennis, in the 1970s. We present a portrait of a rare bird...
"The Macho". "The Sexist Pig." "The Hustler". Strange nicknames for a two-time winner of the U.S. Open. Despite three Grand Slam victories in total, Bobby Riggs remains primarily known as the man involved in the "Battle of the Sexes" of the 20th of September 1973. That day, this son of an American minister took on Billie Jean King, 29 years old, gay and proud to have claimed it at the top of her sporting career. Deliberately provocative, the place of the woman according to him was "in the bedroom and in the kitchen, in that order" before proclaiming: "No active female player could ever overcome a retired male player. I want to beat Billie Jean for all the guys who are getting married, whose wives won't let them play poker on Friday night or go fishing on the weekends." Following these statements, the American television had the crazy idea to organize this athletic domestic and to broadcast it globally. A classic piece of American glitz, the show was watched by an estimated 50 million viewers. All smiles, Billie arrived at the Houston Astrodome as Cleopatra, on a throne carried by young American footballers in slave outfits. For his part, Riggs decided to wear a "Sugar Daddy" boxer jacket on top of a T-shirt that said: "For the liberation of men." His entrance was just as spectacular: arms in the air, parading in a rickshaw driven by a swarm of young dancers. Before the warm up, the two adversaries exchanged presents: a giant lollipop for King, a baby pig (a real one) for Riggs. "The staging of this simple mixed tennis match was worthy of an Italian peplum, coloured, loaded, baroque, on the edge of bad taste" says the French journalist Denis Lalanne, in his book Tennis. In the stands, 30 472 spectators would see the lady make fun of her fellow American opponent: "He’s an old man who walks like a duck, without seeing, hearing, and in addition he’s silly." When Riggs played a sharp and soft tennis, with great drop shots and slices, King struck back with violence and incessant dashing runs to the net. Game, set and match. "She’s the one who played like a man" Bobby said in his autobiography, Hustler Court, defeated without putting up too much resistance 4-6, 3-6, 3-6. “After the match, I jumped over the net and kissed her. She was way too strong for me."
Sports betting, feminism and dogs on a leash
Before becoming one of the greatest machos of world tennis, Robert Larimore Riggs was a quiet table-tennis player. Born on February 25th 1918 in Los Angeles, his skills around a table naturally pushed him to take his first tennis lessons at the age of 12. A model of precocity: in 1934, he was only 16 years old when he won his first amateur tournament in Cincinnati. Small, alert and with an amazing feel for the ball, he won the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas at 18 before reaching the final of Roland Garros in 1939 and winning his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon shortly thereafter. That same year, he won the tidy sum of 105,000 Dollars ($ 1.2 million today) by betting on his triple success in London, in singles, doubles and mixed doubles because, more than any other player at the time, Riggs was above all trying to capitalize on his activities as an amateur tennis player. To do this, he used to bet money on himself, even during a match, depending on his rating with the bookmakers. Years later, when retired, he told a young player that he could still beat him while holding two dogs on a leash. Another day, he told a stranger that he would be able to beat him with an open umbrella in his left hand, from the first to the last point. Golf games? Bobby would play with a single club, if he could invite someone into betting a few dollars on it. "If I can't play for a lot of money, then I play for a little money. And if I can't play for a little money, then I prefer to stay in bed all day" he said live on television before his famous match against Billie Jean King. Indeed, this dramatic return after twenty years in the wilderness coincided with the offer of producer Jerry Perenchio, director of the famous "Battle of the Sexes" and a few years before, of the "Fight of the Century" between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. How much in case of victory? 200,000 dollars, with the loser pocketing half that amount. "Bobby only fought for the money, I fought for a cause" said Billie, the most prominent activist for gender equality on the courts. She's the one at the origin of the first female professional tours and equal tournament earnings: "I think tennis would have gone 50 years backwards if I had not won this game. That would have ruined the women's tour and affect the self-esteem of all women. "
“Bobby, I love you”
With this defeat, Bobby Riggs participated in his way towards the recognition of women's tennis, but also of tennis as a major sport. "For a sexist man, he did a lot of good to our cause" notes Rosie Casals, a former American tennis player. Indeed, the following year, the male and female tours had the highest attendance ever recorded and signed their first contracts for national television broadcasting in the United States. In his book, Tennis, Michel Sutter remembers in what context this match was played: "The year 1973 saw the creation of the players union, of the WTA (Women's Tennis Association), whose role is to administer and promote women's tennis and it has been highly successful as, in thirteen years, the payroll distributed to female players went from 1.5 million to 14 million". For Riggs, "the operation was a great success, a big promotion,” he said. “The only thing is that I lost. But, hey, it's a happy ending. I cried with joy all the way to the bank." Insatiable, he came back to the courts in 1985 for the same show alongside Vitas Gerulaitis. Without much success, the two friends were swept aside in a doubles match against Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver. Mike Penner, from the Los Angeles Times, recalls: "Riggs was 67 years old then. He couldn’t serve, he couldn’t return a service, he couldn't even lift his arm above his shoulder. He was older than Navratilova and Shriver together!" Suffering from prostate cancer, his condition then deteriorated year after year. In 1988, he founded the "Bobby Riggs Tennis Museum Foundation" to benefit medical research against cancer. Out of modesty, Bobby refused any personal visits. However, on October 25th 1995, the day before his death, he received a last call. At the end of the line: Billie Jean King, his eternal friend with whom he maintained a close relationship. "He wasn't speaking anymore. But I'll always remember what I told him at that time: 'Bobby, I love you.'"
By Victor Le Grand