Bobby Riggs was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1918. He became the world's No. 1 amateur tennis player after winning the singles, doubles and mixed-doubles titles at Wimbledon in 1939, and he later claimed three U.S. Pro singles championships. Riggs earned notoriety by challenging the top women's players in 1973, famously losing the "Battle of the Sexes" match to Billie Jean King.
Early Years and Career
Robert Larimore Riggs was born on February 25, 1918, in Los Angeles, California. The youngest son of a minister, he began playing tennis at age 11 and soon was taken under the wing of a prominent local player named Esther Bartosh.
Riggs quickly rose to the top of the talent-packed Southern California tennis circuit. He won the U.S. junior title in 1935, and the following year he claimed the U.S. clay court championship. Standing just 5' 7", Riggs lacked the power of the game's bigger players, but he nevertheless compensated with his quickness, ball placement and tenacity.
A Top 10 amateur player by 1937, Riggs reached his first Grand Slam final at the French Open in 1939. He then went on to a magnificent sweep of Wimbledon, winning the men's singles, doubles and mixed-doubles tournaments. Never shy about placing a wager, Riggs later claimed he bet on himself to win all three events, earning a payout of more than $100,000.
Riggs followed by winning the 1939 United States National Championships, his dominant performance that year propelling him to the No. 1 ranking in the world. He added another mixed-doubles title at the U.S. Championships in 1940, and the following year he captured the tournament's singles crown again. Turning professional around that time, Riggs lost three prime years of his career while serving in the U.S. Navy but returned to defeat Don Budge at the U.S. Pro Championships in 1946, 1947 and 1949.
As his professional career waned, Riggs turned his attention to promoting and began working for the American Photograph Corporation in the 1950s. In 1967, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
'Battle of the Sexes'
In 1973, Riggs returned to the spotlight by publicly lobbying to play the leading women's tennis professionals. His challenge was first accepted by Margaret Court, the top-ranked women's player, and Riggs went on to handily defeat her in a match dubbed the "Mother's Day Massacre."
Riggs then turned his attention to Billie Jean King, another champion and noted advocate for women's rights. After Briggs baited her with a series of over-the-top sexist comments, King accepted the offer for a $100,000, winner-take-all match.
On September 20, 1973, more than 30,000 fans filed into the Houston Astrodome and another 90 million tuned in on television to watch the "Battle of the Sexes." Both participants embraced the spectacle with their entrances: Riggs on a rickshaw flanked by "Bobby's bosom buddies," King on a gold litter carried by the Rice University men's track team. However, the 55-year-old Riggs was unable to keep up with the 29-year-old King once the match began, and she cruised to a 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 win.
At the time, and for years afterward, theories about Riggs tanking the match for gambling purposes abounded. For his part, Riggs swore that he simply underestimated King, and his attempts to coax her into a rematch were rejected.
Later Years and Legacy
The publicity generated by the Battle of the Sexes earned Riggs more fame and financial opportunities than he had ever received as a champion player. He landed a cushy job as the resident tennis pro of a Las Vegas hotel, and he went on to enjoy success on the men's senior tour.
Despite the seemingly contentious nature of their rivalry, Riggs and King became good friends. They appeared on TV together and teamed up as doubles partners to take on Elton John and Martina Navratilova in a charity match in 1993. They reportedly talked one final time just before he died of prostate cancer on October 25, 1995.
The landmark 1973 match has remained a cultural touchstone into the new millennium, with Ron Silver taking on the role of Riggs for the 2001 TV movie When Billie Beat Bobby. In 2015, it was announced that multiple Hollywood studios were vying to get the story to theaters, with Steve Carell, Paul Giamatti and Will Ferrell all attached to projects to portray Riggs.
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