Article Thumbnail

Was Bobby Riggs a Sexist? An Opportunist? Or Just Misunderstood?

With ‘Battle of the Sexes’ in theaters today, we look at the history of this controversial tennis champ and shameless self-promoter

Battle of the Sexes opens today, telling the story of how the infamous 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs came about. Riggs, who died in 1995 at the age of 77, was known to be a showman, a gambler and a chauvinist, constantly arguing that the women’s game was inferior to the men’s. The film, which stars Emma Stone as King and the very likeable Steve Carell as Riggs, tries to suggest that the former Wimbledon champion’s bluster was mostly a lot of hot air: He wasn’t a misogynist so much as an opportunist who was able to tap into a patriarchy’s anger at the rising women’s liberation movement. The Riggs we meet in Battle of the Sexes is less a sexist than a sad sack who played the role of a chauvinist to promote a tennis match and, in the process, propel a 55-year-old has-been back into the limelight.

But how accurate is that depiction? Was he really swine—or just a great self-promoter?

Two books dig deep into Riggs’ mindset — one a biography, the other Riggs’ own memoir. They both leave you feeling that Battle of the Sexes isn’t far off in its argument that Riggs wasn’t really a misogynist. But you don’t walk away from them thinking that he’s some misunderstood hero, either.

Riggs’ Court Hustler, written with tennis journalist George McGann and published in 1973, was actually his second autobiography. (1949’s Tennis Is My Racket was written at the height of his stardom.) Court Hustler hit stores a few weeks before his televised match against King, and the book itself helped inspire the contest. As recounted in journalist Tom LeCompte’s biography The Last Sure Thing: The Life & Times of Bobby Riggs, McGann (who started work on Court Hustler in 1970) was getting annoyed that Riggs wouldn’t go on the record with some of the dirt he had on his fellow tennis players. Frustrated, McGann asked Riggs, “Bobby, what lowest-ranked men’s player do you think could beat Billie Jean King?”

“Oh, anybody ranked about a hundred could beat the women’s champion. … Hell, I could beat Billie Jean!” Riggs responded.

According to LeCompte, it was then that Riggs decided to set the so-called “Battle of the Sexes” match in motion.

Court Hustler meant to capitalize on Riggs’ return to the public eye after years away from tennis, recounting how he’d defeated women’s champ Margaret Court in May 1973 — his showdown with King would take place that September — while looking back at his career and offering opinions on the sport in general. LeCompte’s 2003 overview is far more surgical and less celebratory, trying to analyze Riggs’ childhood to find clues to his later behavior.

In The Last Sure Thing, we learn that Riggs, who was born in L.A. in 1918, was a runt of a kid who was a natural underdog, learning to be competitive while dealing with older, more athletic brothers. He thrived on being underestimated — and he flaunted his lack of decorum in a sport that prized civility. Riggs won by outhustling his opponents, and as LeCompte writes, “His on-court appearance and behavior seemed less than impeccable by eastern standards. In his ill-fitting duck shorts and blue sneakers, he resembled anything but a champion. At the same time, he was bombastic and demonstrative, with a jaunty, cocksure manner. Often after losing a point, he tossed his racquet high in the air, catching it like a majorette.”

Riggs’s coarse, chip-on-his-shoulder demeanor is crucial to understanding the man who went on to challenge King. After he walked away from the sport to focus on golf in the 1950s — he returned to play on the seniors’ tour in the late 1960s — Riggs was frustrated that he could never recapture the public’s imagination as he did in his youth. And when he got back into tennis, he was infuriated that the seniors made less than female tennis players did.

“[S]ince women don’t play tennis as well as men do, they don’t deserve to be paid as much as men,” he writes in Court Hustler, adding, “What also griped me was that the ladies always played on the center court at Wimbledon and Forest Hills where we seniors shunted off to the farthest outside courts. We were playing in virtual privacy with only our relatives looking on. I have a lot of ham in me. I don’t like being kept out of the spotlight.”

In Court Hustler, Riggs makes clear that he doesn’t think the women’s game is as impressive as the men’s — he even thinks the senior men’s is superior — but he also knew that a victory over Court (or King) would be a boon to reactionary men everywhere. “I was carrying a banner for all middle-aged men,” he writes about his showdown with Court. “The Women’s Libbers had labeled me a male chauvinist, to which I replied, ‘Okay, as long as I’m the number-one male chauvinist.’ This was all tongue-in-cheek as far as I was concerned. But I felt it really would be a blow to men’s morale everywhere if I got knocked off by Margaret.”

A Kirkus review at the time declared Court Hustler “[a]n inspiration for all men who long ago gave up fighting onsetting potgut and the old lady,” but those who bought the memoir in the hopes of reading more of Riggs’ belittling sexist commentary would be disappointed. At lot of it does seem like an act. In fact, Riggs is actually pretty complimentary of the women’s game, even commending King and others who helped form the Virginia Slims female pro circuit in the early 1970s because they weren’t getting paid as much as their male colleagues and wanted more financial control.

He also comes across as pretty progressive, speaking out about the need for more diversity in tennis. In Court Hustler, he declares, “The time is overdue for the arrival of many fine black players on the tennis scene,” spotlighting Arthur Ashe as not just a terrific athlete but also a passionate advocate for ending apartheid in South Africa. And although Riggs includes several cringe-y, antiquated uses of the word “ghetto” in Court Hustler, it’s clear he understands the economic and social factors that have held back African-American kids — and why athletes of color are important symbols for those of meager means. “[B]lack youngsters can dream of becoming an Arthur Ashe as they once yearned to be a Willie Mays or a Wilt Chamberlain,” Riggs writes admiringly.

Such contradictions were at the core of Riggs, who failed to understand why black male celebrities rooted against him when he took on female players. Perhaps surprisingly, his tennis mentor was Dr. Esther Bartosh, a USC anatomy instructor and accomplished tennis player who saw something in him when he was only 11. The Last Sure Thing reports that Riggs’ older brother John advised him, “She’ll be able to teach you a lot. You’re a lucky kid.”

It was Bartosh, a woman, who instilled in him the importance of being dogged on the court, making sure to get to every ball and finding a way to knock it back over the net. Without any self-awareness, Riggs writes in Court Hustler, “Dr. Bartosh and I have remained friends. … She was unquestionably the greatest single influence in my tennis career, and I have a great affection for her.”

But, according to LeCompte, Riggs seemed to reserve his greatest affection for himself. He wasn’t much of a father or husband. Divorced twice, he was always too distracted by gambling and a need for attention to thrive in roles that probably felt too pedestrian for such a showboat. In The Last Sure Thing, Riggs is quoted as saying about his second wife, “She questioned my capability as to how much I could love anybody. She had all kinds of patience with me for 20 years and gave me all kinds of time and all kinds of chances to make the adjustment, to be the kind of husband she would really like to have. I just didn’t have it, and she realized it.”

The Last Sure Thing also notes that Riggs was sometimes clueless as a dad, “soliciting prostitutes for his 14-year-old son, hitting on his daughter’s girlfriends, involving them in his betting schemes or simply neglecting them.”

And his attitudes about homosexuality could be horrible. In Court Hustler, he opens one chapter by talking about the fact that tennis’s early days as a game for the elite contributed to it being thought of “as a snob or sissy sport.” But Riggs was more concerned about another contributor to tennis’ negative reputation: “The widespread suspicion that the game attracts homosexuals of both sexes more than other sports do.”

Thus begins a lengthy discussion about who is or isn’t gay in the sport, and while he has kind things to say about contemporaries like Bill Tilden, Riggs does mention, “He never openly admitted that he was queer until after he was imprisoned in his fifties and confessed his sexual aberrations in an autobiography.” As for the women, “I think one reason for the gossip about women tennis players is that so many are tomboy types, whose physical strength or athletic ability turns them on to sports of all kinds.” A few paragraphs later, he acknowledges that “tennis also attracts extremely feminine types … [who are] all attractive females without anything of the tomboy about them.”

Put charitably, Riggs was very much a man of his time who had grown up in the Great Depression, struggled to get over feelings of inadequacy because of his un-athletic build and held a lot of retrograde opinions that were then commonly accepted. Still, Battle of the Sexes is somewhat sympathetic to his behavior — without excusing his attitudes, the movie offers that he simply didn’t know any better. That’s also the opinion that King held of Riggs, with whom she remained close friends for the rest of his life. In a loving eulogy after his passing, she wrote in Sports Illustrated, “Even in the heat of our rivalry, Bobby was impossible to resent or dislike, because he took such joy in the contest. … People ask me if Bobby was really a chauvinist. I think he was just a man of his era.”

The more you read about Riggs, the more you come to that conclusion. He was an egoist who would do or say anything for publicity or money. When he took on King, he played to his base, famously telling journalist-turned-filmmaker Nora Ephron at the time, “I wish the women would stay in the home and do the work and take care of the babies and compete in the areas they can compete in, because it’s a big mistake for them to get mixed up in mixed-sex matches like this. We’re going to put those women right back where they belong like they used to be when we had the slippers and the pipe, the pipe and the slippers, and they were around the house and they didn’t try to get out and get the man’s job away from him.”

Even if he didn’t hold those barbaric opinions himself, however, he cynically harnessed a society’s sexism and inequality for his own benefit. At the end of Court Hustler, Riggs is savoring his newfound celebrity in the run-up to his battle with King, and he imagines the future, where people would still be talking about him. “I expect to reach one hundred,” he writes, adding, “I have put in my will that I want to be cremated … I figure that should be in the year 2018.”

It wasn’t the first time Riggs was dead wrong.