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Tennis Star Bobby Riggs Dies

By Bart Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 27, 1995

Bobby Riggs, 77, a former Wimbledon and U.S. Open tennis champion who helped make women's tennis a major spectator and money sport by losing a widely promoted 1973 match to Billie Jean King, died of prostate cancer Oct. 25 at his home in Leucadia, Calif.

Mr. Riggs was ranked as the No. 1 player in the world in 1939 when he won the tournament at Wimbledon, and he subsequently won three U.S. Open championships. But he faded from the public eye in the 1950s and 1960s, only to reenter the spotlight for his 1973 match with King, which was aggressively publicized as "the battle of the sexes."

At 55, Mr. Riggs was no match for the 29-year-old King, who trounced him in consecutive sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, before a crowd of 30,472 at the Houston Astrodome. An estimated 50 million people watched on television as King wore down the bespectacled Mr. Riggs with long rallies, while he retaliated with a combination of spins, drop shots and lobs.

Their contest was played in the early years of the women's liberation movement, and it attracted the attention of fans from a broad spectrum of society who saw in it a significance that transcended the boundaries of sport. Some called the match "the libber versus the lobber."

An accomplished showman, Mr. Riggs hyped the match by practicing in a "men's liberation" T-shirt and declaring, "If I am to be a chauvinist pig, I want to be the number one pig."

Rosie Casals, a tennis colleague of King's, responded by calling Mr. Riggs "an old man who walks like a duck, can't see, can't hear and besides, he's an idiot."

In the circus atmosphere of the Astrodome on the night of the match, Mr. Riggs made his grand entrance in a chariot pulled by women. King rode in on a red velvet-covered litter carried by University of Houston football players clad in mini-togas. But King was all business once play began, and she methodically overpowered Mr. Riggs, whom oddsmakers had made an 8 to 5 prematch favorite.

"She was too good, too fast. She returned all my passing shots and made great plays off them. . . . I was trying to play my game, but I couldn't," Mr. Riggs said at a news conference after the $100,000, winner-take-all match.

"I feel this is the culmination of my 19 years in tennis," King said after the match. In a statement yesterday, she said: "Bobby Riggs was a true friend for the last 25 years. . . . Our Battle of the Sexes' match helped to advance the game of tennis and women everywhere."

Said Casals, "For a male chauvinist, he did a lot of good for us."

In the years since 1973, women's tennis has grown exponentially, with six-figure purses, top television ratings and lucrative product endorsements for the best players. Mr. Riggs once joked: "Billie and I did wonders for women's tennis. They owe me a piece of their checks."

Mr. Riggs was born in Los Angeles and began playing tennis at age 12. He won U.S. titles in 1946, 1947 and 1949. He played on the U.S. Davis Cup team in 1938-39, and he won Wimbledon doubles and mixed doubles in 1939. In 1940, he won U.S. mixed doubles.

In 1949, he wrote a tennis autobiography, "Tennis Is My Racquet."

Beginning in 1950, he began to taper off as a player. During the ensuing years, he worked in a variety of promotional endeavors.

But in May 1973, he seized center court in the tennis community by defeating Margaret Court, who was then the world's first-ranked female tennis player, 6-2, 6-1, in a match at Ramona, Calif. "I want Billie Jean King. . . . I want the women's lib leader," Mr. Riggs declared after that match, four months before his meeting with King.

Mr. Riggs was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1988. He formed the Bobby Riggs Tennis Museum Foundation last year to promote awareness of the disease.

Both of his marriages ended in divorce.

Survivors include five children.

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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