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Sport: How King Rained on Riggs’ Parade

8 minute read

Midway through the third and final set, Bobby Riggs shuffled to the sidelines complaining of cramps in his playing hand. As Rheo Blair, nutrition adviser of the Bobby Riggs Traveling Chauvinist Pig & Nostrum Show, massaged his falling prince’s hand, some anonymous TV director captioned the scene—and the entire evening—with commendable brevity. Floating across the screen came the words BOBBY RIGGS 55 YEARS OLD.

That was the main message following all the hoopla at the Houston Astrodome last week. The putative Battle of the Sexes turned out to be one more sorry chapter in the story of the ancient struggle between sclerotic age and limber youth. In three straight sets that lasted 2 hr. 5 min., Billie Jean King, 29, the pride of women’s tennis, briskly dispatched Robert Larimore Riggs, the huckster who had hustled the world of spectator sportsmen into believing that you really can go home again.

Pumped up with enough hot air and hard dollars to start a respectable Balkan war, the big evening maintained its P.T. Barnum air—at least until the principals squared off across the net. Workaday Texas fans mingled with celebrities who had jetted into Houston for the occasion. Before the match, such diverse names as Andy Williams and Claudine Longet, ex-Football Star Jim Brown, Heavyweight Champion George Foreman, Actor Rod Steiger and Actress Jo Ann Pflug (in a clinging blue jersey with I’M A BILLIE JEAN KING FAN Stenciled on the back) swirled through a champagne party ($1 per glass) on the green-carpeted Astrodome floor. There were a few rounds of beautiful-people tennis (the Williams-Longet team beat Merv Griffin and Sandra Giles, a Riggs playmate). The 80-piece red-coated University of Houston Cougar band blared such anomalous songs as Jesus Christ, Superstar while comely majorettes did a Rockettes routine out front. Even Umpire Jerome Morton got into the act, wearing a modish gray velvet tuxedo and red ruffled shirt that the U.S.L.T.A. would surely never sanction.

For the ABC-TV audience (an estimated 48 million), the show began with a male-female duet of Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better. That was followed by the omnipresent Howard Cosell in his own flashy tuxedo—which seemed rather like a smoking jacket on a whooping crane. The experts on hand were Gene Scott and Rosemary Casals; both worked hard to demonstrate their sexist bias. Scott never had a chance in the face of Ms. Casals’ steady barrage of anti-Riggs billingsgate.

Bosom Buddies. The climax of the opening ceremonies seemed to herald a match between Genghis Khan and Catherine of Russia. King was borne in on a red-draped gold divan by four bare-chested men wearing slave armbands, while Riggs entered in a ricksha pulled by five of the ample girls he refers to as “bosom buddies.” He presented Billie Jean with a large Sugar Daddy sucker (“for the biggest sucker in the world”); the stunt had Billie Jean’s full cooperation, since it reportedly earned each a fast fat $20,000. King responded by giving Bobby a live baby pig, appropriately named Larimore Hustle.

Then came the main event, a mixed singles mismatch between one excellent tennis player in her prime and another champion pathetically past his. To make matters worse, right at the start the psycher seemed to become the psychee.

As he made his duck-footed appearance before the largest crowd ever to witness a tennis match (30,472) as well as a Super Bowl-size TV audience, Riggs was grim, nervous, almost ashen. Billie Jean was stretched taut also, but it was the tension of a superior athlete fully confident of her capabilities.

Sure enough, though she started out playing as cautiously as Riggs, King took her first service easily. While switching sides, Riggs, still cocky, gave Tennis Promoter Dick Butera 2-1 odds (putting up $10,000). He then ran his best streak of the night, winning seven straight points. The fat cats in the $100 front-row seats, bedecked with signs that read WHISKEY, WOMEN AND RIGGS and WHO NEEDS WOMEN?, sat back and gleefully awaited a rout. It came, but not in the fashion that they or almost anyone else expected. King moved swiftly to the attack. She drove Riggs back to the far corners of the court, whipping him back and forth along the baseline like a bear in a shooting gallery. She fired low volleys at his feet, destroyed his famous lobs, put away almost every shot within reach. “I never could get over her head,” Riggs later admitted. He unaccountably fed her appetite for backhand smashes and volleys; a full 70 of her 109 points were outright winners—shots that Riggs never touched. Time and again he was forced to watch helplessly as Billie Jean rushed the net and slapped the ball past him. Between sets, Riggs’ son Jimmy, 20, said: “Come on, Dad, wake up.” No chance. Riggs never really got into the game.

How had Riggs persuaded the oddsmakers, the sportswriters, many casual fans—to say nothing of himself—that he was the favorite? His Mother’s Day drubbing of Margaret Court had proved little except that Court rattles easily.

Still, Jimmy the Greek Snyder suggested odds of 5 to 2 on Riggs. Eleanor Tennant, one of Riggs’ first coaches, predicted that her protégé would win easily. Like almost everyone else, she was taken in by the conventional wisdom that an adequate male player should be able to beat a first-class woman. Almost everyone was wrong.

After the match, Lornie Kuhle, Riggs’ resident tennis partner and vitamin-pill dispenser, said: “It was like Bobby finally realized that the final exam was here and he hadn’t studied for it.” Riggs agreed: “It was a case of overconfidence and not preparing.” He admitted to underestimating King’s speed and agility, adding: “Whenever I thought I had the point won on our exchanges, she saved it.”

One of Billie Jean’s best assets was Riggs himself, who never really got around to keeping his promise of doing a full month of hard training before the match. There were too many blondes to squeeze, too many reporters to hustle, too many products to hawk (TIME cover, Sept. 10). In the days before the match, Riggs skylarked around Houston, trying to build up the gate and have some laughs. He beat Dr. Denton Cooley, the noted heart surgeon (the purse: $100 and a free medical checkup, in which Riggs got high marks). He played one of his handicap farces with a Memphis shoe salesman, picking up a fast $100, and then took $300 in a swift one set match from Larry King, Billie Jean’s husband. Billie Jean, meanwhile, was training hard by lifting weights to strengthen her ailing knee and by playing tournament tennis against the best women players around.

When it was finally over, Riggs had lost everything except his sense of humor. “At least,” he said, “I had enough gas left to jump over the net.” Then he and Billie Jean posed one more time for photographers, who naturally demanded that they smooch. “I’m liable to turn you on,” Riggs told her. King took the risk, responding, after several encores:

“They’re good kisses.” At which Riggs jumped up, yelling: “Hey! She took it back! She says I’m not a creep any more.”

London Bridge. Maybe not, but neither is he the pig to beat any more.

To paraphrase Shakespeare and Sam Goldwyn, the match was a performance full of tinsel and glamour, signifying nothing—except that the hustle is over.

Bobby’s latest con has run its brief course. He automatically called for a rematch, insisting, “I feel I would do better next time.” But his heart was hardly in it. Billie Jean’s initial response: “Give me 24 hours and a beer to think it over.”

Meanwhile, Promoter Jerry Perenchio is talking up a second Court-Riggs contest, this time in Australia—if anyone is interested.

Bobby is also threatening to make partly good his promise to jump from the Pasadena Bridge if he lost (he has substituted the London Bridge, now situated in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., a leap that would presumably cause him no injury). But where would the spotlights be?

No, the circus trappings of the Bobby Riggs Traveling Chauvinist Pig & Nostrum Show—the chairs on the court, the pails of water, the poodles, the vitamin pills, the Hai Karate aftershave—have been gathered, and the carnival tents have been struck by Billie Jean King’s rampaging racket.

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