Bobby Riggs was my friend. I know some people may be surprised to hear that, but he was. The Battle of the Sexes irrevocably bonded us. Even in the heat of our rivalry, Bobby was impossible to resent or dislike, because he took such joy in the contest. Bobby was the ultimate opponent; he would play anybody at anything. When he died on Oct. 25, at age 77, after a long bout with prostate cancer, I said goodbye to one of the great adversaries in sports, to a brother and to a fellow champion.
What few people remember about Bobby is that he was once the No. 1 tennis player in the world. He wasn't just a gambler and a gamesman; he was a legend. Long before I ever met him I felt that I knew him, because while growing up in the tennis clubs of Southern California, I heard such marvelous stories about him. The most amazing of them was about how, as an unknown 21-year-old amateur in 1939, he went to London bookies and bet heavily on himself, at long odds, to win a Wimbledon triple crown.
And then he did it. He beat Elwood Cooke in a five-set men's final, teamed with Cooke to win doubles and partnered Alice Marble to the mixed doubles crown. He went on to win the 1939 U.S. Championships singles title at Forest Hills and collect the No. 1 ranking—and a few more bucks, no doubt.
The artistry of Bobby's game was later forgotten, when his hustling became so outrageous. Once he played a British Parliament member's wife with chairs and umbrellas spread here and there on his side of the court. Another time he ran a marathon in Death Valley against a Tasmanian long distance champion and won. And, of course, he played me in 1973.
I didn't really want to play Bobby. I remember one night Margaret Court and I were alone in an elevator in Detroit, and she suddenly said, "I'm going to play Bobby Riggs for $35,000." And I thought, That's not enough money for the hassle she's going to get. I wished her luck and told her that it wouldn't be a tennis match, that it would be a circus. "Do me one favor, Margaret," I added. "Just beat him."
I was about to board a plane in Honolulu when I heard Bobby had won 6-2, 6-1. I walked down the aisle of the plane with lockjaw, because I knew I would have to play him. All of the implications of the match flashed through my mind: It would be for Title IX legislation and the women's movement and all of the inequities women felt so deeply.
I hit 350 overheads a day trying to get ready for Bobby's spins and lobs. When I arrived at the Astrodome in Houston, where 30,472 people attended the match, there was all kinds of hoopla. I just sat there while Bobby said things like, "If a woman wants to get in the headlines, she should have quintuplets." He was hilarious, in his Sugar Daddy jacket with his briefcase full of vitamins. It was great. Our sport needed to lighten up, we needed to take it to the people, and that's what Bobby and I did. We pushed every button people had.
When I won, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, Bobby was exceptionally gracious. He jumped the net, kissed me and said, "You were too good. I wasn't ready for how good you were."
From then on we kissed and hugged whenever we saw each other. He at first wanted a rematch, but I felt one was all history needed, and he came to agree with me. Eventually he became proud that he had played me. He knew he had helped tennis and helped women.
People ask me if Bobby was really a chauvinist. I think he was just a man of his era. Nora Ephron, the film director and screenwriter, was a magazine writer previewing the match, and she asked him what he really thought about women. He replied, "All my life everything has been a contest. This so turns me on and I so love it—I love the competition—and that's the thing I crave, like some guys crave alcohol and other guys crave women. I crave the game.... So to answer your question, what do I think of women, I really never thought about them that much. I don't really know much about them." Then Ephron asked what he really knew about women's liberation. "You're not going to believe this," he said. "Nothing."