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"It was a whole new world to me," he said. "I'd often gone six, eight weeks without even holding a racket in my hand. Now I put my golf clubs in the back of the closet, took up jogging and began playing an awful lot of tennis again. I'm very fit. There is hardly anyone my age, 52, who is as fit as I am."
Even as a youngster Bobby Riggs seemed destined to become the archetypal senior player. Officially a player's senior career cannot begin until he is 45, a time of life when muscle and bone, with only a few exceptions, have become too creaky for effective handling of the big serve, the smash, the killing volley. The bread-and-butter strokes of senior tournament play are more likely to be tantalizing lobs, clever drop shots, maddeningly soft cuts and chops. At its worst, a game between two cautious seniors can deteriorate into what is known on the circuit as a softballing match, an endless duel of high lobs that continues for 60, 80, even 100 shots before a point is won. At its best, however, a game between two deftly confident senior players can achieve high excitement and produce the kind of shotmaking a great many weekend players might do well to emulate. A high degree of shamelessness is required to serve up some of the butterfly pop shots that are so often seen in a senior match, but they win points and, for the spectator, can also provide a refreshing change from serve, volley, smash.
Riggs has never flinched from the necessity of hitting a butterfly pop shot. Billy Talbert, a pretty good senior player himself, once described Riggs in his prime as "a player with no real weakness—and no real strengths, either, except the all-important one: he got the ball into the court. He returned everything. His own shots were delivered—like the pitches of such baseball 'junk artists' as Preacher Roe of the Dodgers and Eddie Lopat of the Yankees—with a baffling variety of speeds. He was the percentage player par excellence."
With these qualifications it is not surprising that Bobby was an almost instant success when he joined the seniors. Riggs' debut was delayed somewhat when he put his right hand through a glass window and severely gashed his thumb on the eve of the 1968 Wimbledon tournament, but in 1969 he swept the courts—grass, cement, clay, what have you—clean. He won the U.S. senior singles and went undefeated in every major national or sectional tournament he entered. Last year he hit something of a down note by losing his U.S. singles title and was put out in the semifinals of the Forest Hills Invitational Open. But his only defeats on grass were administered by foreign players and he will still rank among the top three in the U.S.
"Senior tennis is like the younger game in slow motion," says Riggs. "It is much more of a backcourt game. The player who had a big game in his prime finds it harder to play that same game as a senior. But any senior who could lob well when he was young can still hit a good lob. The drop shots and lobs are very effective in senior tennis. I've lost one or two steps covering the court, and I can't get my racket up fast enough to handle the dynamite serve. My reflexes at the net are a little slower. But I still have great touch and control. I can lob well and put good spin on the ball. If I can get to the ball in plenty of time there is no loss in accuracy."
Two other qualities that have not diminished through the years are Riggs' furious desire to win and the skillful gamesmanship he employs to aid in satisfying that desire. Riggs himself cites a match he played early in the 1969 Pacific Southwest Seniors against Charles Lass, a middle-ranked Californian whose strong suit was steadiness. In its way it was as much of a competitive classic as some of the matches the young Riggs had played against Budge, Frank Kovacs, Don McNeill and Kramer. Not that it started out that way. Just before the match Riggs met Arthur Ashe in the locker room and out of curiosity borrowed one of those gray aluminum-and-fiber-glass rackets of Arthur's that looks like a snowshoe. It was much too stiff for Bobby's soft game, and Lass won the first set 6-0.
"I was really trying to play," says Riggs. "Really trying hard. I thought, 'Hot damn, what can I do here. I'll just have to try harder.' " He also changed rackets.
What happened then was that Riggs and Lass fell into a marathon softballing duel. The match had started at about 11 a.m., and as it pattered into the afternoon word spread around the Los Angeles Tennis Club, where the tournament was being held, and the courtside crowd began to grow bigger and bigger.
"I've lost my confidence," said Riggs in his office, discussing the Lass match. "I'm not even hitting close to the lines, because I'm scared and he's hitting from corner to corner, running me ragged. By sheer determination, giving it the old college try, I win the second set something like 7-5, and then we go the locker room for a 10-minute rest, which is pretty welcome."
Riggs fell behind 3-5 in the last set and, he claims, was running so much he developed blisters on both feet. He sent to the pro shop for a new pair of tennis shoes and two pairs of fresh socks. The rest, while he changed into his new footgear, was pretty welcome, too. There were those present unkind enough to suggest that Riggs was trying to relieve acute exhaustion, not sore feet. When he got back out on the court Riggs suddenly seemed to be having trouble picking up loose tennis balls, and these suspicions were confirmed. Senior tournaments seldom provide the luxury of ball boys, and every time Riggs bent over to pick up a ball he somehow clumsily stubbed it with his toe, bouncing it into a far corner of the court. Then he'd slowly amble after it.