He has gained a pound or two around the middle and lost a step or two getting to the net, but the grin is as impish as ever and the duckfoot shuffle just as distinct. There is no mistaking exactly who he is—at least with a tennis racket in his right hand. After almost 20 years away from regular tournament competition Bobby Riggs is back, and the bustling senior circuit has taken on a new sparkle. If Riggs has his way, as subsequently will be revealed, his emergence from retirement may ultimately add new sparkle to the ladies' pro tour as well.
Riggs has just been missing, not forgotten. How could anyone really forget Bobby Riggs? The Great Retriever? The little man in the short pants who whipped all those big smash-bang fellows in the long white flannels simply by knocking back all their best shots again and again with an assortment of chips and chops and drops and lobs? Little Bobby, who made strong men seethe and antifans pour out to see him trounced?
Not that the cocky little man got trounced very often. He won the U.S. Boys' Doubles title, the U.S. Junior title and the men's singles at Forest Hills twice. In his first visit to Wimbledon, in 1939, Riggs won the men's singles and the doubles and mixed doubles. He tacked on four professional championships. Finally he faded from the scene in 1949 after a punishing 15-month world tour with the new king of tennis, Jack Kramer—although he breathed one last gasp by returning home from the tour to win the national pro championship for the last time, defeating favored Don Budge in a four-set final.
Riggs was never a terribly popular winner. He bragged about his own game and goaded opponents about theirs. He outslicked people with his gamesmanship as well as with his shotmaking. He hustled friends and strangers out of their money at tennis, craps, backgammon, dominoes, poker, table tennis, golf, marbles and even at flipping coins, but usually with a bravado that was somehow engaging.
"No one who knew Bobby could really dislike him," says another player who was winning national titles during that same era. "We all regarded him as a naughty boy who did naughty things."
"I like to bet on as close to a sure thing as you can find," Riggs once said, but he also liked to have some fun winning his sure thing. He would play you tennis for $500 while carrying a suitcase or an umbrella in his left hand, sitting in a chair between shots or walking to them or even tied to his doubles partner. Stories about Riggs make up a large part of the mythology of hustling.
So this was how Riggs got his sporting jollys—and some nice change—after Kramer drove him off the pro circuit. Meanwhile he also applied his energies to sports promotion, handling the dramatic Kramer vs. Gonzales tour of 1949 (a brilliant success) and a major league baseball barnstorming tour (a notable failure). He added golf to his repertoire, divorced his first wife and remarried, joined his new in-laws' business, the American Photograph Corporation, became its executive vice-president and raised a family of five boys and one girl. And all the while he dreamed of the day that real tournament tennis would go open and he could play full time again.
Riggs was looking very content and prosperous the other day. He wore a glen-plaid sports jacket, a light-blue shirt, dark-blue tie, charcoal-gray slacks, black pebbled loafers and tortoise-shell-framed eyeglasses as he sat behind the wide mahogany desk in his Great Neck, N.Y. office and smoked a cigar the size of a can of tennis balls.
"Looking back, I'm almost mad at myself for quitting when I did," he said. "I should have hung in tooth and nail. I don't like the route I decided to take. You know—if you can't be the champ, to hell with it. That's wrong thinking. But Kramer had established such a clear-cut supremacy I finally had to admit to myself that he was better, which is also wrong thinking. Being No. 2 or No. 3 was not an appealing situation to me. I just didn't seem to have that desire. I thought it would be much better to be a promoter. I could still make deals and smoke big cigars. Be in the act in some way. My ego was still being fulfilled. It made it easier not to be the champ."
Easier but still not easy. Riggs concentrated on his golf and paddle tennis, winning the U.S. paddle tennis championship in 1960, but these outlets didn't go very far toward quenching his thirst for competition. In 1968, when tennis turned open, Riggs was right there at the door with his racket at the ready.