Surely it was something less than the "Match of the Century in the Battle Between the Sexes," as Bobby Riggs kept shrieking, and something more than "a bit of a Sunday hit," as Margaret Court was wont to say. But the marvelous thing about the Court-Riggs tennis match that flimflammed its way into the hearts of America on Mother's Day was that nobody knew exactly what it was.
It was tennis, of course, but was it sport? It was fun, to be sure, but was it more than just a game? In fact, who were Bad Bob (see cover) and Mighty Maggie? Were they Rhett and Scarlett? Norman and Germaine? Sonny and Cher? And was Ramona, Calif. Granada they saw, or only Asbury Park?
Indeed, there was so much Hollywood and psychology and Madison Avenue and sociology; so much Barnum & Bailey and Esalen and New Journalism and Old Frontier; so many Rolls-Royces and rattlesnakes and male chauvinist pigs and flaming lady libbers; and so many hundreds of tumbling dice and Mickey Mice scampering around the place that it is a wonder Court and Riggs surfaced long enough lo carry out the thing.
But when they did, the event finally transcended all of the spectacular nonsense and somehow nestled itself at the very core of the human relationship. Before the match began he presented her with roses. She curtsied and gave off the hint of a blush. After all was said and done, this really was a man against a woman.
The fact that it also was a junk-hitting, scrambling old retriever of 55 against a powerful 30-year-old serve-and-volley advocate at the peak of her career supposedly made it equal. And the fact that Riggs—with his vast assortment of garbage shots, shrewd use of pace and spin and unholy barrage of what Pancho Segura called "cotton balls"—beat Court 6-2, 6-1, made it stimulating. But the result settled little. It does not mean that women's tennis is a fraud, that Chris Evert should switch to darning sweat sox. Nor does it mean that Billie Jean King should be arrested for disturbing the peace and be paid lower wages than Stan Smith. And it certainly does not mean that any creaky old cadaver with a drop shot can beat any strong young thing in a skirt 25 years his junior. (Could even Bad Bob himself, say, repeat his victory four out of seven, NBA style?)
What the match did establish was that Robert Larrimore Riggs, a bespectacled, ferret-faced, squeaky-voiced little gentleman of leisure who had worked long and hard for this moment, had finally done it. He had gone and pulled off the finest pure hustle in the modern history of American sport.
It was almost as if Riggs had picked his spot, too, as if he had realized two years ago when he began his shrill shilling about man vs. woman that, when it caught on, he should be ready to play and in the most romantically obscure setting possible. So it was that he beckoned television and radio and newspapers and magazines and gamblers and goldbricks and princes and paupers and stars of stage, screen and cassette and promoters of everything from copper bracelets to vitamin pills ("How about Bobby Riggs senior citizen support stockings?" he said) to a place called San Diego Country Estates.
They all came, too. Into the orange groves of the San Vicente Valley, over the Cuyamaca mountains, through the Barona Ranch Indian reservation and Wildcat Canyon, where narcotics smugglers from Mexico still make midnight air drops and, finally, to just outside dusty Ramona, which had not seen such excitement since last summer when the temperature leveled off at 117�, and all the chickens died. If Bryan and Darrow could settle the question of the evolution of man in Dayton, Tenn., Court and Riggs could do the same for women in Ramona, Calif.
The game of tennis had never seen anything like it. There had been countless matches between men and women players of quality before, but few were officially sanctioned and the results—almost always favoring the men—were sketchily recorded. As teen-agers in the 1930s, for example, Jack Kramer and Bill Talbert defeated Alice Marble. Prior to that, Bill Tilden played Suzanne Lenglen and beat her easily. Then there was Pauline Betz Addie, who claimed that Tilden could crush her when he was 50 but that, when Big Bill turned 55, she could beat him. More recently, Billie Jean King played former Davis Cupper Gene Scott (29 at the time) after being spotted 10 points in a 21-point pro set. She lost 21-17. But none of these matches had the drama, intrigue and importance of Court-Riggs in Ramona.
Originally, Riggs, claiming that women were receiving too much attention and money, issued his challenge to King, "the sex leader of the revolutionary pack," as he calls her. "If she can't beat a tired old man," he said, "she doesn't deserve half her dough." When King declined, Court, the regal Australian who has won more Big Four titles than any player—man or woman—stepped in. In the three months since the terms of the match were announced—Riggs would put up his $5,000, the resort development $5,000, winner take all, and television would pay off everybody concerned in bushel baskets—Riggs kept talking and Court kept winning (10 of the 12 Virginia Slims tournaments; over $82,000 in prize money) and both in their fashion hyped the gate.