To call back the days, a labor into which he is regularly being forced now due to the urgings of the prying media and his own curiosity, it is almost as if he must look over his shoulder and discover a different life not his own. A name engraved on a silver bowl. A waxed figure, white on green. A dead man and a proper requiem. In point of fact, this is exactly what he does find. For we—and he—put Bobby Riggs away a long time ago.
He was buried in yellowed clippings showing grainy men in long pants beside the frame buildings and on the manicured turf surfaces of Rye and Newport and Southampton and Seabright. He was buried in the lost columns of Tex and Jinx and of Cholly Knickerbocker where he shared the bill right alongside a young Jack Kennedy and an active Alice Astor Obolensky von Hofmannsthal Harding Pleydell-Bouverie.
Bobby Riggs played tennis with kings of Europe, played footsie with queens of Hollywood, won Wimbledon once, Forest Hills twice, the World Professional Championship four times, took a honeymoon on an ocean liner and then was buried once more in a family photo album entitled, " Centre Court, Plandome, Long Island."
There he vanished into a stone mansion with canopied porches, gabled roofs and greenhouses; into gin rummy dens, "sociable" golf games and country club obsolescence; into pictures processed by his wife's family photography business, where he took on the role and appearance of a John P. Marquand executive: The Late George Apley perhaps—with racket.
Bobby Riggs would leave all that, too. He would move to California and throw his treasury of trophies into a bin at an apartment complex health spa. He would hustle his tennis and backgammon games, flip his coins, deal his cards and exchange cash with everybody around. He would sit with his brother Dave in their townhouse and sometimes drink 10 Heinekens a night, slurring his words, growing loud, acrid and cruel; falling, as he would say later, "completely out of it."
But all of that was before Margaret. It was before Ramona, before his ingeniously labeled game of "sex tennis" caught hold and before another Bobby Riggs came out of aging obscurity to, in true gamblers' parlance, "knock in" one half the human race. This Bobby Riggs was trim and hard. He ran laps, popped vitamins, abstained from liquor and weed, admitted to 55, looked 45, acted 35 and talked 25.
For seven days in May this duck-walking, half-blind, half-deaf old and young Bobby Riggs outsympathized the POWs and outbulletined the Oval Office. All he did was beat a woman in tennis.
Even now, running helter-skelter with no visible means of protection from the onslaught of offers from movies, television, records, jigsaw puzzles, animal food, countless other commercial interests and the pack of agentry ten-percenters who latch onto instant celebrities like ticks on a hound, Riggs is a wonder to observe. Sign to play Billie Jean King? You bet. And he does, and already it's a $300,000 deal in what was a pitty-pat racket just five years ago. He is in syndicated cartoons, matches free throws against Dick Van Arsdale, plays tennis with Hank Greenberg, putts against Joe Louis. Ethel Kennedy is on the phone. John Wayne is down the street. Mickey Rooney wants to do his life story.
Photographers pose him on roller skates, in rocking chairs, jumping benches; carrying umbrellas, suitcases and buckets of water; wearing boxing gloves, anglers' waders, dresses and wigs; and even holding on to a baby lion. Like all the rest, this did not faze Riggs. He was driving out the gate of his apartment quarters and realized he would be late for the picture. Somewhat confused but not breaking conversational stride, he instructed a bewildered gate man in stern tones, "Tell the lion to meet me on court one."
Armed with his reputation as a wit's man, his hustler's spirit and a wordly knowledge of the dangers as well as the benefits of his position, Riggs seems capable of resisting all attempts by others to take advantage, to make him over into the hustlee. But the game may be getting too big even for Riggs.