When open tennis reared its head in 1968, Riordan fought it tooth and nail. He was at the zenith of his power, but an open game with players controlling their own destinies would change all that.
In the mid-to-late '60s two tragedies hit the Riordan family. His sister Peggy died from burns after her negligee was set ablaze by a spark from the fireplace in a cottage in Lake Mahopac, N.Y. and his brother Mike was killed when a mud slide hit his home in Mandeville Canyon, outside Los Angeles.
In this same period Riordan came into tons of money from the stock market when Scientific Data Systems, in which he had substantial holdings, sold out to Xerox. After the windfall, Riordan's first thought was to start drinking again. Instead he elected to plunge into the tennis wars that were threatening to destroy him as an independent promoter. It was right then that Riordan assumed the mysterious profile the public has come to know and love—a stealthy figure lingering in doorways. "This was my 1920s gangster period, my Arnold Rothstein look," Riordan says. "I did a lot of fingering lapels and whispering in ears."
In the midst of his battles with WCT, with the USLTA, with Kramer and Dell, each one surpassing the last in sheer tedium, Riordan discovered, nurtured and, in a pact straight out of The Devil and Daniel Webster
, grabbed a precocity named Jimmy Connors and created one of the most controversial figures on the American sports scene. It was no shell game that Bill Riordan pulled off this time. Like it or not, the game of tennis is going to have him and his star player to kick around a long time.
"We've even taken on Johnny Carson," Riordan said recently. "I announced my guy would not go on the Carson show because of the derogatory things Carson had said, and Jimmy is so sensitive. What does Carson know from anything? Now the guy is so puzzled and mad at Jimmy; you should have seen his face in Vegas. I figure if you're going to go after somebody, go after God. Who else can tell Carson to go to hell and get away with it but Jimmy Connors? That's what promotion is all about."
So the two masterminds of tennis are actually Caesar's wife and Arnold Rothstein. Last summer after Connors had won the national clay courts championship at Indianapolis he was questioned on national television by the PBS announcers, Kramer and Caesar's wife. It was a short and innocuous exchange. But what could one expect? It might have been the first time in TV history that two men conducted an interview with a third who had just sued them for $10 million. That is what tennis is all about.