Palm Springs, Calif.
Bobby Riggs, aged 63, showed up at the Tennis Club in Palm Springs last week, his tongue wagging, his lobs as good as ever, and his sense of theater still intact.
Nobody had invited Riggs to this small, exclusive club, whose grounds and buildings look like a slice of geography just transported over from Hawaii.
No, Bobby had invited himself, along with ex-tennis great Pancho Segura (aged 60) and two members of the women's professional tour, 23-year-old Stacy Margolian and 27-year-old Kate Latham.
For $15,000 in prize money ($10,000 to the winners, $5,000 to the losers) the old-pappy guide team of Riggs and Segura would take on the women in a best-of-five sets match that the world would not soon forget -- maybe!
Bobby had already made a small fortune (mostly through commercial endorsements) after defeating Margaret Court in 1973 in San Diego, then losing to Billie Jean King in September of the same year in the Houston Astrodome. The latter match attracted a live crowd of 40,000, plus a TV audience of more than 50 million.
This time at an exclusive, private tennis club that had to erect portable bleachers to squeeze 800 people under the stars, Riggs and Segura defeated Margolian and Latham in straight sets, 7-6, 6-4, 7-6. The crowd, many of whom had paid $25 for box seats, loved it; cable TV picked it up; and no doubt some network will eventually buy the films for a weekend sports anthology show.
Before we go into more details about the match itself, let's get something straight. Riggs and Segura are cuties when it comes to finessing a shot with a tennis racket.
In years past they often won with guile when they couldn't win with power against top men players, and on this occasion they did an outstanding job of reaching back for memories that were still there.
They also practiced together for 2 1/2 weeks before the match. Margolian and Latham (Stacy told me) had limited their workouts to just two days!
With Riggs, everything is a happening. Bobby can't walk up to a bubbler without making a production of taking a drink. And before the match, he was throwing the tasty commercial product of one of his sponsors to all corners of the stands. In fact, in less than two minutes he had his partner and both opponents helping him.
Although Margolian and Latham often played extremely well and hit some wonderful volleys that seemed to go on forever, I immediately got the feeling that I was watching some well-rehearsed play.
When Riggs is into his lob game, which is often, there is time to recite Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" while the ball rainbows its way between the baselines.
Bobby also has a habit of talking to people he knows in the stands while the match is going on, stopping to kiss attractive women while the teams are changing sides, and making sure the TV film crew is paying attention.
Segura is a crowd pleaser, not only because of his friendly personality, but because physically he doesn't look anything like a tennis player, although he was world class for 13 years.
Pancho, the originator of the two-handed forehand, still runs around his backhand whenever possible and has a serve that barely clears the net and an endless repertoire of wonderful placements.
Although Segura left right after the match, Riggs stayed around as usual to entertain the press.
"Before we started to play, I thought we were going to murder those girls," Riggs said while holding a separate conversation with his eyes. "I just never knew before that Margolian had such a great forehand and that Latham was such a great volleyer."
Asked why she and Latham lost and why their game plan hadn't stood up, Margolian replied:
"We had the idea going in that we would hit at Bobby as much as we could and that he'd probably break down. Instead the longer he played, the steadier he got. Another thing, we probably should have practiced more than we did. Two days obviously wasn't enough."
Riggs's parting thought was that the men-vs.-women doubles idea shouldn't end here and that he planned to get in touch once again with Billie Jean.
"Maybe King and her current doubles partner, Andrea Jaeger, would like to play us," Bobby said.