The old guy over on court one was causing a scene again, shouting, stomping his feet, threatening to smash his $200 tennis racket on the ground if he didn't get his way, and generally carrying on like John McEnroe or one of the other young tennis stars who set such a bad example for our senior citizens today. Players in the nearby courts looked over and smiled politely at the older man's antics. He looked as though he could be anybody's father or grandfather, retired to a life of warm-up suits, double tennis, and napping in the sunshine of La Costa.
He had hearing aids in both ears, glasses thick and headlights, legs that looked sturdy enough to carry him as far as the nearest bar stool but no farther, and hair tinted a garish red that was growing out gray around the ears. Probably nobody but the three other player on his court knew that he was an ex-Wimbledon champion, the biggest hustler in the history of tennis, and the most famous woman-baiter in the country, who, at the age of 67, made something like $200,000 playing professional tennis last year.
Though his tantrums are frequent, explosive, and unpredictable, they always have a purpose--usually to out-manipulate, outmaneuver, and outhustle his opponents. Bobby Riggs' immediate purpose was that he wanted a handicap in the upcoming doubles match. Seeing that his tantrum was having little effect on his opponents (Art Tilton, the club pro at the Olympic Resort Hotel, where they were playing, and Noren Honda, an ex-club pro in Hawaii turned North County businessman), Riggs changed his tactics and pleaded for reason. "I can't remember when I been in such bad shape, "he whined. :I got tendonitis in my wrist-- I hadda have two shots this morning for the pain! My legs are stiff. I havn't even played that much in the last two weeks. You gotta give me something in this match- at least point and serve!"
Riggs' partner in the match, his son Larry smiled and patiently stared at the sky. Even after forty-one years of practice at being Bobby Riggs' son, he still seemed slightly embarrassed by his father's shameless manipulations. How do you tell your own father to mellow out and be a good sport? he seemed to be thinking.
Finally, to get the match under way, Tilton and Honda grudgingly conceded the elder Riggs the advantages he wanted. After all, he was almost as old as the total of both their ages. Then, once that was settled, Riggs immediately launched another attack. "Bet me fifteen bucks! he demanded. "No," Tilton flatly refused. "I don't I did!" Riggs howled. "Three dollars," Honda offered. "You know I don't like to bet less than five," Riggs pouted. And that was an understatement. He generally doesn't like to bet less than twenty-five dollars on a match — and that's with his friends. For strangers, it a helluva lot more.
Once again, to get the match under way, Honda agreed to meet Riggs' demands. "He lost this morning," Honda explained to spectators on the sidelines, "so he has to redeem himself. We're talking about a guy who was Wimbledon champion, on the cover of Newsweek when he was twenty-one, U.S. singles champion twice, and has been champion in his age bracket almost every year since. But if he doesn't get win today, he's likely to go without dinner tonight. I guess that's why he's a winner."
"He hates to lose," son Larry Riggs agreed. "It doesn't matter if it's for five dollars, or for $5000. If he loses, he gets real quiet and won't talk to anybody."
Maybe it's sad that a sixty-seven-year-old man is still so obsessed with pursuing the clusive image of a "winner," particularly if he's already known such success in his youth. Or maybe his determination is inspiring, maybe Bobby Riggs is the champion of the golden years, bravely refusing to age gracefully. At any rate, that desire to be known as a winner is Bobby Riggs, and he seems incapable of accepting anything less. His family and friends understand and tolerate this, the way one might find amusement in the actions of a precocious child.
"Serve 'em up!" Bobby shouted, suddenly looking twenty years younger, magically rejuvenated by the possibility of winning hard cash. He pawed at the court with one foot, like a bulldog scratching for a fight.
As the double match got under way, it became clear that the old hustler in his sponsor's togs — Trump Hotel sweats and a Sugar Daddy baseball cap--had lost any power he may have once had. He can't hit the ball hard anymore, not even on his serve. he moves laterally with the grace of a crab, and his stamina is gone. He looked as though he would be doing well just to finished the set without throwing his back out. Still, he seemed to glow with confidence.
Even when he was in his prime, Bobby Riggs never looked like the champion of anything. He was too short, too skinny, maybe too slow. And for a champion of the Thirties, he was too brash, too rough around the edges, and officials of what had always been known as a gentleman's sport. But he always found a way to win, and during a time when even the best tennis players in the world could barely eke out a living, he made a fortune on the difference between what his athletic abilities appeared to be (not much, according to the sports writers of the time) and what they actually were (good enough to beat the best of his generation).
"What you gotta understand about Bobby," Honda explained, "is that he's going to take your money no matter what. You can't win. If you beat him on the court, he'll bet you at backgammon, Ping-Pong, poker, or pitching cards in a hat. If two dogs are crossing the street, he'll bet you which one gets to the other side first. And he'll take money from his own son, and he was old enough to bet."