A man whose reputation rivals that of the Clintons for dishonesty and lies recently claimed he overheard a gangster confirming that Bobby Riggs had thrown his match against Billie Jean King in the infamous Battle of the Sexes on September 20, 1973. King won 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. According to the Clinton-wannabe, Bobby was $100,000 in the hole to the Sopranos, and, in order to extricate himself, told the hoods to bet on King, then threw the match, thus saving his knees and possibly a cement coffin. It’s a good story that got the small-timer some publicity, but that’s all it is: A rumor that had made the rounds, and one he tried to cash in on.
A friend of mine from San Antonio, Raymond Welder—Raimondo, to some of us Italian opera lovers—knew of my tennis background and asked me about it. Let’s take it from the top.
In the winter of 1956 I was 20 years old and on the Caribbean tennis circuit. Sometime in January I ended up in Miami, where I was befriended by Bobby Riggs in the courts of the Racquet Club, a hustlers’ paradise where good tennis players would spot points and games to not-so-good rich tennis players and gamble for large amounts. Bobby liked my game. I was a retriever who never missed, a sine qua non when playing lesser players for large stakes. Tennis is like backgammon: Everyone who plays the game thinks he is better than he really is. One of my first victims was a beautiful American Indian-Irish woman married to the great Hoagy Carmichael. She was a novice, and I spotted her five games and 40-love each game for $100 per set. One let cord or a double fault, and it was over. I think I won something like ten sets in a row. I was set for life, plus I had fallen for her. Riggs then got me involved in other games, including gin rummy and poker. “You never bet unless you’ve got a lock” was his mantra. A lock was certain victory. I could understand that in tennis, where one knew what the opponent could or could not do, but in cards? Lady Luck does not always oblige. It soon became obvious that Riggs’ card games were rigged and outright cheating was going on (marked cards, peeks installed in the room next door, and so on).
Needless to say that was not on, and I soon made my way up north, never to return to the fold. But that winter I saw Bobby play tennis daily, and looking back there was no way a woman, no matter how much younger, could have beaten him. For starters, I saw Bobby play my friend Tony Vincent, a circuit veteran who had beaten the Wimbledon champion Lew Hoad the previous year in Monte Carlo. It was for a very small amount of money—no lock—but Bobby’s spins and slices and touch came through. By 1956 he had been inactive for close to eight years and played only golf, an easy game to gamble on because of the handicapping. Riggs was scratch but played under a 14 handicap.
In 1957 Althea Gibson became the first black woman to win Wimbledon. Two months previously, in Rome, an Italian player had suggested she could easily beat me, as I was among the worst players on the tour. I used to hit regularly with Althea, and we were friends. We made a one-dollar bet and played in a side court so no one would notice us. I won in straight sets. Mind you, it was on clay, my specialty.
Which brings us to the $64 question: Was the 1973 Battle of the Sexes in front of 30,000 fans on the level? Bobby by then was 55, and la King was 29. It was no lock, so what Riggs did was make it a lock by making an enormous bet on his opponent. Riggs didn’t owe money—at least he never did when I knew him—so the tale that he owed the Mafia is wrong. What he most likely did was to have strong-arm guys place bets for him. An expert like Jack Kramer said it was a fix, Bobby missing too many easy shots. What Bobby actually did in order to make it look perfect was not to touch a racquet and not to train at all for months before he set the match up. He looked slow, unsure of his shots, without touch or any agility around the court—exactly the way a player is when out of practice.
Ironically, la King also played badly, because she was nervous, just like the great Margaret Court had been previously when Riggs had slaughtered her—for no money. Looking back, it was the perfect con. He didn’t train and made it look genuine. What would have happened, had he been in tennis shape? Well, there’s no way of telling, but the fact that it was never going to be a lock made Bobby go for the sure thing: defeat. And he cashed in on it. The women got the bragging rights, Bobby got his dough, and we have had to endure the b.s. about women’s powers ever since.