John Shearer: Remembering Bobby Riggs’ Chattanooga Visits On 50th Anniversary Of Famous Billie Jean King Match

  • Tuesday, September 19, 2023
  • John Shearer

This Sept. 20 marks 50 years since the memorable “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between 55-year-old Bobby Riggs and 29-year-old Billie Jean King, who was a top woman player in the world.

While of much interest to tennis and sports fans, it perhaps ended up being an even more significant moment for American society. While no new laws were passed or tangible hurdles were cleared, it still marked a pivotal step for the women’s equality movement at least symbolically at a time when many females were beginning to push for more opportunities in the workplace and elsewhere.

“I am Woman” had just been released as a single the previous year by Helen Reddy, who performed at Memorial Auditorium just weeks before the famous match and spectacle, so the victory by Ms. King was a great milestone for women at an important time.

I still remember turning on my TV that Thursday night along with my family and an amazing 50 million other Americans to watch the match in front of more than 30,000 at the Houston Astrodome. It was one of the quirky, but most memorable, events of the 1970s to go along with Evel Knievel’s canyon jump and other unusual happenings. But it caught the world’s attention after the vitamin-eating and self-confident Mr. Riggs had boasted beginning weeks in advance that he would win.

While I have gone on to be a quiet advocate for women’s rights, I must admit that as an eighth grader at then-all-boys Baylor School who had just turned 14, I was for Mr. Riggs. Of course, I think most men were for him, just as most women and girls were for Ms. King. It was called “Battle of the Sexes” for a reason.

After studying Margaret Court’s earlier loss to him and with an amazing determination, Ms. King beat Mr. Riggs in three straight sets. And in many ways, women have not looked back, despite having to break countless proverbial glass ceilings in the half century since.

Both of these people who were raised in the Los Angeles area had their own complicated and challenging lives. Mr. Riggs, who had won some of the world’s top tournaments in his early 20s with a strategic game that did not involve a powerful serve but took advantage of quick feet, basically quit playing tennis for a number of years. He was also known for being fast in his living, too, as a gambler and hustler, not to mention, of course, a showman, despite being the son of a minister.

And while no one knew at the time of the match, Ms. King beginning in the 1980s came out as a member of the LGBTQ community after a longtime affair with her female secretary was unveiled in a legal dispute with the woman. It was at a time when that was still shunned and criticized by the majority of the American public.

She had grown up initially playing softball along with her baseball-playing younger brother and future major league pitcher Randy Moffitt, but as a young girl switched to tennis after her mother in their proper Methodist family thought that might be a more ladylike sport.

She would go on to win 12 Grand Slam singles titles and today is considered royalty in tennis and among women’s rights and LGBTQ supporters. This has been not only for her tennis accomplishments, but also for pushing for women’s equality in tennis tournament pay and other matters and for her pioneering boldness in being the first professional athlete to admit publicly to being a lesbian.

While Ms. King, now 79, has apparently never made a formal visit to Chattanooga, unless it was for a tennis tournament when she was young and before she became famous, Mr. Riggs did numerous times before his death. That is, according to David Carroll’s book, “Hello, Chattanooga!” as well as information at the Chattanooga Public Library and elsewhere.

He apparently came here first in 1939, the same year he also won the Wimbledon and U.S. Open singles titles as a 21-year-old. His Wikipedia page says he won a tournament here that year.

It must have been the Tennessee Valley Invitational at the Chattanooga Tennis Center (now Manker Patten Tennis Club). He might have also played here in 1940, according to one entry in the library, but it is known he won the TVI again in 1941.

The latter took place in early May of that year, when he beat young Billy Talbert in the finals in front of a large crowd.

As the Chattanooga News-Free Press wrote on May 5, 1941, “The Chattanooga Tennis Club’s 1941 Tennessee Valley Invitation classic came to a brilliant and thrilling close Sunday afternoon when a capacity crowd of 1,000 patrons were treated to no less than three great matches.”

Besides his victory over the younger and future U.S. Open singles finalist Mr. Talbert from Cincinnati in four sets in a best-of-five match, Pauline Betz also won the women’s singles title. Also, Mr. Riggs and Bobby Harman beat Mr. Talbert and Chattanoogan Alex Guerry Jr. in the doubles tournament. Mr. Riggs had evidently formerly dated Ms. Betz, who would later win five Grand Slam titles.

Also playing in the Chattanooga tournament and reaching the semifinals was Jimmy Evert of Chicago. He would have a daughter named Chris Evert, who enjoyed quite a bit of success as a pro and even competed against Ms. King.

Mr. Riggs was also photographed by N-FP photographer Harry Olmsted after apparently clowning around and taking pictures with one of Mr. Olmsted’s cameras at the 1941 tournament.

Although Pearl Harbor had not been bombed yet, fans at the 1941 match feared the world turmoil might put off the championship for a few years. As tournament director Manker Patten told the audience, it might be the last time for several years that Chattanoogans would be exposed again to such good tennis.

World War II did soon involve the United States, but in early June 1946, the tournament did return to Chattanooga, apparently as a pro tournament by then. Mr. Riggs won it again after serving in the Navy during World War II, mostly in the realm of tennis. Also in four sets like in 1941, he defeated Frank Kovacs, who had been a U.S. Open finalist in 1941 and was known for his eccentric and showman style of play.

It was considered a successful tournament, and noted pro official and player Fred Perry told Mr. Manker Patten they hoped to make the event the regular site of the National Hard Court Championships. Noted player Bill Tilden, who left the tournament early, and others praised the work of the line judges working under University of Chattanooga tennis player Billy Napier, despite the heckling of them by some players.

The next time Mr. Riggs apparently came to Chattanooga for a formal visit was in early May 1950, when he came for a Jaycees-sponsored exhibition at McCallie’s then-new Davenport Memorial Gymnasium, the one right across today from Spears Stadium’s endzone. Also playing in it were noted pro Jack Kramer, a then-recent Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion, and rising star Pancho Gonzales, had won U.S. Open singles titles in 1948 and 1949. The fourth player taking part was Frankie Parker, who had won French and U.S. Open titles and had already distinguished himself as well.

It was evidently part of a touring show Mr. Riggs put on. News-Free Press sports writer Austin White noted Mr. Riggs’ showmanship in getting the match started in front of a surprisingly small but appreciative gallery.

Mr. White described Mr. Riggs’ demeanor by saying of the 32-year-old, “Sprightly Bobby Riggs, who has never gotten out of the crowd-pleasing habit of alternately clowning, feigning surprise and exhibiting a mild amount of displeasure.”

This showmanship would continue in mid-August 1958. That was when Mr. Riggs – who by then was a Florida club pro -- played former National Clay Court champion Harris Everett in an exhibition in front of 200 hotel guests and invited tennis enthusiasts at the Castle in the Clouds Hotel on Lookout Mountain. Mr. Everett in the writeup was described as “overweight” but still must have hit the ball well enough to make the match competitive.

This was, of course, the same hotel that became part of Covenant College after opening in the late 1920s as the Lookout Mountain Hotel.

Mr. Riggs then came down and played then-Baylor School tennis coach Jerry Evert at the Manker Patten Tennis Center during his same visit. The center had been renamed in his memory after his death in 1956.

Mr. Evert was the uncle of Chris Evert and brother of Jimmy Evert, who had played in the 1941 Chattanooga tournament.

So, Chattanoogans were quite aware of this showman by the time he made big news 15 years later in his loss to Ms. King, the results of which were chronicled on the front pages of both the Chattanooga Times and the Chattanooga News-Free Press in September 1973.

But, Mr. Riggs’ antics and Chattanoogans’ familiarity with them on a local level were not done yet. On June 24, 1978, he came to the Racquet Club in Hixson and agreed to play a number of Chattanoogans, who would donate $100 for the Siskin Foundation and the 365 Club.

In a promotion for the event at the fairly new club owned by Raymond Steakly and Tommy White, Nancy Hartis of the Times described his pre-match speeches as carrying more zing than his serve. She was, of course, remembering the Billie Jean King match.

It was apparently no surprise when he agreed to play some of these novices by handicapping himself. That included through such antics as trying to run around while handcuffed to a young girl, while carrying an open umbrella and a suitcase at different times, and while dribbling a basketball, among other antics.

Among those who faced him were Mayor Pat Rose, Commissioner Jim Eberle, David King, Betsy Dixson, Mary Ruth Fowler, WDEF “Morning Show” host Judy Corn (now O'Neal), Trey White, bankers George Clark and John Hayes, Lynn Brady, Tom Trivers, Danny Foote, and Alan Gold.

Beating him were noted local pro Bill Tym, who was initially disguised as well-known banker Scotty Probasco, and 13-year-old Scott Stanford.

UTC head basketball coach Ron Shumate and Channel 9 sportscaster Darrell Patteron also played a doubles match against him, but according to noted car columnist and humorist Buddy Houts, they “went down in defeat faster than the Titanic.”

Mr. Houts and News-Free Press sports editor Roy Exum also played against him in a doubles match but lost. Mr. Houts jokingly added, however, that Mr. Riggs could not return one of his serves, but that was because 200 balls from the fans were thrown at once in a pre-planned stunt.

Mr. Riggs laughed and said, “Now I’ve had it all done to me.”

He had indeed had it all done to him. He had lost to Ms. King in the famous 1973 match that carried meaning for the front page as well as the sports pages, but he never lost his apparent likability among the public.

And he and Ms. King had a good friendship as well, with her calling him several times on the phone in his latter days battling prostate cancer. She reportedly told him shortly before his death in October 1995, “I love you,” as a way of showing her endearment as a friend.

Chattanoogans on that day in 1978 and earlier found reason to like this man as well. Pro and local Times columnist Bill Tym remarked in a column the next day after discussing the many positive traits Mr. Riggs had as a tennis player that younger players would do well to emulate him on the court. According to Mr. Tym, this was due to his being a master tactician, hitting the right shot at the right time, putting spins on his serves, and showing that you do not have to hit the ball hard to be successful.

And of his contributions to the sport of tennis, Mr. Tym gave him the highest praises, saying, “He represents many things to many different people, but to those who know and love the sport, he represents a player who has done more to promote the game of tennis on an individual level than probably any other player of the game.”

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