As a 21-year-old amateur in 1939, Riggs won Wimbledon, the U.S. National Championships (now U.S. Open), and was runner-up at the French Championships. He was U.S. champion again in 1941, after a runner-up finish the year before.
At age 55, he competed in a challenge match against Billie Jean King, one of the top female players in the world, and lost. Their prime time "Battle of the Sexes" match in 1973 remains one of the most famous tennis events of all time, with a $100,000 winner-take-all prize.
Born and raised in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, Riggs was one of six children of Agnes (Jones) and Gideon Wright Riggs, a minister. He was an excellent table tennis player as a boy and when he began playing tennis at age eleven, he was quickly befriended and then coached by Esther Bartosh, who was the third-ranking woman player in Los Angeles. Depending entirely on speed and ball control, he soon began to win boys (through 15 years old) and then juniors (through 18 years old) tournaments. Although it is sometimes said that Riggs was one of the great tennis players nurtured at the Los Angeles Tennis Club by Perry T. Jones and the Southern California Tennis Association, Riggs writes in his autobiography that for many years Jones considered Riggs to be too small and not powerful enough to be a top-flight player. (Jack Kramer, however, said in his own autobiography that Jones turned against Riggs "for being a kid hustler".) After initially helping Riggs, Jones then refused to sponsor him at the important Eastern tournaments. With the help of Bartosh and others, Riggs played in various National Tournaments and by the time he was 16 was the fifth-ranked junior player in the United States. The next year, he won his first National Championship, winning the National Juniors by beating Joe Hunt in the finals. That same year, 1935, he met Hunt in 17 final-round matches and won all 17 of them.
At 18, Riggs was still a junior but won the Southern California Men's Title and then went East to play on the grass-court circuit in spite of Jones's opposition. Along the way, he won the U.S. Clay Court Championships in Chicago, beating Frank Parker in the finals with drop shots and lobs. Although he had never played on grass courts before, Riggs won two tournaments and reached the finals of two others. Although still a junior, he ended the year ranked fourth in the United States Men's Rankings. Kramer, who was 3 years younger than Riggs, writes "I played Riggs a lot then at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. He liked me personally too, but he'd never give me a break. For as long as he possibly could, he would beat me at love.... Bobby was always looking down the road. 'I want you to know who's the boss, for the rest of your life, Kid,' he told me. Bobby Riggs was always candid."
Small in stature, he lacked the overall power of his larger competitors such as Don Budge and Kramer but made up for it with brains, ball control, and speed. A master court strategist and tactician, he worked his opponent out of position and scored points with the game's best drop shot and lob as well as punishing ground strokes that let him come to the net for put-away shots. Kramer, one of the very few players who was undeniably better than Riggs, writes that there is a major "misconception" about Riggs. "He didn't play some rinky-dink Harold Solomon style, pitty-pattying the ball around on dirt. He didn't have the big serve, but he made up for it with some sneaky first serves and as fine a second serve as I had seen at that time. When you talk about depth and accuracy both, Riggs' second serve ranks with the other three best that I ever saw: von Cramm's, Gonzales's, and Newcombe's." In his own autobiography, Riggs wrote, "In the 1946 match with Budge [for the United States Pro Championship], I charged the net at every opportunity. Employing what I called my secret weapon, a hard first serve, I attacked constantly during my 6–3, 6–1, 6–1 victory."
"Riggs," said Kramer, "was a great champion. He beat Segura. He beat Budge when Don was just a little bit past his peak. On a long tour, as up and down as Vines was, I'm not so sure that Riggs wouldn't have played Elly very close. I'm sure he would have beaten Gonzales — Bobby was too quick, he had too much control for Pancho — and Laver and Rosewall and Hoad."
Kramer went on to say that Riggs "could keep the ball in play, and he could find ways to control the bigger, more powerful opponent. He could pin you back by hitting long, down the lines, and then he'd run you ragged with chips and drop shots. He was outstanding with a volley from either side, and he could lob as well as any man.... he could also lob on the run. He could disguise it, and he could hit winning overheads. They weren't powerful, but they were always on target."
As a 20-year-old amateur, Riggs was part of the American Davis Cup winning team in 1938. The following year, 1939, he made it to the finals of the French Championships but then won the Wimbledon Championships triple, capturing the singles, the doubles with Elwood Cooke, and mixed doubles with Alice Marble, who also won all three titles. Riggs won $100,000 betting on the triple win, then went on to win the U.S. Championships, earning the World No. 1 amateur ranking for 1939. Riggs won four consecutive singles titles at the Eastern Grass Court Championships between 1937 and 1940. He teamed up with Alice Marble, his Wimbledon co-champion, to win the 1940 U.S. Championships mixed doubles title. In 1941, he won his second U.S. Championships singles title, following which he turned professional. His new career, however, was quickly interrupted by military service during World War II. During his military service, Riggs was a cornerstone member of the 1945 league champion 14th Naval District Navy Yard Tennis Team.
After the war, as a professional, Riggs won the US Pro titles in 1946, 1947, and 1949, beating Don Budge in all three finals. In the 1946 tour against Budge, Riggs won 24 matches and lost 22, plus 1 match tied at Birmingham, Alabama establishing himself as the best player in the world (source : American Lawn Tennis July 15, 1946, page 34). The next year, according to some sources, he beat Budge again by the same narrow margin. But other sources say that he played Budge infrequently and that his primary tour was against Frank Kovacs, whom he beat 11 matches to 10. Budge had sustained an injury to his right shoulder in a military training exercise during the war and had never fully recovered his earlier flexibility. Now, in 1947, according to Kramer, "Bobby played to Budge's shoulder, lobbed him to death, won the first twelve matches, thirteen out of the first fourteen, and then hung on to beat Budge, twenty-four matches to twenty-two." Kramer himself, however, had a sensational 1947 as an amateur and it is debatable whether he or Riggs was the top player for the year. The players met three times at the end of December on fast indoor courts; Riggs won two of these matches.
The promoter of the two Riggs-Budge tours was Jack Harris. In mid-1947, he had already made a deal with Kramer that he would turn professional after the U.S. Championships, regardless of whether he was the winner. He also told Riggs and Budge that the winner of the Professional American Singles Championship, to be held at Forest Hills, would establish the World Champion who would defend his title against Kramer. For the second year in a row, Riggs defeated Budge. Harris signed Kramer for 35 percent of the gross receipts and offered 20 percent to Riggs. He then changed his mind, as Riggs recounted in his autobiography, "saying he could get Ted Schroeder as one of the supporting pair, provided both Kramer and I would yield 2½ percent of our shares in order to build up the offer to Ted. We both agreed — and then Schroeder refused." Harris then signed Pancho Segura and Dinny Pails at $300 ($3,220 today) per week to play the opening match of the Riggs-Kramer tour. Riggs then went on to play Kramer for 17½ percent of the gross receipts.
On December 26, 1947, Kramer and Riggs embarked on their long tour, beginning with an easy victory by Riggs in front of 15,000 people, who had made their way to Madison Square Garden in New York City in spite of a record snowstorm, that had brought the city to a standstill. On January 16, 1948, Riggs led 8 matches to 6. At the end of 26 matches, Riggs and Kramer had each won 13. By that point, however, Kramer had stepped up his second serve to take advantage of the fast indoor courts they played on and was now able to keep Riggs from advancing to the net. Kramer had also begun the tour by playing a large part of each match from the baseline. Finally realizing that he could only beat Riggs from the net, he changed his style of game and began coming to the net on every point. Riggs was unable to handle Kramer's overwhelming power game. For the rest of the tour Kramer dominated Riggs mercilessly, winning 56 out of the last 63 matches. The final score was 69 victories for Kramer versus 20 for Riggs, the last time an amateur champion has beaten the reigning professional king on their first tour. In many of the last matches, it was assumed by observers that Riggs frequently gave up after falling behind and let Kramer run out the victory. Riggs says in his autobiography that Kramer had made "nearly a hundred thousand dollars ... on the American tour alone, while I took in nearly fifty thousand as my share."
In spite of still beating the great professionals such as Pancho Segura, Pancho Gonzales, Jack Kramer or Frank Kovacs in the following years, Riggs soon retired from competitive tennis and briefly took over the job of promoting the professional game.
As a senior player in his 60s and 70s, Riggs won numerous national titles within various age groups.
Singles : 3 titles, 2 runners-up
Singles : 3 titles, 3 runners-up
Riggs became famous as a hustler and gambler, when in his 1949 autobiography he wrote that he had made $105,000 ($1,808,000 today) in 1939 by betting on himself to win all three Wimbledon championships: the singles, doubles and mixed doubles. At the time most betting was illegal in England. From an initial $500 bet on his chances of winning the singles competition he eventually won the equivalent of $1.5 million in 2010 dollars. According to Riggs, World War II kept him from taking his winnings out of the country, so that by 1946 after the war had ended, he then had an even larger sum waiting for him in England as it had been increased by interest.
In 1973, Riggs saw an opportunity to both make money and to draw attention to the sport of tennis. He came out of retirement to challenge one of the world's greatest female players to a match, claiming that the female game was inferior and that a top female player could not beat him, even at the age of 55. He challenged Margaret Court, 30 years old and the top female player in the world, and they played on May 13, Mother's Day, in Ramona, California. Riggs used his drop shots and lobs to keep an unprepared Court off balance; his easy 6–2, 6–1 victory in less than an hour landed him on the cover of both Sports Illustrated and Time magazine. The match was called the "Mother's Day Massacre".
Riggs had originally challenged Billie Jean King, but she had declined. Following Court's loss to Riggs, King accepted his challenge, and the two met in the Houston Astrodome on prime time television on Thursday, September 20, in a match billed as The Battle of the Sexes. The oddsmakers and writers favored Riggs; he built an early lead, but King won in straight sets (6–4, 6–3, 6–3) for the $100,000 winner-take-all prize. Unlike a similar match between Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova in 1992, in which the rules were altered to favor the female player, this match was played using the normal rules of tennis.
According to an extensive article by the ESPN program Outside the Lines, Riggs took advantage of the overwhelming odds against King and threw the match to get his debts to the mob erased. This would confirm the suspicions held by many of Riggs' peers, including Don Budge. On the other hand, the article says Riggs' close friend and estate executor Lornie Kuhle vehemently denied Riggs was ever in debt to the mob or received a payoff from them.
In proposed film adaptations of the Battle of the Sexes, Riggs was rumored to be played by Paul Giamatti, Will Ferrell, and Steve Carell, in three different projects. However, the only project that has been green-lit for production is the one starring Carell, with Emma Stone as Billie Jean King, directed by the directors of Little Miss Sunshine, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. The film, Battle of the Sexes is scheduled for release in the USA on September 22nd, 2017.
Riggs was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1988. He and Lornie Kuhle founded the Bobby Riggs Tennis Club and Museum to increase awareness of the disease and house his memoirs/trophies. Riggs died on October 25, 1995, at his home in Leucadia, Encinitas, California, aged 77.
In his final days, Riggs maintained in friendly contact with Billie Jean King, and King phoned him often. She called him shortly before his death, offering to visit him, but he did not want her to see him in his condition. She phoned him one last time, the night before his death and, according to Billie Jean herself in an HBO documentary about her, the last thing she told Riggs was "I love you."
Riggs was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1967.