# 4 The Last Sure Thing (The life and times of Bobby Riggs) by Tom LeCompte (2003) 470 p.
A lot has been written about that charming kid from Los Angeles, Robert Larymore Riggs, who everyone knew as Bobby. Many labels were given to him, like the bad boy of tennis, or hustler, huckster, and showman. Most people don’t remember that Riggs was also a true champion and, according to LeCompte “one of the great characters in all of sports.” Riggs published two books himself, Tennis Is My Racket (1949) and Court Hustler (1973). Court Hustler gives a pretty good account of his role in the famous Battle of the Sexes, but I was left dissatisfied reading it 10 years ago. The Last Sure Thing is, according to Lorne Kuhle, Riggs’ long time sidekick, very well researched. It leaves no stone unturned and no question unanswered.
When I moved to San Diego North County from the Philadelphia area in the 1990ies, and joined the Bobby Riggs Tennis Club in Cardiff, I became fascinated with this man. The owner of the club, Lorne Kuhle, is focused on preserving the memory of Riggs with a beautiful display of Riggs’s trophies in the so-called Bobby Riggs Tennis Museum. The museum also features life-size displays of the most important tennis personalities in Riggs’s life: Jack Kramer, Pancho Segura, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, and Pancho Gonzales. I never had the pleasure of meeting Riggs in person, but was always eager to listen to now legendary stories of the man told by legends in their own right like Kuhle, Segura, Jackie Cooper, and Vic Braden.
One of the greatest tennis players of all time, Jack Kramer, wrote about Bobby Riggs, “Any time Robert Larimore Riggs of Altadena, California, feels like revealing some state secrets about how he wins tennis matches, I’m more than willing to listen. Riggs is an awful pain in the neck to me when he’s on the other side of the net, but when he’s lecturing on the strategy of winning tennis I’d pay money to hear him.”
LeCompte makes a big effort to show that Riggs was much more than the so-called motor mouthed antagonist of Billie Jean King in their 1973 Battle of the Sexes. And he chronicles Riggs’s life like no one else ever did. After describing the years 1918-1932 (Tennis: Game of Kings and Sissies), he continues with excellently researched details about the era and the man Bobby Riggs. How he won his first racquet in a game of marbles. How he won Wimbledon’s singles, men’s doubles, and mixed doubles titles in 1939 and made a small fortune betting on himself. From his battles with Perry Jones, the almighty Czar of tennis in Southern California, to the way years in the Navy (Seaman First Class Bobby Riggs “looked so silly,” recalled one shipmate, “like a cartoon character.”), LeCompte has a very systematic way of listing events and describing circumstances.
The author determines that Riggs dominated the game in both the amateur and pro ranks, winning at Wimbledon, twice at Forest Hills (now the U.S. Open) and was a three-time U.S. professional champion. The success of his barnstorming pro tours in the Forties against tennis legends Don Budge and Jack Kramer laid the foundation for the professional game we know today.
I liked LeCompte’s account of the two matches against the best female tennis players at the time. Margaret Court’s going after the easy money and Billie Jean King very worried about that outcome, knowing she had to play Bobby now. Lorne Kuhle’s personal and accurate memories helped putting a picture together that is as fascinating as the entire story played out in 1973 and climaxed in Houston’s Astrodome. The author shows us both Gene Mako’s insisting that Riggs threw the match intentionally with Billie Jean’s knowledge and agreement, and Jack Kramer’s refuting and totally dismantling that allegation with clear and uncanny logic. “Bobby Riggs, the biggest ham in the world, gets his greatest audience – and purposely looks bad?” Kramer asked. “There’s no way.”
48 million people in the United States and more than 90 million people worldwide watched the contest. LeCompte states, While it is arguable whether or not Riggs-King changed the history of the women’s movement (after all, it was well under way by the time Bobby started mouthing off), the shear visibility of the match did much to affirm it.
Stories about Riggs’s game hustling are legion, growing funnier with each retelling. We all recall the pictures with Riggs playing tennis with chairs on his side of the court, or wearing an overcoat and snowshoes. Vic Braden tells us about a mixed doubles game with Riggs tied to a female elephant. But, the author writes, Riggs’s contests were not limited to tennis. As an example, in 1975, Bobby ran a 50 mile race across Death Valley against long-distance runner Bill Emmerton, in which Emmerton gave Bobby a 25 mile head start.
“If I can’t play for big money, I play for a little money. And if I can’t play for a little money, I stay in bed that day.” (Bobby Riggs to Mike Wallace in a 1973 TV interview, quoted in Court Hustler).
LeCompte states that writing his own epitaph, Bobby joked “He Put Women on the Map.”At other times he said, “The best thing in life is to win. The second best thing in life is to lose… at least you’re in the game.” In Bobby’s case, he usually won, but he made sure he was always in the game.
Frank Deford, sports writer and commentator, author of An American Summer and Big Bill Tilden, was quoted as saying about The Last Sure Thing, “A fascinating account of a life well-lived with vigor and rascality. They just don’t make ‘em in any sport like Bobby Riggs anymore.”
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