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Star-Turned Hustler Bobby Riggs Is Dead : Tennis: Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion who lost to Billie Jean King in the 'Battle of the Sexes' succumbs at 77 after long bout with cancer.

October 26, 1995|BOB OATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Onetime national tennis champion Bobby Riggs, a Wimbledon winner at 21, died Wednesday night. He was 77.

Discovered eight years ago to have prostate cancer, Riggs died about 9:30 p.m. at his home in suburban Leucadia, said Lornie Kuhle, a longtime friend and executive director of the Bobby Riggs Tennis Museum Foundation.

A Southern California resident most of his life, Riggs remained a tennis and golf enthusiast and winner into his mid-70s.

His great interest lately had been the Riggs Tennis Museum, which will adjoin the Bobby Riggs Tennis Club at Cardiff by the Sea. The museum, scheduled for a December opening, will feature the memorabilia and artifacts that he and many of his friends have collected over the years.

Among those contributing are men's champions Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez and Pancho Segura and women's champions Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Margaret Court.

In April, Riggs was honored by them and others at his Cardiff club, where there was an unveiling of a half-size sculpture of the veteran champion by John Petek of Montana.

Riggs as a tournament tennis player is remembered as a pre-television champion. Thus he gained his largest share of U.S. attention in 1973 when, at 55, he promoted the nationally televised Riggs-King match. She beat him in three straight sets.

A tongue-in-cheek, self-styled male chauvinist, he had first challenged, and defeated, women's champion Court. But at the Houston Astrodome, before a record tennis crowd of 30,472, King was too much for him.

"Billie Jean just caught me on a bad day," Riggs said years later.

Finding that there was life after King, he stepped up his sports career, continuing to win in seniors' tennis but also succeeding as a self-styled hustler.

After teaching himself to play golf, he hustled bets, he said, in both golf and tennis for decades.

He said he played either tennis or golf nearly every day for more than a half century--even during his 20 years as a vice president in a photography business owned by his wife, Patricia, who died last March.

His first wife, Kay, lives in St. Louis.

Son of a minister, Riggs was born in the Lincoln Heights area of Los Angeles and practically grew up at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, where he was a boys' champion.

His proudest recollection late in life was that he was always the best tennis player in the world for his age--from his early teens to his 70s.

At 20, for example, he was a Davis Cup winner on the U.S. team that beat Australia in 1938. In 1939 he chose not to play on the Davis Cup team and competed at Wimbledon, where he became the only player to win the triple crown in his first appearance there--he teamed with his singles title victim, Elwood Cooke, to win the doubles, then joined Alice Marble to win mixed doubles.

A gambler from boyhood to the end, Riggs said he made a three-way parlay on himself and his 1939 Wimbledon partners in England, where bookmaking is legal. Betting 100 pounds, he said he collected 21,600 pounds, or $108,000.

He climaxed his days as a world champion by winning two national titles at the U.S. tournament (later called the U.S. Open) at Forest Hills, N.Y., defeating Wayne Saban in 1939 finals and Frank Kovacs in 1941.

After three years in the Navy, Riggs won three world professional championships, beating Don Budge each time, in 1946, '47 and '49. It is a measure of that era in pro tennis, Riggs said, that Kramer, who eliminated him in 1948, spent 1949 in Europe.

Riggs said the only tennis player he couldn't beat when he put his mind to it was Kramer, who finally suggested that Riggs should go into promoting. Thereupon, Riggs originated the pro tour--a barnstorming series of one-night events--which preceded the present era of pro tournaments.

But, on the side, Riggs said, "I never quit hustling."

It was his competitive nature that kept him going.

"Bobby was the fiercest competitor of his time," said his friend and executor, Lornie Kuhle, owner of the Bobby Riggs Tennis Club and tennis director of Las Vegas' MGM Grand Hotel.

Said Kramer Wednesday night: "Bobby Riggs wasn't just a funny guy walking around looking like a duck and playing girls. He was a true world champion. He more than anything wanted to be remembered as one fantastic player."

Said Rosie Casals, who did commentary on the Riggs-King match: "For a male chauvinist, he did a lot of good for us. We'll always remember him in the best possible way. I always said he did the most for women's tennis."

Riggs is survived by two sons from his first marriage, three children from his second marriage, two brothers and four grandchildren.

At Riggs' direction, he will be cremated and his ashes spread over a tennis court.

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