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Tennis Gamesmanship by Bobby Riggs

by Ron Kurtus (revised 21 October 2011)

Gamesmanship consists of using dubious methods and psychology to gain an advantage of an opponent in a competition. Tennis player Bobby Riggs was known to use such tactics to win games where he was at a disadvantage.

In his younger days, Riggs had been a world champion tennis player, but he had been out of the spotlight for many years, making money as a tennis hustler.

In 1973, the 55-year old Riggs sought to gain publicity during a time when women's liberation was an issue. Riggs contended that even old men could beat women in tennis. He used gamesmanship to beat former tennis star Margaret Court. But then he was out-psyched and got his comeuppance from 29-year old Billy Jean King.

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This lesson will answer those questions.



Riggs the hustler

Bobby Riggs was known as a "character" in tennis circles. He had been a world's tennis champion at age 21 in 1939 but soon faded from the rankings while in his late 20s. He did not look like an athlete. He was relatively short and wore thick glasses in his later years. His game consisted of a variety of shots including lobs and dink shots that frustrated many power players.

For many years after his heydays, Riggs supplemented his income by hustling tennis games from unsuspecting players who would assume from his unassuming looks that he was not very good. He would even spice up the bets by handicapping himself by using a frying pan as a tennis racquet. Typically, he won the competitions and bets.

As a self-promoter, he saw an opportunity to get into the limelight by playing off the women's liberation movement of the early 1970s. His claim that even old men could beat the best tennis players brought him into the news.

Riggs versus Margaret Court

In 1973, Riggs challenged Margaret Smith Court to a male versus female tennis match. Court had been the top Australian female tennis player in the 1960s. The match was on Mother's Day, so Riggs gave Court—a mother of three—a big bouquet of roses. You could see by the expression on Court's face that she was really touched by the gesture. But it was simply a ploy by Riggs to get her psychologically unprepared for the game to follow.

It is unlikely that Court had taken the challenge seriously, especially since she wasn't involved in the women's liberation movement. His bit of gamesmanship and Riggs' dink and lob style befuddled Court, and she lost 6-2, 6-1.

Riggs versus Billie Jean King

On the other hand Billy Jean King was much into the women's liberation movement, especially since the top women players made much less money than most mediocre men tennis players. She accepted the challenge to play Riggs at the Houston Astrodome before a national television audience.

King prepared

Although Riggs had been able to psych out Margaret Court, King was well prepared for his antics. In pre-match negotiations Riggs had wanted to play using a slower surface that was suitable to his game. King won the argument that they would use a fast playing surface.

In a bit of showmanship (that may have been agreed-upon beforehand) Billy Jean King came out on a throne carried by four bare-chested musclemen. Then Riggs came out on a rickshaw pulled by four scantily-dressed women. King proceeded to give Riggs a small pig as a gesture that he was a "male chauvinist pig"—a popular expression at the time.

In the psychological warfare or gamesmanship before the match, it looked like King had the advantage. In the middle of the match, Riggs faked an injury. This was a vain effort to perhaps get sympathy from King, as well as to catch his breath.

Wins gamesmanship contest

She then proceeded to easily beat Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Not only did King win the game and $175,000, but she also won the gamesmanship contest. Riggs did get the publicity he desired and $75,000.

Summary

Tennis player Bobby Riggs would use gamesmanship and deceptive tactics to win money from other tennis players in their competitions. He also psyched out former women's champion Margaret Court to beat her in a publicized match of men versus women. Finally, he was out-psyched and beaten by Billy Jean King in a nationally televised competition.


Know your opponent


Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials

Websites

King wins tennis' Battle of Sexes - News article

Career of Bobby Riggs - Answers.com

Competition Resources

Books

Top-rated books on Competition

Top-rated books on Bobby Riggs


Questions and comments

Do you have any questions, comments, or opinions on this subject? If so, send an email with your feedback. I will try to get back to you as soon as possible.


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