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Tennis Legends

Bettemann/CORBIS
As a traditional woman, Margaret always put her husband, Barry, and her Children over tennis.

Margaret Court followed the money down a desolate two-lane highway. About forty miles northeast of San Diego, the road known as Wildcat Canyon slithered past orange groves and a dusty Indian reservation, and through the shadows of the Cmyamaca Mountains. It was an uncomfortable stretch, so isolated that Mexican drug smugglers favored the route for their midnight drops.

Reaching the town of Ramona, California, Margaret found a luxury housing development still in the bulldozing stage. It was May 13, 1973. A tennis has-been named Bobby Riggs and a sure $10,000 were just fort-yeight hours away. Mother's Day. All the five-foot-ten Aussie had to do was punch a few volleys past the geezer in telescopic glasses. All the mommy of the moment had to decide was where to ace the mouthy, wrinkled runt: down the middle or out wide.

It was going to be so easy. With her husband and infant son by her side, Margaret would walk onto a court surrounded by 3,200 fans in makeshift bleachers, impose her V-8 power strokes on Bobby, and exit this lizard's paradise with the winner-take-all payday, plus an extra $10,000 in television rights fees from CBS.

Margaret often described money as an evil, but even she had to admit that the dough was the inducement that brought her here, not Bobby's sexist prattle. She entered her match with Riggs as if it were an exhibition, rather than a serious competition against a skilled and cunning opponent. And she gave no thought to its social consequences. American Nvomen were tossing bras, girdles, and nylons into trash bins, but the women's movement didn't move Margaret. She was a Mrs., not a Ms.

Margaret just wasn't the defiant type. She was more introverted than her vociferous peers, someone who, usuallv minimized her presence. Margaret would almost sneak onto the court with her head tilted down, her broad shoulders slightly slumped, and her body folded inward like flower petals at night. She didn't enjoy standing out or speaking up. Sometimes she could actually feel her skin heat and redden from the neck up during interviews. To her, a bank of microphones looked about as friendly as a gang of alien invaders.

Margaret preferred to be a noncombatant amid the gender mudslinging of the early seventies, when rational feminism was often entwined with radical lesbianism. As a devout Christian who found moral clarity in the Scriptures, she was like many alienated onlookers who couldn't separate man-bashing militants from the messengers of equality.

While activists were wearing T-shirts that read, "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle," Margaret retreated into the comfort of her marriage. The hoof steps of picketing marchers, the drumbeat of feminists, the glorious music of a cause engaged, it was white noise to Margaret. She couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. Everything had changed so much, so fast, while she was away. What had she walked back into?

She had fled from fame in 1966, retiring from tennis for two years, desperate to shed her label as the Aussie wonder girl who had won thirteen majors before her twenty-fifth birthday. She searched for a pocket of solitude on the fringes of the earth - otherwise known as Perth, Australia - moving from the densely populated east coast of the country to the only dot of civilization on the other side of the great Australian desert.

In Melbourne, Margaret was a tennis legend. In Perth, she was the tall young lady with short, neatly cropped hair who owned a boutique on a quiet street. Barry Court found Margaret adorably gentle. Knowing little about her former tennis career, he fell in love with her kind heart and earnest disposition. It wasn't until after thev were married in 1967 that he discovered who his wife had been.

One year spilled into the next. She hadn't touched the throat of a racket in two years, but she slipped right back into her old competitive skin. She hadn't lost a thing. With muscles as strong as tree roots carved into her arms, with lean long legs and a lumberjack's approach to the ball, Margaret was more dominant than ever. She won all four majors to capture the elusive Grand Slam in 1970. None of those victories was more remarkable than her two-and-a-half-hour epic at Wimbledon. Just before her final, Margaret received two painkiller injections into her puffy ankle left blue from a ligament she tore in an earlier round match.

She was in obvious agony. Margaret managed her pain well enough to take a 14-12, 11-9 final. The mesmerized crowd was thrilled, if mentally exhausted, after witnessing one of the great Wimbledon championships. They also saw one incredible leg of Margaret's journey to becoming the first player to win a Grand Slam since Maureen Connolly in 1953. She sealed it with a U.S. Open title at Forest Hills two months later. The Slam put Margaret back on top, back in the public eye, but she declined to indulge in the popular on-tour debates over male expendability, feeling too indebted to the men in her life to diminish them. They had lifted her, not belittled her. Barry traveled the world with Margaret. He shrugged off the teases from the blokes back home and never seemed threatened by her success. She was embraced by men, not marginalized by them.

She had only felt acceptance. All her life, gentlemen had routinely opened doors for~Margaret, at hours as early as 5:00 a.m. That's when she used to venture into a Melbourne gym after her morning jog, passing milkmen with strides that echoed on the lonely streets as she ran to lift weights. Bulking up was as ladylike as a beer belch in the early sixties, but as a fifteen-year-old tennis prodigy, Margaret was determined to convert her angular physique into a power structure.

Her coach, Australian tennis legend Frank Sedgman, and the gym attendants made that possible by establishing special rules for the only woman in the weight room. They installed a curtain in the shower area just for Margaret, and kept the gym closed to men until she was gone.

Born July 16, 1942, in the railroad junction town of Albury, New South Wales, Margaret Smith grew up in a rented home where she could measure the financial burdens on her family by the amount of alcohol her father drank. He worked as head of the dessert unit at a local butter and cheese plant, bringing home pocket change for wages and a single perk: ice cream.

The Smiths didn't own a car or a television. They grew their own vegetables. With four siblings and only one bedroom, Margaret and her sister slept on the front porch, with thatched blinds pulled down from the beams to keep out the moonlight and most of the insects. In the morning, when those blinds lifted, Margaret could see inspiration across the road: twenty-four grass tennis courts that stretched out like magic carpets.

Those courts became her escape. As a child, Margaret and a handful of mischievous boys routinely wiggled through a hole beneath the tennis club's fence to swipe grass-stained balls that were as flat and soggy as overripe tomatoes. They bashed them to bits, playing their own brand of tennis in the roadway with makeshift rackets. Margaret whacked away with a thin board the length and breadth of a boat's oar.

At age eight, she got lucky. Her parents couldn't afford to buy her a real racket, but a friend of her mother's saw how gamely Margaret flailed away at a ball suspended from a string tied to a backyard tree. Next time the lady visited, she handed Margaret a dilapidated antique racket with a square head, broken strings, and no grip. It was thick, unwieldy, and perfect. Beautiful, Margaret thought.

She won her first tournament with that relic. Soon enough, she had Wal Rutter, the grumpy pro at the tennis club, turning his back while she crawled like an inchworm through the hole under the fence to practice on the most remote court, the one hidden from view, by a hedge. Rutter never filled in that hole. It would become a tunnel to Margaret's new life. She bloomed on grass, rising so fast in the local junior ranks that Sedgman whisked her away from Albury, offering her a job as a typist and a future as a player. At fifteen, she was bound for Melbourne to become a gender bender of her own design: a woman with uncommon muscle but traditional values.

In 1973, Margaret joined the successful Virginia Slims circuit, but she didn't follow the formula for promotion. She didn't go door-to-door to schmooze with sponsors, or stand in traffic to hand free tickets to motorists. She didn't sign autographs at shopping centers or rise at 5:00 a.m. for interviews on every ten-watt radio station known to man.

But she was an opponent's nightmare. Margaret swooped down and plucked up more titles than any woman in history. But she was also an unassuming wife who was happy to take career breaks for childbirth. After the first of her three children arrived in 1972, Margaret sat on the sidelines for nearly a year. She returned to the tennis mix in 1973, starting off the season with an Australian Open title.

Her priorities were family, tennis, and, especially, God, after a spiritual rebirth in the spring of 1972. Religion simplified Margaret's world. It eliminated political nuance and its complexities, which was perhaps one reason she never saw the social tentacles attached to the mouth of Bobby Riggs. To her, Bobby was a harmless huckster with an outdated game and a chauvinist's shtick, a threat to be taken as seriously as a haunted house. His fangs were false; his hair was dyed; his best days were cobwebbed.

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS
The diminutive Riggs ascended to Wimbledon glory in 1939 by using guile against his Goliath opponents.

Bobby reveled in the perception of himself as a living, breathing punchline of the senior circuit, but there was a message in his act. In the early seventies he began speaking out against the shortchanging of senior players. He demanded more prize money for aging ex-champions like himself. Bobby was tired of women yakking about their independent value. He shared his stance on old-man privilege with anyone who would listen: If women are raking it in, what about us?

Bobby felt sure that any, graying champ could knock the high heels off any woman anywhere. He exuded the confidence of a quizmaster, a man with all the answers, a man especially positive about one thing: A victory over a woman would mean much more than a cash infusion for the over-the-hill gang. It would mean a second lap with fame for Riggs himself.

It had been thirty years since Bobbv Riggs lost his place among America's household names. In between the mighty Don Budge and the dashing Jack Kramer, there had been the sprite-sized Riggs, a player who survived against giants by exploiting their human weaknesses. He plotted his way to the Wimbledon men's singles title in 1939, and the instant attention he gained was delightfully dizzying, a feeling he never thought he'd recapture. Then came the spring of'73.

To be surrounded like a bonfire again, to be seated at the best table in the house - it all made for an intoxicating range of possibilities. But he couldn't realize any of them unless he made the match a reality. So Bobby did what came naturally for him - he put money on it. Armed with a $5,000 carrot, he sent out telegrams challenging his wish list of opponents: Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, and Margaret Smith Court.

Margaret couldn't resist the bait. A large, malleable national television audience was expected to watch Margaret's match against Bobby. The problem was, several early-round losses in the late sixties had earned Margaret a reputation for emotional fragility. By her own admission, she had bought into her headlining frailties until she found Christ.

You almost couldn't blame Margaret. She'd never been manipulated by a man. But then she'd never met a man quite like Bobby Riggs. Bobby would never have closed off a gym so that young Margaret could work out free from macho taunts and X-ray eyes. He wasn't in tune with women and politics.

It was hyperbole with a purpose. Bobby was already applying pressure on Margaret's suspect nerves. He had too much respect for her skills not to pull every ploy he could manufacture in order to win. This was Bobby's moment, and he didn't want to squander it by taking Margaret lightly. He worked out relentlessly. Ziplocking himself in his sweats, Bobby ran at least a mile a day around a school track near his Newport Beach digs.

Training by itself, though, couldn't push back the clock fast or far enough to suit Bobby. He needed a youth potion. At fifty-five, he sought out Rheo Blair, Hollywood's top nutritional guru. Blair was the vitamin czar who had put the bubble back into Lawrence Welk, and spread an extra layer of sheen on the shine of the hardworking Liberace. Under Blair's supervision, Bobby adopted a diet of protein, dairy products, and 415 vitamins a day. No BOOZE, No BROADS, Vows BOBBY, the headlines read. He had to be strong - not just to hold the banner for seniors everywhere - but to put himself in the best position to cash in on the endorsement opportunities that were bound to pour in after his win.

Bobby's base of operation was the Park Newport condo complex, where he was the tennis director of a swinging-singles California enclave for the Geritol set. In his bachelor pad, Bobby would relax on a black Naugahyde couch, surrounded by albums and scrapbooks, the hermetically sealed containers of his tennis glory. Outside of his door, the complex contained everything a man could ask for: a liquor store, a dry cleaner, a pastry breakfast at the club, and a choice of seven pools to plunge into on a hot California day.

He allowed the press frequent peeks at his lifestyle. To promote his match with Margaret, Bobby all but ran an open house. He worked the room day and night and never forgot to bring the odd prop, like his favorite T-shirt. Across its front ran the acronym WORMS - World Organization for the Retention of Male Supremacy.

Bobby's colorful comments had reach. From tennis diehards to the man on the street, they all pounced on every outrageous sentence the flimflam man uttered. He displayed impeccable timing, and not just for comedy. In the 1970s, few sports celebrities outside of Muhammad All carried the pop-culture weight of tennis players. In supermarkets, women wore name-brand tennis skirts, not because they were headed to a court, but because they represented a runway fashion statement. In sporting goods stores, popular demand kept tennis rackets, balls, and shoes continually out of stock. Tennis sizzled, and Bobby was its latest walking, ever talking marquee attraction.

Wherever Bobby went, the media plundered his thoughts on the upcoming match. He had succeeded in capturing the nation's attention. Now all he had to do was win. Bobby scouted Margaret closely, taking copious notes on her style while following her around the Virginia Slims circuit. Then he candidly laid out his plan for beating her: serve her the soft stuff, throw off her power with spins, upset her rhythm with dropshots, wear down her patience with lobs.

From Lubbock to Las Vegas, the more Bobby chattered, the more folks he convinced. Jimmy the Greek, the oddsmaker of the moment, put Riggs the favorite over Court at 5-2. But the more Bobby talked up his tactics, the more pressure he felt. For months Margaret had taken Bobby's challenge casually, laughing off his jibes and quips as she continued to win on the Virginia Slims tour.

Her indifference to the hype befuddled Bobby. Why wasn't Margaret reacting? Wasn't she worried? Then Margaret took off the week before the match to practice with her part-time coach, Dennis Van der Meer, who just happened to be Billie Jean King's coach, too. Special workouts with Van der Meer ... hmmm ... she was feeling the pinch, Bobby thought. Perfect.

Two days before the match, Margaret, Barry, and their fourteen-month-old son, Danny, made the journey through the gaunt wilderness to San Diego Country Estates. She had barely fought through the swarm of photographers that greeted her when Bobby began trying his best to crack her cool.

Sick of his jabbering, Margaret made a beeline for her room. She and her family were staying at the newly completed San Vicente Club along with the press. And Bobby. Bobby's and Margaret's suites stood only a few yards apart. Late one night, after another evening of nonstop talking, Bobby stumbled through the door to his room. There, in the middle of the floor, he found Margaret playing with her night-owl son.

Wrong door. Oops, sorry to bother you, big mistake, feel terrible. Bobby gushed every clumsy apology as he scrambled out. It was an accident, he claimed. But once word of the incident surfaced in the club dining room, many assumed the mastermind-gainer was up to his usual brinksmanship, trying out another ploy to unnerve his opponent.

Margaret, though, appeared unruffled by whatever Bobby cooked up. She treated her opponent cordially, for the most part, and even seemed to find him amusing. She got into the spirit of the event by sticking a popular button on Danny's bib: "Women's libbers speak for themselves ... Bobby Riggs - Bleah!"

The night before the match, everyone convened in the dining area for one last supper, as Bobby called it. In a corner, encircled by reporters and well-wishers, Bobby fed off the attention, talking in his squeaky voice at the speed of an auctioneer. Surely the coyotes could hear him.

The Court family dined quietly, alone on the other side of the room, removed from the carnival barker in their midst. During dinner, Danny turned his high chair into a snare drum, banging his spoon to his own beat. The rapping was so loud, so unrestrained, and so obnoxious that Margaret couldn't help but note, "You make more noise than Bobby Riggs."

There it was. Bobby was inside Margaret's head. Just where he wanted to be. The next morning, hundreds of fans awoke early for the long drive toward intrigue. By 9:00 a.m., the hearty curiosity-seekers were camped outside the gate of the Erector-set stadium in the middle of nowhere, an arena hastily assembled for the afternoon matinee on CBS.

In his hotel suite, Bobby chatted with his nineteen-year-old daughter, Dolly, who had flown in from Florida a few days earlier for her pop's big day. Mother's Day morning started off inauspiciously in Margaret's suite. As soon as his parents' backs were turned, Danny had dumped his mom's only pair of tennis shoes into the toilet.

At least her prized dress was dry. Margaret may not have possessed keen political instincts, but she did have fashion sense. For the first time in her career, she would dare to appear on-court in an outfit that wasn't strictly white. At her request, dress designer extraordinaire Ted Tinling had added some zing to her normally conservative style. He had whipped up a pastel dress trimmed in the Aussie national colors of green and gold. Margaret's name was embroidered on each side of her collar as if to introduce her at a parent-teacher conference. This counted as a bold display for her. A woman who usually sought invisibility, she was all but wearing a vanity plate.

Margaret was an unmistakable vision when she walked out on court. She loped to the net to greet Bobby before the match, towering over him as if they were dates at an eighth-grade dance. Instead of a corsage, Bobby handed her a dozen roses as they met in front of CBS commentator Pat Sununerall.

Nasty little man, she thought. But to the world, Margaret did not seem the least bit offended. She curtsied in front of the cameras, almost blushing submissively. All week, tales of how she had dismantled Tony Trabert's power in practice had circled the grounds. But that, Bobby believed, was the wrong preparation. She should have been practicing against a beginner.

His strategy worked, right from the start. Bobby immediatelv rendered the circuit's most dominating female force into a weekend hacker by dinking his serves, punching drop shots, and lobbing the ball into the afternoon sun. During the second game of the match, on a strategically placed moon ball, Margaret cracked an overhead into the net to fall behind love-30. Flummoxed in the face of Bobby's underwhelming attack, her confidence evaporated as the pressure on her built.

She was tumbling into Bobby's trap. He had made a career out of waiting for an opponent's mistake, a strategy he had learned from his first coach, a woman who continuallv reminded him, "Placement, Bobby, it's about placement." Connecting on just eighteen of thirty-seven first serves, and reduced to lolling through her ferocious forehand, Court's collapse happened at flashbulb speed.

In just fifty-seven minutes, Bobby had dismantled Margaret's ballyhooed power to hand her a humbling 6-2, 6-1 defeat. On TV, the nation saw Bobby hop the net to embrace Margaret after a match that tennis devotees still remember as the Mother's Day Massacre. Inside, Bobby felt sympathy for his opponent. To have lost so badly, and on Mother's Day, yet. It didn't seem quite right. He had wanted a tougher fight. He had wanted a longer match. To be frank, he had wanted more television airtime.

Still unsure what had just happened to her, a bewildered Margaret accepted Bobby's hug. She looked on as John Wayne, the ultimate man's man, swaggered forward and handed Bobby checks totaling $10,000. Riggs would receive a few grand more from CBS, and who knew how much in bets he had made on himself. Margaret left with her TV guarantee of $10,000, and her pride in tatters.

Far too late, Margaret had recognized the magnitude of her match with Bobby. This hadn't been a tennis event, but a human saga; this hadn't been a casual Sunday hit, but a political proving ground for gender. Court's defeat was a blow to women, a tool to dismantle their crusade for validity.

Selena Roberts. A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs, and the Tennis Match That Leveled the Game. Crown Publishers, New York. 2005.


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