The following article originally ran Saturday, Oct. 30, 1993.
CORVALLIS — Bobby Riggs won the '90s version of the Battle of the Sexes Friday night.
The "Happy Hustler" teamed up with Corvallis resident Pat Williams to beat West Albany girls tennis coach Kathy Gibbs-Reding and Corvallis resident Liz Gray in an 8-6 Kramer set before 150 people at the Timberhill Athletic Club.
At 75 years old, Riggs may be a little slower with the hustle, but his lobs and slicing serves are just as lethal as the ones he delivered back in his younger days as a Wimbledon champion in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
And a little youth on your side doesn't hurt, either. The 22-year-old Williams often saved the team when Riggs shouted, "Yours!"
Williams was asked to fill in for Riggs' partner and longtime friend, Corvallis restaurant owner Jim MacEachern, who was nursing a cold.
Gibbs-Reding stressed that despite the loss and falling victim to a couple of legendary lobs, it was a lot of fun.
"I expected to have a lot of fun here," she said. "It's just an honor to play against him."
Williams said teaming up with Riggs was "a great experience. ... That's the closest I'll ever get to playing professional tennis."
Both sides played up the chauvinist hype before the 6:30 match. Riggs jokingly referred to his foes as "the girls" before Gray reminded him to call them "women." On the court during warmups, Riggs addressed the assembled tennis nuts in the bleachers above, wisecracking between shots and taking center stage while the others practiced.
"It's nice to see such a nice turnout," he remarked. "After the match, I want you all to head to Fresh Mex (MacEachern's restaurant), where there's real value — almost all you can eat for $3. Great food."
He offered free coupons to the entire crowd if he lost and also reminisced about the 1973 Battle of the Sexes at the Houston Astrodome, where Billie Jean King clobbered the then-55-year-old Riggs, 6-2, 6-1 in a Mother's Day extravaganza. Before losing that battle, however, Riggs did beat Margaret Court in a singles match.
Gibbs-Reding and Gray both had some frustrating moments in the first-to-eight matchup. Riggs often dropped his legendary slow spin and slice serve into play to send his opponents flying in every direction.
After delivering one of his trademark shots, Riggs boasted, "That one's known as the Lobster. It's the shot I'm famous for. At 75, who do you know that can do that? I'm still a strong, agile player — I hope."
Riggs and Williams held an early 4-2 advantage, but the women fought back to tie it at 4-4 before pushing ahead to 5-4. After the men took a 7-5 lead, Gibbs-Reding and Gray rallied to make it 6-7.
The final game, a nine-minute feud of close calls and tennis magic from both sides, sealed the Riggs-Williams victory.
"I finally got a win over the girls," an out-of-breath Riggs said after the match. "It took me 20 years and I had to go all the way to Corvallis to do it."
Riggs wasn't the only one reliving memories on the clay. In attendance was Corvallis resident Bert Sperling, who met the sports legend years before on the courts of the 1940 U.S. Open. Sperling was Riggs' 16-year-old ballboy.
"You can recognize him right away," Sperling said. "He's a great guy."
Cory Frye postscript, 2017:
Well, that was lousy. Hoo boy. Insight is minimal, with nervous cadence, and transitions squall in pain. That I stamped my name atop this travesty ranks as belated embarrassment. But I was 20 in October '93, just days from 21, and imagined myself a poet in Keds. This is what sucks about growing up in print: You exist in all your forms.
Despite its myriad faults, however, it's a remarkably accurate account of the evening.
My then-boss, Steve Lundeberg, had the pleasure of interviewing a less guarded Bobby Riggs (you can read that story here — wait, don't go) a day or two before the match. By Lundy's estimation, he's a fascinating character, candid, ruminative and beautifully profane. I got to witness a showboat in his element. And I'm still not sure who got the better deal.
Although he didn't swat balls with umbrellas while restraining leashed dogs, as depicted in the recent "Battle of the Sexes," Riggs transformed the Timberhill Athletic Club into a playground that Friday night. He took the game seriously, but the tennis often seemed incidental. It was the crowd that mattered, and he kept us entertained with rejoinders, asides and the occasional commercial break.
In the story, I mention only one Riggs plug for Fresh Mex, a Tex Mex joint opened when Tex Mex was the new rage. But as I recall, he raved about the place all night. "Let's all go to Fresh Mex!" was a frequent refrain. Whether everyone — or anyone, including him — acted upon that plea remains unknown. A professional journalist, I couldn't go. Instead, I shoved my Pontiac hatchback to the Albany office, where I ate 50-cent hot dogs and stitched the folderol above.
At 20, I knew very little about the Riggs/Billie Jean King match. It took place in September 1973, when I was a high-chair-ridin' son of a gun. Plus, I had no interest in sports except as it related to history, which made me the best sportswriter of all time. Also, no Google — just reference books I didn't own. As far as I gathered, Bobby Riggs was some tongue-running yahoo who got his pig-trap shut. As I learned later, that was exactly the legacy he feared he'd leave.
So I had no idea what to expect when I finally spoke with Riggs — and I swear I'll get to him soon. His on-court demeanor wasn't at all what I expected. He was funny, gregarious and, dare I say, charming. But he was also a fierce competitor. He flat-out refused to lose. When the score got close, his antics stopped, and he revived the talents that won Wimbledon and three National Championships a half-century earlier. I recall one shot in particular that sighed mid-air and fainted, unreachable, over the net. Kathy Gibbs-Reding's frustrated shouts reverberated for blocks.
But the post-match atmosphere was nothing but love. Handshakes and cheek-kisses. Riggs waved to everyone, and then everyone came in waves. He loved it, signing autographs, swapping anecdotes.
Eventually, I broke past the well-wishing wall. My stomach twisted itself into knots. I may have not have known much about Bobby Riggs, but he was a legend — a daunting one, at that — and I was a punk kid. "Mr. Riggs," I said, catching his attention, "I'm from the Albany Democrat-Herald and — "
Suddenly, his left arm came over my shoulder and he pulled me in for a side hug. Gotta say, I was taken aback. We were old pals for what seemed like 10 minutes, although it was probably only a few.
I posed questions between sieges. An autograph seeker handed him a photo to sign. "Look at that handsome fella!" Riggs said, regarding his younger self. A television camera crept in and then went away. A Gazette-Times reporter popped by. Meanwhile, Riggs continued to talk. Man, could he talk. I filled a page with Riggsian patter, but in the end, I used only one nugget: "I finally got a win over the girls. It took me 20 years and I had to go all the way to Corvallis to do it."
I actually smiled, retyping that quote. Almost 24 years later, I can still hear his voice, slightly hoarse, rapid-fire, strategically disarming. I wasn't able to translate it in print, but it left a lasting impression on me.
Steve Carell didn't much sound like him in "Battle of the Sexes," but he captured his spirit masterfully. When his onscreen Riggs berated a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, telling the group that gambling wasn't a problem; it was a pleasure that made one feel alive, I nodded to myself in the dark. In that moment, he was simultaneously earnest and a lovable hustler. That was the man I met.