I just watched the silly 2017 movie The Battle of the Sexes about the 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King.
The movie never mentions that Bobby threw the match to satisfy his gambling debts. Instead, it presents Billy’s victory as some great triumph for women and gay rights. As Wikipedia notes: “According to an extensive article by the ESPN program Outside the Lines, Riggs took advantage of the overwhelming odds against King and threw the match to get his debts to the mob erased. This would confirm the suspicions held by many of Riggs’ peers, including Don Budge.”
This lack of preparation—and Riggs’ uninspired, error-riddled play during the match—fueled speculation that the old hustler had intentionally thrown the match, perhaps because he had bet against himself, perhaps at the behest of the mob. (The strongest such claim came in a 2013 ESPN story by Don Van Natta Jr.)
Riggs made no effort to hide the extent of his gambling habit (a July 1973 Sports Illustrated profile described Riggs and his best friend Lornie Kuhle betting “on everything from tennis games to memory contests, from the turn of a coin to the flight of a robin”), and according to A Necessary Spectacle, he annoyed both King and his own support team by spending the break after the first set trying to negotiate a change in the odds with his bookie up in the stands.
The fact is that most any man among the top 100 players on the senior circuit would beat the top female tennis players of any age.
It seemed a certain payday for him. Four months earlier, Riggs had crushed Margaret Court, the world’s No. 1 women’s tennis player, 6-2, 6-1, in an exhibition labeled by the media as the “Mother’s Day Massacre.” Court’s defeat had persuaded King to play Riggs. Nearly everyone in tennis expected a similarly lopsided result. On the ABC broadcast, Pancho Gonzales, John Newcombe and even 18-year-old Chrissie Evert predicted Riggs would defeat King, then the No. 2-ranked woman. In Las Vegas, the smart money was on Bobby Riggs. Jimmy the Greek declared, “King money is scarce. It’s hard to find a bet on the girl.”
But by aggressively attacking the net and smashing precision shots, King ran a winded, out-of-shape Riggs all over the court. Riggs made a slew of unforced errors, hitting soft returns directly at King or into the net and double-faulting at key moments, including on set point in the first set. “I don’t understand,” Cosell said after a King winner off a Riggs backhand. “He’s been feeding her that backhand all night.” Midway through the third set, Riggs looked drained and complained of hand cramps. After King took match point, winning in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, Riggs mustered the energy to hop the net. “I underestimated you,” he whispered in King’s ear.