The following article originally ran Friday, Oct. 29, 1993.
CORVALLIS — Part lamb, part rattlesnake, all competition.
That's Bobby Riggs.
The legendary tennis star arrived in the mid-valley Thursday to see longtime friend Jim MacEachern, a Corvallis restauranteur.
"He's the toughest guy in the world," MacEachern said. "And on the other side of that, he's the gentlest guy. It's a strange mix."
Tonight, at 6:30, the 75-year-old Riggs will play a doubles match against two mid-valley women at Timberhill Athletic Club in Corvallis. Kathy Gibbs-Reding, the West Albany girls tennis coach, and Liz Gray will face Riggs and MacEachern — unless MacEachern, not wanting to drag his friend down, succeeds in finding a more skilled replacement for himself.
On Thursday, Riggs, who lives in Leucadia, Calif., took time out from about one of the most colorful lives the sporting world has ever seen — and receive a prematch gift from Gray and Gibbs-Reding: red roses and Sugar Daddies.
"They're trying to psych us out," Riggs said.
Raised in a family where sports and competition were things to live by, Riggs grew up in east Los Angeles, playing marbles, football, everything. His brothers gave him incentive not just to play games, but to win.
"I was motivated to please them," said Riggs.
The Riggs boys would give Bobby incentives. Winning a race, he said, might earn him a trip with his brothers to see Tom Mix or Hoot Gibson, or maybe a Pacific Coast League baseball game.
When Bobby was 12, he took up tennis after an older brother joined a club. Early on, he was embarrassed by his involvement in the game that was to make him famous.
"We thought tennis was a sissy sport," he said.
Nevertheless, Riggs stuck with it, developing under a teacher at the club. By age 21, he was the singles winner at Wimbledon and the U.S. National Championships, that era's version of the U.S. Open.
"I was invited to the Royal Box and had tea with the queen of England," Riggs said. "Not too many people get to do that."
Not many get a chance to win three straight National Championships, either. Riggs wasn't one of the ones who did, but he came close. His loss to Don McNeill in 1940 was sandwiched between titles in '39 and '41.
Had the 1940 crown not eluded him, Riggs would've become the first man to win three straight years at the National Championships — what the U.S. Open was called before it was opened to professionals in 1968 — since Bill Tilden won six straight from 1920 to '25.
"Three in a row — that would have looked nice in the record book," Riggs said.
What he knows won't look so nice in the history books is his reputation as as a hustler and male chauvinist, though he thinks his friends will remember him positively as a hard-nosed gamer and a good person.
"But I won't get that from the general public," he said. "They'll think of me as a hustler, somebody who'd take advantage of anything, a woman hater, a chauvinist pig. I'll probably be remembered as the guy who played the Battle of the Sexes and got killed. They won't remember I beat (Margaret Court)."
Riggs said it was a Sports Illustrated writer who got the ball rolling on his matches against Court, a five-time U.S. Open winner and two-time Wimbledon champ, and Billie Jean King, who won Wimbledon and four Opens.
The writer asked Riggs, still active in age-group tennis, how he would fare against King, who was in her prime.
"I'd like to play Billie Jean every day of the week and twice on Sunday," Riggs remembers saying. "She wouldn't have a chance."
It was Court, also at the top of her game, who picked up Riggs' gauntlet first, though the television networks didn't care. The Lake Tahoe casino that wanted to stage the Riggs-Court match couldn't get a network to air the match, even without charging a rights fee.
Riggs beat Court handily. Later that same year, the then-55-year-old Riggs couldn't stop King, falling in straight sets, but the event was a national happening that made the loser a winner.
Riggs figures the Battle of the Sexes, played at the Astrodome before a tennis-record of 30,472 and televised by CBS, earned him $1.9 million by the time all the dust settled.
Last month, Riggs and King renewed their rivalry — sort of. As part of an AIDS benefit, Riggs and Martina Navratilova teamed against King and Elton John.
"We had a 2-0 lead, then Navratilova drops the next two games," Riggs said, explaining that Navratilova didn't want to make Elton John, her good friend, look bad.
Riggs was then replaced by Jimmy Connors.
"He hams it up, and King and Elton John win the match," Riggs said. "The papers all say, 'King beats Riggs again.' That's not true. It was 2-2 when I left. I knew we could beat them."
That's Riggs — always looking to compete and to win.
"I'm not a hustler," said Riggs, an avid golfer and backgammon player who's feeling good despite the prostate cancer that has spread throughout his body. "I try to win every time. People say that son of a b**ch, he hustled me. They can't stand, because of their ego, to say, 'He outcompeted me.' I can outcompete most people."
And he hopes to be recalled that way.
"I'd like to think it would more or less be told that I was one hell of a great, great competitor," he said. "That's the way I'd like to be remembered. And the people who know me best, they know I'm not only a great, great competitor, but in my own way, a hell of a nice guy. I think I'd get that from the people who know me best."
Steve Lundeberg postscript, 2017:
I still pull out the photo with some regularity; it’s in the middle-right drawer of my desk.
The picture, along with thinking of Bobby Riggs the way he hoped to be thought of — more on that in a minute — are my enduring memories of an interview with the tennis legend when he visited the mid-valley back in 1993.
Really, it was more of a conversation than an interview: With both of us sitting on a couch in a back room at a Corvallis restaurant, Riggs just let the words pour out, and I drank them in and asked the occasional follow-up question — not because I was looking for anything in particular, but just to get a better handle on a truly fascinating fellow.
Warm, profane and engaging, Riggs told me about watching Pacific Coast League games as a boy at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles.
He told me about winning Wimbledon and having tea with the queen of England.
He recounted a golf match in which "I played my ass off for a $5 Nassau."
And yes, he told me about the epic duel with Billie Jean King, the contest that publicly defined him for the final 22 years of his life.
After an hour, Riggs was still going strong, but sadly I had somewhere to be; I’d earlier arranged to help a new D-H staffer move into his apartment.
As I regretfully excused myself, I thanked Riggs for his time and prepared to be on my way.
Without warning, he whipped a point-and-shoot camera out of his pocket and asked if I'd like to have my picture taken with him. He said he'd get the film processed — this was 1993, remember — and get a copy of the shot to me.
Surprised but pleased, I said sure. He put his arm on my shoulder, the picture was taken and, sure enough, I got my souvenir photo a couple days later. (See the photo in the gallery above.)
Already five years into the cancer fight he'd ultimately lose, Riggs had told me that, in addition to being remembered as a great competitor, he wanted to be known as somebody who, in his own way, was "a hell of a nice guy."
For one memorable hour, that's what he seemed like to me. And thus that’s how I always think of him.