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Before he lost the 'Battle of the Sexes,' Bobby Riggs won over a Rochester crowd

A barnstorming tour of tennis greats visited Rochester in 1950.

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Bobby Riggs.
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Long before he lost the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, Bobby Riggs was a winner in Rochester.

It happened on May 11, 1950, when Riggs brought his tour of major tennis players to town for matches at Mayo Civic Auditorium. Already an international tennis star, Riggs was touring with fellow pros Pancho Gonzales, Jack Kramer and Frank Parker in a monthslong series of exhibitions across the country.

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Highlights of events in 1997, 1972, 1947 and 1922.
Highlights of events in 1997, 1972, 1947 and 1922.

Riggs, nearing the end of his championship career, was the promoter of the tour. He had been near the top of world rankings since 1939, when he was the world’s No. 1-ranked amateur. In 1946 and 1947, Riggs was the No. 1-ranked professional in the world. But by 1950, younger stars, including the likes of Gonzales and Kramer, were moving to the forefront of professional tennis.

It’s worth noting, since Riggs was involved in the event, that women tennis players and officials were not among the participants in his exhibition tour.

In addition to the four men who would play on the portable court at Mayo Civic Auditorium, a small army of men and boys associated with the Rochester Tennis Club would serve as officials, line judges and ball boys for the matches, according to the Post-Bulletin.

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For the night’s competition, the green canvas tarpaulin Riggs hauled from place to place on the tour was stretched across the wooden basketball floor of the auditorium. Rochester was the 117th stop on the tour, which had started the previous October.

Gonzales confided to a Post-Bulletin reporter that playing three matches a week for so many months had become tiring. “We play golf now, or cards, between matches,” he said.

Nevertheless, Gonzales and Kramer put on a spirited match in Rochester, with Pancho winning the final two sets after dropping the first.

Next up was Riggs versus Parker, and the promoter did himself proud, winning in straight sets.

The evening’s finale was a doubles match pitting Kramer and Riggs against Gonzales and Parker. The match stretched on for 30 games before Kramer and Riggs could claim victory.

Tickets for the event were priced at $2.40, $1.80 and $1.20, but a disappointing crowd of only 650 people were in attendance.

Twenty-three years later, Riggs would play before a much larger crowd in the event billed as the “Battle of the Sexes.” After declaring himself an unreformed “male chauvinist pig,” Riggs in 1973 challenged top women tennis players to a match. The first to accept his challenge was Margaret Court, who was easily defeated by Riggs on May 10, 1973.

Then, Billie Jean King, who would win 20 Wimbledon titles, took up the challenge. On Sept. 20, 1973, King and Riggs met before a crowd of 30,472 at the Houston Astrodome. A worldwide audience estimated to be in the millions watched on television.

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After all the pre-match posturing by Riggs, King beat him solidly, winning three straight sets. In the process, she helped women’s tennis capture the attention of fans, sponsors and TV networks. Women’s tennis was now on the map, and male chauvinist Bobby Riggs, with his talent for self-promotion, had helped put it there.

Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.

Then and Now - Thomas Tom Weber col sig

Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.
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