I’m really pumped now. Thanks to Bobby’s generosity, this extra event, the doubles exhibition, has brought out 2,500 fans to watch some of Aspen’s top men tennis players play doubles against Bobby. When I went into my office at the Club my secretary informed me that we have had hundreds of resident and non-resident membership applications for the Club and that people are swarming through the new condos. There might be a couple of sales already. We’re cooking. The event has really touched the pulse of the town. The atmosphere is just electric. If Sally can string him along to make a match out of it, we’ll get some national press from this. It’s really taken on a life of it’s own, thanks to Bobby! No matter what happens now we will be huge winners!
As Bobby and I walk down to the court I try to tell him how much I appreciate what he has accomplished in a few short days. But he just smiles and says, “Let’s just have fun, OK?” As we walk onto the court the fans all stand and cheer, “Bobby, Bobby, Bobby!” I found myself cheering too.
While I start hitting with our two opponents, both fine club players and much better than I, Bobby works the crowd — walking the entire first row of the length of the stadium, shaking hands and signing autographs. Then he greets our opponents and goes back to the base line and gently hits a few practice groundstrokes. “Hey, I’m ready. Let’s play!”
The play began. Naturally our opponents tried to hit as many balls to me as possible, but if Bobby could reach a ball he would hit some off-speed shot, a junker, to set up a weak return and then he’d put it away. At five games all he stopped the match and asked our opponents, “I know you guys are going to beat us because we are really struggling here. But just to make it interesting Marv and I want to press the bet and make it $500 at corner. How does that sound?”
Without hesitation, they both smiled and agreed. They were clearly out playing me, but I hung in and the points got longer. The more I could stay in the point, the longer it got. The crowd loved it. Point after point I hung in just long enough for Bobby to get his racket on the ball and do something spectacular. My heart was pounding. Then after some wild points, Bobby ends up putting away a high lob and we took the set 8-6. Our opponents were dumbstruck. I was thrilled, even though I had not won a thing.
We sat on the side of the court, our opponents opened their billfolds and peeled off $500 each and handed the money to Bobby. By the look on their faces you knew they felt that this had been money well spent. One of them added his special appreciation, “Thanks, Bobby. Wait till we tell our grandkids!”
The second match was almost the same, except they were even stronger players and quickly had us down 2-5, within one game of losing, again Bobby stopped the match and wanted to press the bet to $500 for each corner. Our opponents smiled and gave a ‘thumbs up’. The crowd went wild. They were in on it. To my amazement Bobby kicked up his efforts a notch. His racket wizardry and court savvy were extraordinary from drop shots to topspin lobs he used it all. We won the match 7-5. All I could think was that Sally was going to have her hands full. There would be no walkover here.
After the match Bobby waved to the crowd. The mayor and his buddies were waiting with a car ready to whisk him away for a round of golf. I just shook my head in disbelief. He had just pocketed $2,000. The losers were happy to have played a tennis legend. He was definitely stronger, maybe too strong.
The town is bustling. Shops are full, restaurants full, bars full, streets crowded, people everywhere. Banners announcing the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ cross the main streets. Posters are in every window. Everybody was looking for Bobby Riggs. I’ve never seen any celebrity buzz quite like this and over one wizened up little, old man.
Sally and I were already in the Terrace Dining Room sitting with Andy. I was having a hard time controlling my enthusiasm. Friends and strangers were stopping by our table to express their pleasure in the happenings and wishing Sally well in her match tomorrow. Bobby was running a little late because of the golf game, but a roar from the crowd let us know he had arrived. He’s laughing, glad-handing everyone as he makes his way through the crowd to our table. I remark to Andy, “I’ll bet he got his money back from the sharks.”
Overhearing my remark, Bobby tells a different tale, “Don’t I wish. Those friends of the mayor’s are not that friendly. I’m into them for $3,000. Can’t wait for tomorrow. I really need the money!”
As sad as he speaks of his money woes, he puts on a different face to the crowd of well-wishers. He is the life of the party. Everyone wants meet him, greet him and to bet him – anything. He bets one man $100 that the next person to walk through the door at the hotel will be a woman. And most certainly it was!
Off to the side Andy lets me know, “We’ve got most of his money covered. Only a thousand dollars left. Sally’s still a sure bet.”
I felt she was too. “I’ll take it. Put me down for the $1,000,” I said. I too was caught up in the moment. A rush of adrenalin had passed through me and I could see the finish line ahead – the Club brimming with new members, condos all sold, everyone in town happy we were there and Sally floating to net shaking Bobby’s weary hand and collecting the prize money. “Well, Andy, call me in the morning after your hit with Bobby. He was playing some crafty tennis today, but then again Sally’s something else!”
The big day has finally arrived. Andy walks into my office sweating profusely and slumps down in a chair. “Marv, we’ve got a problem. Rather Sally’s got a problem.”
“What’s the problem? Is it his elbow? Has he pulled a muscle? What?!” I had to know. Things were going so well. At least so well until I told Sally that I had bet on her. She was a free spirit and had to play freely. She had played for money on the Slims Tour, of course, but now she would be playing to not lose money. Definitely not a gambler. So, I already had a problem. I didn’t need more.
“Well, he’s hitting the ball not only on the lines, but I can’t handle his pace. I can’t stay with him. He’s able to hit every shot in the book — drop shots, topspin lobs right on the baseline, slices that die, loopers that float and junk, all kinds of junk. He’s not the same man. I’m thirty five and he wore me out in just 30 minutes. She’s going to have her hands full today. But the crowd should love it.”
It’s a three-ringed circus-carnival atmosphere and all created by Bobby Riggs. He walks onto the court amid the roar of the fans. It’s more like a rowdy bullfight crowd than a group of sedated tennis fans. “Bobby! Bobby!” they shout. He is decked out in his yellow Sugar Daddy, T-shirt, but now his pot belly is gone. He carries a sack of Sugar Daddy suckers and hands them out to the audience as he walks along the front row of the stands all the way around the court. He even gives one to the chair umpire and one to Sally. They meet at the net to decide by the flip of a coin who will serve first.
Sally looks fit and lovely in a new Michelle Palmer outfit, scarf around her head. But, I can see she’s uneasy and not feeling steady. I hope once they start she will forget everything and play.
The match begins. The first few games are made up of long rallies, back and forth, up and back, nothing dramatic, just solid tennis. The crowd is appreciative and roars with every point Sally wins. She’s a hometown gal now and has been touted as the favorite. She goes ahead 4-2 and looks in command of the match. Some of those who have bet on her yell the loudest. I’m included. As the match goes into the seventh game it is like a horse race when the horses turn for home. I look over to Andy and nod, what do you think? He shrugs, could go either way.
At 4-all Andy frowns. His face says it all. Look out, he’s ratcheting up. Sally’s got her hands full now! Doesn’t look good. Sure enough he pulls ahead and wins the first set 6-4. Now Sally looks over at me as if to say this is the real Bobby Riggs! I give her a warm smile for she and I know this is exactly what I had hoped for — the perfect ‘Grand Opening’ event — one that is going to put the Club on the map of this little town.
The second set starts with Bobby kicking into high gear. There is no question he is an artisan. He wields his racquet like a paintbrush on a grand canvas, mixing shots, pace and angles at will. He smoothly glides and slides around the court, pulling Sally as if on a tether. Then at just the right moment he opts for a soft drop shot. The crowd goes wild. Sally shows a little fatigue and soon it is 5-2 and match point. The crowd is mesmerized. They would like to see a third set, but it is not to be. The absolute last shot of the match finds Bobby at mid-court after a long rally. He winds up as if to hit a wedge shot out of a sand trap. Sending the ball straight up, then arching over the net, landing well in front of Sally and then with such reverse spin returning back over the net to Bobby without her even touching it. It was right out of the Harlem Globetrotters bag of tricks.
There was dead silence. Even Sally couldn’t believe what she had seen. Then the crowd erupted in cheers.
We all knew we had just witnessed one of the world’s greatest tennis players demonstrate, even in his late 50’s and at 8,000 feet why he had won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Probably because he was known first and foremost as a hustler he would never receive the recognition he deserved. But on that day in Aspen the crowd knew, I knew it and Sally knew it.
Bobby made a sweeping gesture to the crowd, ran up to the net, gave Sally a big hug and a kiss, then quick as a wink headed for the mayor’s car in the parking lot. As he passed me he said, “Marv, I really need your help. One last favor, please. Nancy has us all packed, but the mayor’s boys are into me for some serious money and I promised them one more shot before I leave. I have a flight at 5:00 p.m. If you could have the van at the 18th green by 4:30 p.m. with the motor running, I think w can make it. Can you do that for me?”
I just shook my head, unbelievable. “Bobby, whatever you need. I’ll be there for you. You did an extraordinary job for us. Thank you so much.”
Andy grabs Bobby’s arm before he gets in the car and hands him a very fat envelope. They shake hands and Bobby jumps in the car along side the mayor’s cohorts, both eying the envelope.
Nurse Nancy and I drive through the parking lot at Snowmass over to the 18th green, near the clubhouse. I get out and walk to the edge of the green, checking my watch. Sure enough a foursome was just preparing to hit up on the green. Suddenly four balls land in rapid succession, plop, plop, plop, plop. Bobby’s was the closest to the pin, but still some 20 feet away. No one spoke. Nobody was kibitzing. The match was obviously not over. I was wondering what was riding on it. The mayor and his friends putt out. Bobby stands over his 20 footer, then backs off to realign the putt. He stands over the ball again and again he backs off. Finally he stands over it and smoothly strokes the ball, dead center into the cup! Like the last point of the tennis match, you could hear a pin drop.
“Well, guys, like I told you I’ve got a 5:oo o’clock flight to catch. Gotta run.”
One by one, the mayor included, each player steps up and begins peeling off $100 bills into Bobby’s hands. I don’t know how many, but a lot. Then he quicksteps into the van, shouting over his shoulder, “Hey guys, it’s been fun. I hope we can do this again sometime — soon! Thanks again Mr. Mayor.” They wave. We leave.
I don’t know how much he won on the golf course, but now knowing what he was capable of he must have pressed the bet and pressed the bet and pressed the bet. His pockets were stuffed when he left, but we all got our money’s worth in the end.
“Marv, let’s get out of here quick. I’ve got to make that flight!” At the airport the passengers were all on board as I helped carry my guests’ bags to the plane. Bobby was the last to board. He turned as he stepped inside and gave me a wink,
“Marv, I’ve had a wonderful time. Lot’s of fun. I knew it would be. Anytime you want me back, anytime. You just call.”
And he was gone!
Copyright 2008 Marv Huss