40 years later: Bobby Riggs’ manager reflects on Billie Jean King match

40 years later: Bobby Riggs’ manager reflects on Billie Jean King match
Lornie Kuhle stands in the Bobby Riggs Tennis Museum, which he spearheaded. Riggs is famous for playing Billie Jean King during the 1973 Battle of the Sexes. A recent ESPN Outside the Lines Report alleged that the match was fixed, but Kuhle said that’s not the case. Regardless, he said the match advanced women’s rights. Photo by Jared Whitlock

ENCINITAS — Lornie Kuhle was Bobby Riggs’ manager. Above all else, Kuhle counted Riggs, who passed away in 1995 in Leucadia, as a friend and father figure. 

Kuhle is the owner of the Bobby Riggs Tennis Club and Museum in Encinitas. Inside, his respect for Riggs is evident.

He showcases old rackets and the Sugar Daddy jacket Riggs wore when he played Billy Jean King in 1973 during the historic Battle of the Sexes.

Kuhle said he knew the match was a big deal, but he didn’t expect to be talking about it four decades later. Last month, the Battle of the Sexes was thrust back into the spotlight when the ESPN show Outside the Lines alleged that Riggs, the 1939 Wimbledon Champion, threw the match with King to pay off gambling debts.

Hal Shaw, a 79-year-old former assistant golf pro in Tampa, Fla., told Outside the Lines that while working late at night at the golf club, he overheard mobsters discussing the match. According to Shaw, Riggs owed the gangsters $100,000, and he agreed to lose to wipe away the debt. Shaw said he stayed quiet for 40 years due to fear of being harmed.

Kuhle believes this version of history is blatantly false. For one, even if Riggs racked up a $100,000 mobster debt, he had more than enough in the bank to pay it off.

“I was his accountant at the time; I should know,” Kuhle said.

Also, he said Riggs stood to make “millions” on follow-up matches if he’d bested King.

“You always have reasons when you lose,” Kuhle said while surrounded by memorabilia in the museum. “For Bobby, it wasn’t to satisfy losings to the mafia. It’s because he didn’t train.”

His lack of preparation can be attributed to beating then-No.1 Margaret Court several months earlier in Ramona, Kuhle said.

From left to right: Billie Jean King, former Carlsbad tennis pro Pancho Segura and Lornie Kuhle at the Bobby Riggs Tennis Museum last year.   Photo courtesy of Lornie Kuhle

From left to right: Billie Jean King, former Carlsbad tennis pro Pancho Segura and Lornie Kuhle at the Bobby Riggs Tennis Museum last year. Photo courtesy of Lornie Kuhle

“People forget about that; he was overconfident,” Kuhle said.

At the age of 15, Kuhle befriended Riggs’ son. Kuhle later met Riggs, who coached Kuhle in tennis several years following that. And eventually, Kuhle signed on as Riggs’ manager. Kuhle called it a “match made in heaven.”

“We were of the same mold in one sense,” Kuhle said. “I grew up playing in the pool halls. Bobby loved that kind of competitive action.”

And part of the “competitive action” included making inflammatory statements to promote events, even if he didn’t necessarily believe them.

“When he made all these statements about how women belonged in the kitchen and how he admired Henry the Eighth, it was just tongue in cheek,” Kuhle said.

Riggs was a notorious gambler. Still, Kuhle said most of his bets were never more than $50 here or there. While Riggs gambled and knowingly puffed himself up for the media, he wanted to win more than anything else, Kuhle maintained.

“Believe me, he was a competitor,” Kuhle said, adding that Riggs was “very depressed” after losing the match.

“I don’t want anyone to slander the match when Billy Jean King fought her heart out and won,” Kuhle said.

For King’s part, she too doesn’t believe the Outside the Lines report.

“I was on the court with Bobby, and I know he was not tanking the match,” King told the New York Daily News in an Aug. 26 article.

Kuhle said that regardless of the Outside the Lines report, there’s no reversing the match’s impact on society.

“Women were second-class citizens in a lot of ways, and this brought women’s rights to the forefront,” Kuhle said, adding, “thankfully the times have evolved.”

King’s victory came on Sept. 20, 1973 at the Houston Astrodome.

Valerie Ziegenfuss, a former tennis pro, said King vs. Riggs had major implications, both on and off the court.

Ziegenfuss was part of a movement in the early 1970s demanding fair compensation and treatment for women’s professional tennis. Soon after King prevailed, the movement really took off, according to Ziegenfuss.

“Immediately after, rights and equality moved in the right direction as well,” Ziegenfuss said.

Gretchen Rush Magers, a women’s tennis coach, remembers watching the match at the age of 8 in Pittsburgh, Pa. King became her hero and inspired her to pursue the sport.

Even though many believe Riggs was a raging chauvinist due to his public persona, Kuhle said he privately welcomed the societal changes that followed the match. Kuhle said Riggs could also be very generous. On a few occasions, he anonymously donated winnings from matches to those in need.

“He was usually putting people on or running some kind of game,” Kuhle said. “He had these street smarts that you can’t learn at a place like Harvard business school. But he could be generous, too.”

As a tribute to his dynamic personality, Kuhle decided to build the museum shortly after Riggs was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the mid-1990s. Among the memorabilia: The museum features a statue of Riggs swinging his racket.

Next to that is a poster of King scooping a backhand shot. Kuhle said the public should remember these “great players giving it their all.”

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