Decatur native Lornie Kuhle is a former successful tennis player, former tennis pro at the Las Vegas Country Club, former husband to John Wayne’s daughter Aissa and former hitting partner to tennis great Jimmy Connors.
But what Kuhle, 69, is best known for — and most proud of — is his friendship with tennis great Bobby Riggs, and his role in Riggs’ famous “Battle of the Sexes” match with Billie Jean King.
That’s why Kuhle was irked when an interview held in Decatur during the Ursula Beck Pro Tennis Classic with an ESPN film crew questioned Riggs’ integrity by saying Riggs threw the match for gambling purposes.
Riggs was one of the top tennis players in the world from 1939-49, winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1939, the U.S. Open in 1941 and U.S. Pro titles in 1946, ’47 and ’49.
Kuhle — a 1962 MacArthur graduate — met Larry Riggs at age 15 when Bobby’s son Larry stayed at the Kuhles’ home while playing in a Decatur tennis tournament.
“Larry and I became friends, but at that time I didn’t even know who Bobby Riggs was,” Kuhle said. “Then I went to Chicago and stayed at Larry’s house and met his dad. We became very close. He coached me, and later on I ended up managing him.”
Kuhle became Bobby’s constant companion and played several roles — including manager, coach and promoter — for the Battle of the Sexes.
“I got paid $50,000 to help promote it, which wasn’t bad considering the winner only got $100,000,” Kuhle said. “There was a $10,000 bonus for me on the match if he won. But, of course, he didn’t win.”
Riggs died in 1995, and the following year Kuhle opened the Bobby Riggs Tennis Club and Museum in Encinitas, Calif., which he still runs.
This is the 40-year anniversary of the Battle of the Sexes — held on Sept. 23, 1973 — in which King beat Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in front of an estimated television audience of 90 million and a crowd of 30,472 at the Houston Astrodome. Afterward, an expansion of women’s sports at every level occurred.
Through the years, Kuhle has gladly participated in articles, television pieces and even a movie about Riggs and the Battle of the Sexes. He was a consultant on the 2001 ABC movie,
“When Billie Beat Bobby,” and was portrayed by actor Vincent Van Patten in the film.
With this being an anniversary year, Kuhle has seen additional interest in the subject. He recently collaborated with PBS for a documentary called “American Masters Billie Jean King,” in which Kuhle is featured prominently in discussion of the match with Riggs. It will be broadcast at 7 p.m. on Sept. 10.
Then, before the start of the Ursula Beck Pro Tennis Classic in Decatur, Kuhle was contacted by ESPN “Outside the Lines” reporter Don Van Natta about a piece on the Battle of the Sexes. He wanted to interview both Kuhle and Larry Riggs, so Kuhle suggested they meet in Decatur since Riggs was there to watch his son Danny compete in the tournament.
Kuhle, Riggs and Van Natta met at the Decatur Olive Garden the night before the planned interview and that’s when Kuhle realized the interview wasn’t what he was expecting.
“At the dinner, (Van Natta) started asking questions about why Bobby lost the match, and I tell him the truth — lack of preparation. He thought he could beat her on roller skates,” Kuhle said. “Then (Van Natta) gets on this theme that you hear from a lot of so-called smart people as to why Bobby lost — that he threw the match and bet against himself.
“Then he tells us that the next day in the interview he was going to ask us some questions on camera, and he wouldn’t tell us what they were because he said he wanted to see our reaction on camera.”
The interviews were on Monday. Kuhle said after several questions about Riggs’ lack of preparation, Van Natta told Kuhle he talked to a Tampa, Fla., golf pro who overheard four mafia members — including famous Tampa mob boss Santo Trafficante and New Orleans boss Carlos Marcello — talking in his pro shop at midnight, saying that Riggs was going to throw the match against King to pay off gambling debts to the mafia.
“I looked at him and told him it was the most far-fetched story I’d ever heard,” Kuhle said. “Why would four mafia guys be in a golf pro shop at midnight? Why is the golf pro in there at midnight? I asked him, ‘Do you believe this bull——? I told him if he was looking for a scandal, there’s not one here.
“It was a real match and he got beat,” Kuhle said. “Bobby didn’t purposely throw the match — it’s demeaning to the match and it’s all complete bull——.”
Kuhle said he wasn’t familiar with the ESPN show “Outside the Lines” before the interview, and if he’d known the reporter was trying to dig up dirt on Riggs, he wouldn’t have participated. Larry Riggs wasn’t as surprised by Van Natta’s questions.
“It was Outside the Lines — it’s a show about suspicion and innuendo, and it’s a show that I actually like,” Riggs said. “This guy (Van Natta) thinks that there’s something going on. He talked to Don Budge, Jack Kramer, Stan Smith and Gardnar Malloy (Bobby’s contemporaries during the 1940s). He talked to Chris Evert. Not a single one of them said it was possible for Bobby to lose that match. The guy had done his work.”
Bobby was a famous gambler. He wrote in his 1949 autobiography that he made $105,000 betting on himself to win singles, doubles and mixed double at 1939 in Wimbledon. And Larry said he had seen Bobby hanging out with mafia members before — in Miami, Chicago and Detroit — and told that to Van Natta.
But Larry said it didn’t make sense financially for Bobby to bet against himself in the match with King. Larry said Bobby had a rematch against King lined up and an even more lucrative match against Evert planned if he had won.
“It doesn’t work out — there was too much money for him to make down the line,” Larry said. “As much as people want to conjure up mystique, there was no reason for him not to want to win.
“Bobby had a lot of money. He was a very wealthy man. He paid cash for everything — cars, houses, it didn’t matter. If he made a bet, he put up the money for it. He never owed anyone money — never, ever, ever. Anyone who would say that doesn’t know my father.”
Larry said the reason people don’t believe his father could have lost to King is they’d never seen him enter a match unprepared. But after beating then-No. 1 Margaret Court a few months earlier, Bobby had grown overconfident.
“There is a reason he lost — he hadn’t played a match for 90 days and spent the whole time leading up to it drinking Heinekens and smoking cigars,” Larry said. “Meanwhile, she spent her time preparing for him. That’s why he lost.”
No date is set for the airing of the ESPN “Outside the Lines” piece, but Kuhle said Van Natta expected it to run sometime this month.