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Sun, Dec. 15

Tennis Column: Renee Richards: A tennis chapter never imagined

As a young tennis pro of 22 years of age, working at the Arizona Biltmore Resort had its perks. Wimbledon winner Virginia Wade was the touring pro for the hotel, many celebrities, well known sports figures and businessmen also took lessons and clinics. Other tour professionals were brought in to entertain convention groups and every October the Talley Industries Phoenix Thunderbird Women's $75,000 Tennis Tournament was held.

It was 1977 and the tennis boom was in high gear.

Some of the top players in the tournament that year were Tracy Austin, Sue Barker, Rosie Casals, Francoise Durr, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Kerry Reid, Nancy Richey and a new woman player by the name of Renee Richards who had to work her way through the qualifying rounds to make the main draw.

That year while the women's pro tournament was going on, I had the fun task and opportunity of training the ball kids, as well as stringing all the racquets that needed taken care of for the top women in the world. I also served as a practice partner for anyone who was in need.

Renee Richards had a buss going on around the tournament. This woman, who used to be a man had played in the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills as Richard Raskind from 1953 to 1960 and the New York Supreme Court ruled to let her play on the women's circuit.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit weirded out about the situation, but at the same time, I did not want to show it when she was around. But low and behold, Renee needed her racquet restrung, a T-2000 with gut and only 45 minutes before her match was to be played.

The 6-foot-2 Richards caught me at the stringing machine and asked if it might be possible to have this done and I could only say I'd do my best. It probably didn't help that she stood right beside me pretty much the whole time watching my every move, but it did get done - just minutes before she had to go on the court to play Kerry Reid in a quarter-finals match.

Reid, who was seeded 5th lost the first set 7-6, and was behind 4-1 in the second set when she decided to retire from the match for personal reasons. Her husband Raz, who was also a professional tennis player made some comments in regard to the fact he didn't like it that Richards was at one time in the locker room with him, was now in it with his wife.

This transgender pioneer put herself in the position to lose the privacy she may have at one time thought she deserved when she played and won her first tournament in 1976 at the La Jolla Tennis Championships, only a year after the sex change.

Renee as a man, graduated from Yale University, captained their tennis team, served in the Navy as a Lieutenant Commander; became a prominent ophthalmologist and internationally known amateur tennis player. She also married and fathered a son, but since the age of nine she had thoughts and feelings that were more than confusing.

From 1977 to 1981 Renee gave up her eye surgery business to play on the women's tour, becoming the only transsexual tennis player there has been up to date. In 1977 Richards was ranked No. 20 on the women's tour in singles and was a finalist at the U.S. Open in doubles with partner Betty Ann Stuart.

For two years she became a member of "Team Navratilova" and then returned to her ophthalmology practice.

Now at the age of 77 and looking back at the journey she's taken, Renee Richards said in a 1999 interview with Tennis Magazine, "I wish that there could have been an alternative way, but there wasn't in 1975. If there was a drug that I could have taken that would have reduced the pressure, I would have been better off staying the way I was - a totally intact person. I know deep down that I'm a second-class woman. I get a lot of inquires from would-be transsexuals, but I don't want anyone to hold me out as an example to follow. Today there are better choices, including medication, for dealing with the compulsion to cross-dress and the depression that comes from gender confusion. As far as being fulfilled as a woman, I'm not as fulfilled as I dreamed of being. I get a lot of letters from people who are considering having this operation and I discourage them all."

This reluctant activist who had the courage to try and find her own inner self-acceptance, just wanted to play tennis and to let people know - she was a woman.

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