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Steve Flink: Visiting with Nancy Richey

7/19/2010 7:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

When I was just about to turn 13, my life changed irrevocably one cloudy day at the All England Club. My father had gone to work in London not long before, and I was spending the memorable summer of 1965 with him in that city. He took me out to Wimbledon, and we sat pleasurably in the stands out on Court 3, watching the elegant Rafael Osuna of Mexico (the winner of the 1963 U.S. Championships) as he systematically cut down Germany’s Ingo Buding. I had enjoyed watching tennis from time to time over the previous couple of years on television back home in New York, but now I saw the game in an entirely different light, through a much brighter lens, with a sense of awe over what the sport represented. I saw tennis as the greatest game of all, and, for me, there was no turning back.

I went to Wimbledon many more times that year, spent day after day at Forest Hills in a dreamlike state observing the U.S. Championships, and, every morning from that point onward, I began my day searching in my newspaper for the results of tennis tournaments played all over the globe. I would eventually start my career as a reporter in the early 1970’s, but back in the sixties I was strictly a fan, and almost all of the players I followed so fervently were the leading Americans. I cheered heartily for Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, found myself immersed in every match played by Dennis Ralston and Marty Riessen, and was both fascinated and inspired by the indefatigable Texans Cliff and Nancy Richey--- the most successful brother-sister combination in the history of American tennis.

These were the players who guided me through my youth, and made me want to grow up and devote my life to writing exclusively about the world of tennis. I admired them all, but none more so than Nancy Richey, with whom I had a delightful interview several days ago. She competed with unimpeachable integrity, drove her flat ground strokes immaculately off both sides, and conducted herself with a quiet ferocity on the court that I thought was terrific. She was well ahead of her time with her aggression off the ground, pounding the ball relentlessly deep into the corners, operating from the backcourt purposefully and precisely, rhythmically controlling the tempo of match after match.

Richey celebrated an outstanding career, spending no fewer than 16 years among the U.S. top ten between 1960 and 1976, finishing atop the American rankings four times, and concluding two years (1968 and 1972) at No. 2 in the world in the prestigious rankings done by World Tennis Magazine. She won two Grand Slam events in singles, and took four more majors in women’s doubles. In singles and doubles combined, she was victorious at every major event, and that was no mean feat.

Nancy Richey was inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2003, an honor richly earned for her long tenure in the game’s upper levels, and her supreme dedication to her craft. As we began our conversation on the phone the other day, I wanted to know how she felt about being the senior child (four years older than brother Cliff) in a highly motivated tennis family like her own. Nancy responded, “Really it just evolved. Being the oldest meant there wasn’t a competition with a sister. When Cliff decided to play I had already been playing for a while. If it hadn’t had been for Dad being in the business [as a highly respected teaching pro] I would never have picked up a racket. It was just my way of life and it went from my trying to win the city championships to the state championship and the junior nationals, and then came the women’s. One thing led to another and you get so deep into it of course. Dad was so involved and that was the dynamic behind the whole thing.”

Watching her compete in the sixties and beyond, I always believed that she was every bit as determined and single-minded in her pursuit of victory as her remarkable brother--- who also achieved the No. 1 American ranking-- but Nancy says that was not really the case. She explains, “I didn’t have the driving desire that Cliff had. I was intense and when I went down to the court to practice I would stay as long as it took to accomplish whatever needed to be accomplished, but I pretty much left my tennis on the court. Off the court I was real interested in sewing and I had a passion for that. With Cliff it was an all consuming thing with his tennis, 24 hours a day. With me it wasn’t, and I enjoyed the sewing.”

I asked Nancy if she agreed with me that she was playing a brand of tennis back then that future generations would embrace, hitting the ball exceedingly hard off the forehand and backhand sides, creating more velocity than just about any of her rivals. Was she not in fact ahead of her time with the level of her ground stroke aggression and her ability to take matters and matches into her own hands with the speed and depth of her shots?

“Probably a bit,” she answers modestly. “I wasn’t as natural an athlete as say Billie Jean [Moffitt King] or Rosie [Casals] or some of the other gals. I didn’t move quite as well and that had a lot to do with my trying to put more pace on the ball so I could get them in trouble quicker, and maybe not have to spring for balls as much myself. I was more than adequate on my feet but not as quick as Cliff was. Instinctively, I think I knew that, so I did try to hit harder to compensate.”

The fact remained that her footwork was exceptional, and her court sense was excellent. Richey was so well trained and groomed by her father George that she was only 18 when she broke into the U.S. top ten at No. 3. Four years later, she made it to No. 1 in her nation for the first time. The next year, Nancy and Billie Jean were co-ranked No. 1 in the country. The Richey-Moffitt [King} rivalry was ever intriguing because Billie Jean was the perennial attacking player looking to come forward, while Richey relied heavily on the severity and consistency of her ground strokes and was a formidable counter-attacker.

Any time Nancy and Billie Jean did battle, spectators were rewarded with a sharp contrast in playing styles and different temperaments as well. But after Richey toppled King in the quarterfinals of Forest Hills in 1964, they did not play again until the spring of 1968, when Nancy upended Billie Jean again at Madison Square Garden back in New York, recording one of the grittiest comeback triumphs in the history of women’s tennis. How could the two best players in America go that long without a head-to-head clash?

The prevailing view was that King was avoiding playing Richey (who won a record six consecutive U.S. Clay Court Championships) on clay as much as possible, while Richey was willing to put herself on the line against her rival on faster surfaces. For decades, I had always wondered how Richey felt about that issue.

Was Billie Jean sidestepping Nancy on the clay? Nancy replies, “Well, I did [think that]. I mean, she played the Clay Courts once and she lost to Rosie in semifinals, and she never lost to Rosie. I played all of the grass court events like the Eastern Grass Courts and Piping Rock and all of those events, plus Forest Hills and Wimbledon. She never played the clay. It did bother me because here I was putting myself out on the courts where she more or less excelled, but she didn’t put herself on the ones where I was at my best. I thought that was a little chicken. That was how I felt. And the record shows that I played her only one time on clay in that period, and that was in 1968 when I beat her at the French. And it is not like she couldn’t play on clay. She could. Billie junked the ball around and was a tough player on that surface.”

In any event, their 1968 semifinal at Madison Square Garden was eagerly awaited by one and all following tennis closely at that time. The indoor conditions probably slightly favored King, who rallied fiercely from 2-4 down in the opening set to win nine of the next games for a commanding 6-4, 5-1 lead. Richey salvaged the next two games, but King stood at match point in the ninth game of that second set. Richey threw up a lob, kept it reasonably deep, and King erred on the overhead. Richey—urged on by a captivated audience who appreciated her composure and gumption-- took the initiative away from King with some bolder play from the backcourt and some scintillating drive volley winners, collecting 12 games in a row for an immensely satisfying 4-6, 7-5, 6-0 victory.

Asked to recollect that moment 42 years later, Nancy responds, “Madison Square Garden to me was practically the pinnacle. I mean, I had heard of Madison Square Garden all of my life, and our tournament was the first sporting event that they had at the new Garden. It was unbelievable. We followed the circus and some of the cages for the lions and tigers were still out around the perimeter. Outside of winning the French, that was probably the most satisfying event that I won [she beat Judy Tegart in the final]. That match with Billie Jean was a semifinal, yet to me it was like a final. I had been on the Caribbean circuit that year and had played a lot of tournaments. I actually got better and better by playing that much and it gave me an inner confidence. Once I saved the match point, I felt like I could win. The Garden was an inspiring place for me to play.”

Just over two months later, Richey and King met again on the Paris clay, with Nancy staging another stirring recovery to win 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 in a semifinal at Roland Garros. “I stuck in there,” recalls Richey. “ It was a tough match that went to 4-4 in the third, but I hung in there and started attacking a little bit more, which threw her off a little bit at that crucial time. I attacked her pretty good and she came up with a few errors, while I came up with a volley or two. That was the turning point. Cliff was there watching and he would shake his head to signal me to go in, as he did when I played the final. Instinctively, I knew I should do that so it helped reinforce that to me. Having Cliff there definitely helped me, I can tell you that.”

Cliff Richey was indeed present again when his sister took on the crafty left-hander Ann Haydon Jones in the final. Jones had decisively beaten Nancy Richey two years earlier in the final of Roland Garros, but this match meant even more; it was the first final of a Grand Slam event in the Open Era, which had commenced less than two months earlier. Jones seemed on her way to another straight set win, taking a 7-5, 4-2 lead. Richey was up against a daunting adversary, and rescuing herself from that dark corner was going to be awfully difficult.

“Ann [Haydon Jones] and Julie Heldman were my two biggest nightmares, “recollects Richey. “ They were as tough mentally as I was, and they would fight to the bitter end, plus their games were tough. Ann had these spins and I preferred a little more pace to work off. Ann was giving me the sliced backhand and a looper forehand, not the kind of shots I like to play off. The thing that really saved me in that match was she had me 5-1 in the first set and I got back to 5-5. Those were long, tough games. She did win that set and then she got the 4-2 lead in the second set, but I felt like she was getting a little bit tired so I really hung in there and picked up my game at that point, won that second set and then took the third to win the match [5-7, 6-4, 6-1] and the tournament. I was in good shape after playing that whole Caribbean circuit but I don’t know if she was as in as good a shape as I was because she had signed to play a pro tour with George MacCall where they were doing one night stands. I felt I could have lasted all day.”

That triumph was the one she values most highly, coming on her best surface, giving her a second Grand Slam singles title. “I was ecstatic,” says Nancy. “That title meant more to me than winning any other tournament because I was known as a clay court player. It was the most exciting tournament for me of all, with Madison Square Garden a close second. To this day, there is still that satisfaction of having won that tournament for Dad. He was not there, but I called him at home right after the match. There had been strikes for three weeks in Paris and we had played Fed Cup the week before the French. We kept having to move hotels closer and closer to the courts because gasoline for the official cars was running out. The whole city was shut down with no garbage pickups and we had not been able to telephone out of the city. But then the strike was lifted so I was able to call Dad and share it with him, which was so special for both of us.”

Her first Grand Slam singles title win occurred the year before at the Australian Championships of 1967, when she stopped another Hall of Famer--- Lesley Turner Bowrey--- in the final. Richey says, “I was very conscious of the Australian and its place in history. The year before I had gotten to the final in three of the four majors [she also won three of the four Grand Slam events in doubles that year]. I hadn’t won a major in singles yet so it was definitely something I really wanted to win. At Wimbledon and Forest Hills I never felt like I had enough time to prepare on the grass whereas in Australia I had been there for three months and had played every day on the grass and actually got to the point where I liked it.”

Yet Richey remembers that triumph in Australia for more than the tennis itself. She bursts into laughter as she remembers why her brother did not stay to watch her play the final. “Cliff up and left me, “she says. “ He had too many Fosters beers the night before and had gone to the beach with Rosie Casals and proposed to her. When he woke up the next morning and realized what he had done, he said he had to get the heck out of there, and that’s what he did. The next thing I knew he was gone. I had to play that afternoon without him being there, but I played well anyway to win the tournament.”

Although she never managed to play her best at Wimbledon for the aforementioned reasons, Richey did make two noble bids to capture the championships of her country on the grass at Forest Hills, reaching the finals of the 1966 U.S. Championships and the 1969 U.S. Open in New York. The graceful and daunting Maria Bueno—with whom Nancy won two of her four doubles majors--- beat Richey in the former of those duels, while the rangy and statuesque Margaret Court stopped her in the latter. Explains Richey, “Maria played really well. I was trying to dig out balls from out around my shoelaces all of the time. And Maria was in at the net always. I just felt so much at sea with her that day. The thing about Maria was it didn’t look like she was hitting the ball that hard but when one of her shots hit your racket it felt like a ton of lead. The timing she had was unbelievable. When Chris hit the ball it went through the air much faster but it didn’t have that same impact when it hit my racket. Maria hit one of the heaviest balls I ever played against.”

As for her confrontation with Court three years later in the championship match at the Open, Richey had posted impressive triumphs en route over both King and Casals, and had transformed her game to suit the occasion. As she says, “Before that tournament I decided I was going to serve-and-volley every point at Forest Hills on the grass, and I practiced that for three months in San Angelo, Texas the whole summer. I would get guys to come out and play and I tried to come in on everything I possibly could. I kept serving-and-volleying. Come hell or high water, I was going to serve and volley at that U.S. Open, and I did. I beat Billie Jean and Rosie serving and volleying and I was actually as proud of that tournament of just about any I played because I wasn’t playing my normal style of game.”

But before she took on Court in the final, Nancy had a family conference with Cliff and George Richey, who disagreed about the best game plan to thwart Margaret. “Dad wanted me to mix it up, “she says now. “ He thought I should not serve-and-volley all of the time the way I had been doing up until then. But Cliff wanted me to go with what got me there. In a sense, Cliff won out [on that debate], but you know what: I don’t think I could have beaten Margaret any which way I played. I never beat her on grass and I don’t think I could have done it. Of course it hurts to lose in a final of a Grand Slam, especially in your own U.S. Championships. But I felt in a way I was unlucky to play two of the all time greats--- Maria and Margaret-- in the finals.”

Perhaps Richey’s best chance to win her nation’s Grand Slam championship was in 1968, when the inaugural U.S. Open was held. But she took a bold stance that may have backfired in the end. As Nancy reflects, “I didn’t play that year. The U.S. players were not allowed to receive prize money at the first U.S. Open. We were still so-called amateurs. So I contacted the USTA and asked for a $900.00 guarantee. They wouldn’t give it to me so I said I was not coming. I had had such a good year up to that point, winning the French and reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon. Looking back, I cut off my nose to spite my face. Virginia Wade won that U.S. Open and I felt more confident about playing her than playing Margaret Court. I felt if the USTA was not going to let us play for the prize money, then give me reasonable expenses. They were packing the stands, so come on: $900.00? Looking back I had a good shot that year but at the time you think you have years and years out there, when really you don’t, although you don’t know it at the time. I do regret that I did not play.”

Interestingly, it was two years later at the 1970 U.S. Open that the seeds were planted for the best women players in the world to establish their own tour. Richey was one of nine women players to sign $1.00 pro contracts with Gladys M. Heldman for the ground breaking $7,500 Virginia Slims of Houston, which led to a full-fledged circuit the following year, and a permanent structure for the women to play the game for a living at their own venues. She was joined by King, Casals, Kerry Melville, Judy Tegart Dalton, Julie Heldman, Kristy Pigeon, Peaches Bartkowicz and Valerie Ziegenfuss. The women were distressed with the prize money ratio at tournaments. The Pacific Southwest Open in Los Angeles--- with Jack Kramer as chairman--- had an 8 to 1 prize money ratio favoring the men, which was typical of the time.  Many of the top women found that figure unacceptable.

In any case, Richey vividly recalls that crucial historical period. “The men didn’t want us at their tournaments and they felt like we were taking prize money out of their pockets. So it was like a dead end street. That year at Forest Hills I talked to Billie and Rosie and said let’s go talk to Gladys Heldman and see if she can help us. The three of us had lunch with Gladys out on the porch and she said yes, she would talk to Joe Cullman [at Philip Morris]. She got that first tournament ready to go at the Houston Racquet Club and she thought she had it all settled. But then Billie Jean and [her husband] Larry wanted to take it over. So we had to take a vote of the players about whether it was going to be Gladys, or Larry and Billie Jean.”

Richey continues, “We had a meeting in Houston and I can’t remember if we had signed the contract yet. I don’t think we had, but Larry flew in and we were at Gladys’s house. Larry presented what they wanted to do and then Julie Heldman got up and spoke for Gladys. She said, ‘Everything Larry put us into has failed and everything my mother has done has been a roaring success.’ It was classic. And then we went into a bedroom to talk amongst ourselves, except I don’t think Billie was there. I remember Peaches looking at me and asking who I was going to vote for. I told her I needed to speak with my Dad first, so I called him and he said, ‘You vote for Gladys. Everything she does she succeeds in. There is no contest’. So we went in and voted on these little pieces of paper and that settled it: Gladys ran it. I could not believe that after we had gone to Gladys and talked with her, that just when it looked like it was going to be a success, Larry and Billie wanted to take it over. It was unbelievable. But I give the girls credit. I was getting scared that they might not vote the way they should but they did, and it turned out to be unbelievably successful.”

All nine of those women displayed considerable courage to travel down that potentially treacherous road, but Richey does not really see it that way. “The nine of us who signed with Gladys didn’t know it would end up being what it was. We were just trying to survive and have a place to play, and if it hadn’t worked we didn’t have anything anyway. So it wasn’t that we were such big heroes. We just wanted to have some tournaments to play. I look at it that we were a part of making things change.”

Meanwhile, as the Virginia Slims circuit was born and the women thrived--- King became the first female athlete to earn over $100,000 in 1971---Richey was unable to sustain the same high standards she had set in the latter stages of the 1960’s; she remained estimable, but her game went through a lull for a few years. “I got married in 1970,” she says, “and I kind of let things slip with my game. I played but it wasn’t really whole hearted. Then I got tired of that and I really rededicated myself and did the things I needed to do on the practice court and with my training, and had a really, really good year in 1972.”

During that season, she won three of seven contests from world No. 1 King, and defeated 17-year-old Chris Evert three times in tour finals. Evert had not yet peaked but she was clearly among the four best players in the world. In fact, Richey beat the young Chrissie the first five times they met through that season before Evert captured their last six clashes. Those were baseline skirmishes of a very high order. Asked why she played so well against Evert, Richey answers, “I never feared a young player. All the other girls would say, ‘I have got to play this 13, 14, 15 year old kid, and what if I lose?’ I always thought I was the older one and I had more experience, so I should win. And I didn’t have the adverse nerves that the other girls had when they played Chris when she was coming up. I played Chris in Florida for the first time when she was just a little thing at 14 or 15, and I got out by the skin of my teeth in three sets. My Dad had played her father Jimmy Evert in a pro tournament in Quebec, Canada and beat Jimmy there, and then he beat Jimmy again in an exhibition. Jimmy taught Chris, who played like him. Dad told me, ‘Her forehand is good but there is a little chink there.’ He would map out a strategy and until she got older I felt I could beat her. When we played in those years, it was will against will and I felt I could out-will her.”

In the summer of 1975, Richey nearly toppled Evert in what would have been a major upset. Nancy was then nearly 33 while Chris was No. 1 in the world and in the midst of a record 125 match winning streak on clay. They met at the U.S. Clay Court Championships in Indianapolis, the tournament that Richey had once owned but that Evert was now putting regularly into her victory column. Evert would also win that highly regarded event six times, and was striving for a fourth crown in a row in 1975. But Richey took the first set of their semifinal in a tie-break, and then bolted to a 5-0, 40-15, double match point second set lead. Evert then reached back with all of her resources and fought back to win 6-7, 7-5, 4-2, 40-30, ret. Richey, beset by cramps, could not continue.

Recalls Richey, “That was kind of a last gasp push that I made along in that time frame. Dad was there and I had worked hard on my game but the reason I lost to a large degree was I had tough, tough three set matches almost every round going into the match with Chris. And Indianapolis that day was as usual 99 degrees with 99 percent humidity. I had no reserve physically. At match point down, Chris hit a drop shot that hit the top of the net and dribbled over. I had forgotten I had another match point as well. But I remember getting those cramps in the third set. I just couldn’t go anymore. I was really, really tired.”

I asked Richey if she would have scraped by against anyone but the indomitable Evert after getting so close to a big triumph, and she answered, “ Yes, possibly. But I felt like I had [good fortune with] that match when I came back from the depths against Billie Jean at the Garden, and Chris did the same in that Indianapolis match against me. What do you do? Those losses are not easy. Even to this day when I think about it--- which is not very often but every once in a while—it is hard, but then I think, ‘Well, I did beat Billie in the Garden.’”

Richey played one more year at a reasonably high level, garnering the No. 3 U.S. ranking at 34 in 1976 behind Evert and Casals. That was her last significantly effective year. As she looks back upon her time and the best players she ever faced--- Evert, Court, the young Navratilova, King, and Bueno--- Nancy has a tough time ranking these luminaries based on her experience of competing against them. But, she concludes, “Gosh, they are all great. I would put Margaret up there at the top and Billie fifth. I think the other players you mentioned were better than Billie. Because of my experience playing them, they were tougher than Billie for me. Margaret was equally good off the ground as she was at the net. She was unbelievable, better than Maria, the best of the bunch. Her nerves caught hold of her a little bit at times but she could play like a clay courter when she wanted, or she could serve-and-volley with the best of them. To me, she was the best one.”

In any case, Richey played a few seasons of World Team Tennis in the inaugural year of 1974 (for Cleveland) and again two years later for the Hawaii Leis. What were her impressions of that forum of competition? “It was a hit and giggle type thing” she answers. “They paid you great and you would try. The matches were competitive because you were playing against players you always competed against, but I couldn’t see how the whole thing could go. It just didn’t appeal to me. To me, it demeaned the game. It’s a bunch of hullabaloo. I haven’t watched much Team Tennis lately but it was like a circus when we played. It is not tennis.”

Briefly after retirement, Richey took over as the pro at the San Angelo Country Club in 1980 but she was forced to spend too much time organizing league matches for members, and disliked that job immensely. “I ended up with both eyes twitching,” she reflects, “and I was thinking if I can just get out of this I will never, ever say again that I am bored. I quit at the end of eight months and that was it.” Thereafter, she played some events on a 30-and-over tour overseen by Rosie Casals for about five years, and played senior events at the U.S. Open for a while. But she subsequently hurt her elbow, then later broke her foot and essentially stopped playing tennis. These days, Richey is in San Angelo, living with and taking care of her elderly mother Betty, who was also a teaching professional. By all accounts, Betty is a woman of great inner strength and dignity who played a crucial role in bringing balance to her children and her husband.

George Richey passed away in February of 2008, but he was a proud parent when his daughter was inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame five years ago. Nancy remembers, “I got a Fed Ex letter or whatever on New Year’s Eve in 2002 telling me I would be inducted the next year. It was the best Christmas present I’ve ever had. The experience of being inducted was unbelievably special. It was such an honor to be one of the few that gets selected and it is very humbling.”

Meanwhile, Nancy speaks only in superlatives about her brother, who is out there these days giving speeches and promoting his important book called “Acing Depression”. Cliff Richey has fought valiantly to beat back the disease of clinical depression for a long while, and no one has been more supportive of him than his older sister, who remains far and away his biggest fan. I wondered how depression might have touched her. Nancy said, “I had several bouts of depression back in the 90’s but I am not on medication and don’t feel the need for it. I felt mine was situational and once the situation was resolved I was okay again. Definitely it would pass. In the last two years, if I was prone to it, I would probably have had it because I have had lots of stresses that are unbelievable. On October 3, 2007, my sister-in-law walked out on Cliff for no reason, exactly 37 years to the day that Cliff had beaten Stan Smith to seal the No. 1 U.S. ranking in 1970, one of the biggest matches he ever played. My sister-in-law left Cliff after 41 years of marriage, and he never missed an obligation of any kind. Their divorce was final on April 17, 2008. She wadded up her life and threw it away. It was incomprehensible.”

Nancy wishes Cliff could have joined her in the Hall of Fame, but is enormously proud of the book he wrote and how much her brother has done to help others suffering from clinical depression. She says, “Cliff is such an excellent speaker and he gets up and doesn’t have to use notes because he knows the subjects of tennis and depression so well. He has a gift and a message he wants to get out there and he has touched a lot of people who have come up to him with tears in their eyes telling him how much they appreciate what he is doing and how much it is helping them. I am so glad for Cliff that he has done this book, and he has almost this third phase of his life which will be something very special for him.”

As we concluded the interview, I could not help but feel a sense of nostalgia. Forty five years have passed since I watched Nancy Richey play tennis for the first time at a moment when tennis was essentially taking hold of my life. I had never had the chance to speak with her expansively about her distinguished career, and the contributions she made to a game she always treated like a religion. For me, hearing her speak so forthrightly about the spectrum of her life and career was a joy. At the end, I asked Richey to assess her place in history and to put into perspective what the game has brought to her life.

She replied, “Tennis teaches you to hang in there when things get tough, and they always do. Life is not just a bed of roses. You have got the thorns in there, too. I can’t imagine life without having played tennis. I wish every family could experience what mine did together. I know Cliff felt it was a little too much at times, but for me it wasn’t. I liked the closeness in the family, thought it was wonderful and still do. I am taking care of my Mom now and am so happy to reciprocate. Tennis has been my life and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

I’ll second that.

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