THE HIGHEST RANKING FAMILY IN TENNIS

Under the omnipresent eye of their father, Cliff and Nancy Richey, talented but often misunderstood, are united in their passion to become the best players in the world
July 04, 1965

The Richeys of Dallas are a family consumed by a single passion that binds them together and gives meaning to their lives. The passion is tennis, although it seems not to matter what it is—it could be music or politics or cocker spaniels—because the significant aspect is the extent of the family's commitment. It is natural enough that the dedication is to tennis, for George and Betty Richey are both teaching professionals and their children Nancy and Cliff are among the top amateur players in the world. But for the Richeys tennis has long been more than simply vocational, more than a game.

The Richeys' love for tennis and each other—they are a joyously happy family—is so overwhelming that it has both isolated and insulated them. "Often we don't realize that things we say or do strike other people as different," George Richey says. "We are so close and we live with such a common purpose that sometimes, why, we just forget how other people may look at us."

The family lives in an atmosphere of despotic togetherness, believing in each other and especially in George, whose firm control is directed by an overriding concern for his children's success. Toward that end he will subjugate himself completely, even if it means abandoning parental dignity and authority. When practicing with his father, Cliff—who is still in his teens—will snarl appallingly rude abuse: "Shut up and just hit me the ball!" Or: "Well, I don't want to quit, so stay there and hit me some more!" But George Richey takes it because he believes that Cliff must release his tensions in this way. "I do nothing but try to please him and give him what he wants," he told an old Houston friend a short time ago.

George and Betty travel almost everywhere in this country to see their children play but, though George Richey is a tough little man, he is afraid of airplanes and never has been in one. So the Richeys tour the country in their 1959 Cadillac, carting the kids from tournament to tournament. In the summer they take their vacation from the swank Brook Hollow Golf Club, where Richey is the tennis pro, and make a long circuit. "I guess we've never had a real vacation," Betty Richey says, as if the thought had occurred to her for the first time. "I mean, everywhere we go there is tennis, a tournament or something."

Anyway, there is always practice. Nancy and Cliff practice incessantly, hours every day, and they go at each other without compassion. "We never play what Daddy calls 'giggle tennis,' " says Nancy. (Giggle tennis encompasses just about all tennis not played in the determined Richey manner.) The family has stopped the car on a whim to practice on a strange court. Nancy and Cliff have gotten off a plane and practiced at midnight. They have rallied long hours in the tropical midday sun when every other tour player was asleep or sunning. The two kids invariably practice before a match, and often they start hitting at dusk after both have played singles and doubles that day. "I need some grooving," Cliff will whine, and there go all the Richeys, changing clothes, picking up tennis paraphernalia, charging into action just like down at the firehouse. "Just that extra 15 to 20 minutes can make the difference," George Richey says, explaining it all. Then they will go home, or to whatever hotel they are staying at, and talk about tennis till it is time to go to sleep.

Many people consider the Richeys' attitude odd, but the Richeys are singularly proud of themselves and their accomplishments. They are straightforward, pragmatic people, firmly believing that discipline, competition and victory offer greater rewards than a more prosaic life. The results seem to bear them out.

Nancy Richey, 22, has grown up to be an attractive woman, the best player of her sex in the U.S. and the fourth best in the world. Cliff Richey is 18 and still maturing, but already he is ranked 11th among U.S. men. Since these ratings were made, his performances indicate that he now should be listed no worse than fifth.

It has, of course, occurred to George Richey that someday his two children may both be ranked as the world's best, and it is a thought he relishes not only as a father. Being a teaching professional, he is just as proud of Nancy and Cliff as pupils as he is of them as children. Before Nancy and Cliff grew up, Richey's best pupil was Tut Bartzen, who was a high-ranked U.S. player a few years ago. Richey discovered Bartzen in San Angelo, Texas when Bartzen, as a kid, would come down and watch for hours as Richey played. Richey admired the boy's interest, took him on and taught him everything he knew. Eight years ago, when he was at his peak, Bartzen said, "George Richey is a thoroughly fine person who adores the game. It's his whole life. He is not in teaching for the money but because tennis means so much to him. His only interest is in helping my game. He will stay out as long as I want and do anything I want." That could be Cliff Richey talking now.

Undoubtedly, part of George Richey's fanatical interest in his pupils is the vicarious thrill he gets from their success. He is, of course, most dedicated to the life of his only son. "It's a good thing I came first or I never would have gotten any attention," Nancy says, joking, but the rest of the family, George included, agree she is not just kidding.

As a boy in San Angelo, George Richey was a boxer and an outstanding baseball prospect, good enough at 13 to pitch against 18-year-olds in American Legion ball. At 14, however, he injured his right elbow when he fell out of an automobile, and in a lengthy, complicated convalescence he took up tennis, the only one-armed sport he knew of. Even today the only thing George Richey does left-handed is play tennis.

Richey quickly became proficient enough in the sport to earn scholarships to two Texas colleges. After marriage, the war and a half-hearted attempt at chicken farming back in San Angelo, he became a tennis pro. In 1952 Richey was good enough to be the eighth-ranked professional in the country, but it was as high as he ever got. He still carries in his wallet a wire-service clipping, laminated in plastic, of those 1952 rankings.

As a teacher Richey can be a martinet, but he tempers his demands with the understanding that he is only interested in meeting you all the way—or not at all. "I never cared if Nancy and Cliff played tennis," he says, "but, if they wanted to, all I asked was that they really devote themselves to it."

The charges that Richey has driven his children unmercifully are, taken as a lot, patently foolish. Richey drives them, yes, he saturates them with this game and the importance of victory, but the children approve of his demanding methods. "As George says," Mrs. Richey explains, " 'If we pushed them too hard, well then, why did we get a $400 phone bill in calls from them from Europe last summer?'

"They used to kid Cliff at school, always asking him why he didn't want to have any fun. He would just grit his teeth and try to explain. I remember how wonderful I felt a couple of years ago when we were all driving back to Dallas after the Sugar Bowl tournament. Cliff had won a great big trophy—oh my, you should see it—and we were just driving along together when all of a sudden Cliff grabbed that trophy and hugged it and said: 'They talk about me not having any fun. Why, this is the greatest fun in the world. This is the kind of fun that lasts all year.' And we drove on like that, laughing. We all felt so wonderful. Can you understand?"

Cliff was batting a tennis ball around from the time he was old enough to walk, but George Richey was more inclined to laugh at the chubby kid's efforts than to pressure him into playing the game. Cliff actually gave up tennis when he was 8; he took it up again when he was about 12 upon discovering that his school tennis team took auto trips to matches. Cliff and Nancy's dedication has increased steadily in recent years—which is rarely the case with truly force-fed child athletes. For example, Nancy dates hardly at all now, while the earliest recollection many of the girls on the circuit have of her is seeing her show up at the junior tournaments with her steady's high school ring flapping from a chain around her neck.

Cliff used to go steady, too. "It was very heavy," Mrs. Richey says. "He brought her perfume from Paris." Ham Richardson, still the country's seventh-ranked player though he spends most of his time as a Dallas stockbroker, is Cliff's favorite and most formidable hometown opponent. Richardson tells this story: "Last year I was playing Cliff, and he was not concentrating, which is, of course, extremely unusual. I won two sets from him and offered to play him one more. This astonished him, because usually I am the one who quits first. He got very red and grimaced and said that he wasn't sure he could. Cliff didn't say so, but I know he had a date. Finally he mumbled something between his teeth, ran inside the club, called up and broke the date. I can't fool around with girls,' he told me. 'Girls are nothing but trouble for a guy.' I don't think he has had a date since then." (He has not.)

On the circuit Nancy and Cliff spend most of their time together. They keep strict training, up at 9, in bed by 11. In between there is practice and matches. Seldom indeed do they bother with social functions. Nancy is thus something of an unknown quantity to her touring companions, and although she is never abrasive, the way Cliff can be, the other girls let her go her chosen way, playing and talking tennis with her brother.

She is petite, only 5 feet 3, with auburn hair, delicate skin and the intense look of her father. But there are three things that everybody says (in order) about Nancy Richey: she is sweet, she is domesticated and she will make somebody a good wife. And these are things that also describe her mother.

Betty Richey can be as frank as her husband, but she has tact and grace. She is a kind, sensitive woman and even those who dislike George Richey and his methods take pains to find fault with Betty only because of her choice of husband. When she moved from Electra, Texas to San Angelo Junior College, where she met her husband, she knew nothing of tennis. Today she is her husband's assistant, teaching beginners and helping to run the tennis shop at Brook Hollow. Despite their devotion to a sport, however, both Mrs. Richey and her daughter remain refreshingly feminine, content in the old southern style to be overshadowed by the men in the family. George Richey or Cliff will often interrupt either of the women, even when one of them is trying to explain something as personal as her emotions.

Not surprisingly, Nancy rarely creates any sort of public commotion. The one exception is her fondness for wearing shorts instead of a skirt when she is playing. Writing in World Tennis magazine last year about the Italian championships, Correspondent Gloria Butler suggested that mass Italian male apoplexy had been occasioned by Miss Richey's unfeminine apparel. "Nancy was a curiosity to the Italians," the article said. "They are very woman conscious and they just could not understand how such a pretty girl could ruin herself by wearing unbecoming clothes. The face is adorable, but she wears a floppy hat which hides it, a T-shirt and long Bermuda shorts which emphasize the wrong part of her anatomy."

It is true that Nancy's outfit is hardly what you would call beguiling, but it is functional and, as such, it is Nancy. It is also the Richeys. Mr. Richey himself designed and sells the hats ("mesh panels on the side of the crown for coolness and air circulation"), and Nancy gave up on the fetching little swishy skirts for reasons even more utilitarian: she likes to keep the extra ball in her pocket and sometimes she has caught her racket in her skirt.

The rest of Nancy's court manner draws little attention, because her excellence is so mechanical. She appears to be a player constructed, a wind-up doll. While playing she is mute, a bundle of combative pugnacity. She speaks not at all to her opponent, no matter how well she may know the girl, and emits only unladylike grunts—"oomm"—nearly every time she hits a ball. She looks over at her parents less than Cliff does when he is playing, but her gaze is more painful and beseeching, as if she were trying to communicate on some new level. The other girls on the circuit believe that Nancy must have her father in attendance to play her best, and Nancy herself admits that she is happier now that Cliff is traveling with her. (Of his father's omnipresence Cliff says frankly: "Sometimes you realize that he is a crutch you don't need.")

On the court Nancy seldom ventures from the baseline, stroking the ball perfectly, boom, "oomm," again and again. Because her ground strokes are nearly flawless, she plays her best tennis on slow surfaces such as clay, where the stress is off the serve and volley. Having improved her volley and overhead, Nancy now comes to the net with more confidence and regularity. After four years of being ranked near the top, she attained the No. 1 U.S. ranking in 1964, and she is well on her way to retaining it for 1965.

To become the world's top woman player, however, Nancy must improve her performance on grass. She has never progressed beyond the quarter-finals at Wimbledon or the semis at Forest Hills, and you don't become No. 1 like that. But her all-round play has never been better than this year, and on clay and composition surfaces she has consistently beaten the three women ranked ahead of her: Maria Bueno (1-1), Margaret Smith (3-1) and Lesley Turner (3-1).

Nancy's climb to the top should be helped as attrition works on those above her. Miss Bueno is 25 now and has been ill again this year (she was out of competitive tennis for a year with hepatitis). The two Australian girls are increasingly less interested in the pursuit of tennis balls. Nancy, however, loves the tennis life more than ever and is quite content to do Cliff's laundry while waiting for that somebody to be a good wife to.

"Nancy took every home economics course there was at Southern Methodist and then left," Mrs. Richey says. "She is very domesticated. She can cook, and she sews quite well. I wish Cliff would have some other interest. When he was a little boy he used to play the guitar, and we'd like to get him to do that again. Now he just has nothing but tennis.

"He's so intense that it's—well, it's scary. You ought to see his notebooks. It's no wonder he didn't do as well in school as he should have. Why, every page is just lists of players that he beat and their records."

Cliff is no longer in school, still lacking more than a year to graduate from Highland Park High, the suburban Dallas alma mater of Doak Walker and Bobby Layne. Cliff was taken out of school for the spring semester last year and then again this spring. But this time there are no real plans for him to go back, though there is idle talk of correspondence courses.

His quitting is something that obviously concerns Mrs. Richey, and she admits that this was one thing done in the name of tennis that bothered her. "But school was so difficult for him," she concedes. "We would pick Cliff up at school in the afternoon and get on the courts about 5 or so. Of course, we always had to wait until the members had gone. Then we would practice till about 7, when we would go home. I would cook the dinner while they all took showers. It was very easy for me to fix—a steak, potatoes, and I would make a salad. I asked George once if we shouldn't have something different, but they all said, 'Why change?'

"By the time we finished dinner it would be 9:30 or so. That was when Cliff should study, but he just couldn't do it then, because he was so tired. My, for a long time he had some very bad tension headaches. Oh, I'd try to get him to study after dinner, but he'd be so tired then, and that's when he'd break all up and start crying."

At 18, Cliff remains something of a child. He has an unbecoming butch haircut, and when he plays his shirt flaps right out and stays out. He is 5 feet 9, a bit taller than his father, and he has taken off about 15 pounds, down to 165, but he still gives the impression of chubbiness. It may be just his round, full face and his big oval gray eyes that give this impression.

Cliff was ranked 11th among all men players in the country last December for his 1964 performance. Many people feel that he would have been included in the top 10 except for spite—that this was an unofficial censure in response to his temperamental actions, some of which have echoed around the world.

Cliff's explosions on the court are a side product of his competitive intensity. Like all members of his family, he has an extremely good sense of humor, but on the court there is no lightness. He is obsessed, determined not to be diverted from the single goal of victory. He plays with a look of studied agony, finding nothing entertaining about any aspect of the event. He appears, indeed, like an actor trying to look angry on orders. If a ball boy errs with just a slightly misdirected bounce, Cliff is likely to let the ball go by and glare menacingly at the youth. If, in the midst of a rally, an excited fan should prematurely applaud, Cliff—no matter who wins the point—will go out of his way to frown at the offending party. Similarly, he never forgets a line call. He has been rude to referees and opponents at the price of becoming unpopular with his fellow players and losing all favor with crowds, even in Dallas.

Sadly, Cliff's court posture is doing the family more harm than anything else. Other things may make the Richeys appear a bit eccentric, but Cliff's demeanor really inflames people. In his headlong rush toward victory Cliff has somehow equated courtesy with being sissy.

Fortunately, George Richey has cautioned Cliff about the folly of further frenetic disorders. Last year, when Cliff called home after a series of frightful episodes in Italy and England, his father instructed him that no matter how right he might be he was "to go about things more diplomatically." George's concern should now be to curb Cliff's constant pettiness and gracelessness on court. Some opponents think if this does not happen Cliff will become so keyed up that his game will disintegrate from a case of massive, uncontrollable jitters.

Cliff is so enveloped in tennis that many tour players believe he does nothing at night but go to his room and read his scrapbooks and tennis magazines. This is an exaggeration. Maybe this is an exaggeration. Maybe this is not an exaggeration. Cliff is not only a tennis player, but a tennisophile. Most youngsters who memorize all the batting averages are scrawny kids who aren't good at sports. But Richey, the athlete, knows virtually every score of every match he has ever played and—with the important and semi-important matches—he also has total recall of point scores, key shots, bad calls, crowd noises, temperature, wind conditions, his father's reaction and other attendant information.

Cliff has been providing at least occasional stiff competition for top players since he was 15. Nancy, of course, used to beat him when he was younger. (As a matter of fact, when Nancy was 14 she beat every member of her father's Southwest Conference champion Rice University tennis team.) To stimulate competition, George Richey would announce that Nancy and Cliff were playing in the finals of some important tournament. He would name the imaginary site, and Nancy would make appropriate travel posters. Then she would beat Cliff, and he would promptly rage and cry and tear up all the posters. When he finally beat her, Nancy tore up all the posters.

Stubborn and cocky, Cliff has always been a more difficult tennis student than the amenable Nancy. It took months for George Richey to convince his son that he must eliminate the loop in his backhand but, characteristically, when Cliff finally agreed he went right out and hit 4,562,182 balls to improve it. Like his sister, his ground strokes are the strength of his game, but he has more court imagination and variety.

His deficiency is his serve—particularly the second one—which is neither tricky nor deep. One who does not agree with this widespread analysis, however, is Pancho Gonzalez. "A weak serve in comparison to what?" Gonzalez says. "Weak compared to Kramer? Weak compared to Gonzalez? Weak compared to who? It's the results that count."

Even those who are concerned about Cliff's serve are not losing sleep over it. They think that, if he must, he will just experiment with a million new serves until he finds a good one. Many of his critics also feel that he will become a better fellow on the court when he starts playing on the Davis Cup squad and becomes part of a team. A few years ago the USLTA worked out an informal arrangement that allowed Cliff to be a quasi member of the U.S. Junior Davis Cup team and still travel with his family. It proved to be an impossible arrangement and had to be dropped. Now Mr. Richey promises to stay out of things completely when Cliff is on the team.

Gonzalez thinks that Richey rates slightly behind Arthur Ashe in the battle for the second Davis Cup singles spot alongside Dennis Ralston. "Cliff can't rally with Ashe," Gonzalez says. "It takes a few more years for a player of Richey's size to cover the court smoothly and with command."

Cliff and Nancy are at Wimbledon now—center stage, the shrine of tennis. They are hiding under their floppy hats, gritting their teeth, not smiling and not talking to prospective opponents—generally behaving like the gladiators they consider themselves. They are practicing all the time, consoling and helping each other, watching out for each other, cheering for each other and walking off the court with each other, because George Richey, for once, is not there. When George watches his children play, he is subdued and intent, holding his emotions under rigid control. Betty Richey is only slightly more animated. When something very exciting happens that is good for Nancy or Cliff, she will suck her breath in and make a little noise, and clap quickly. Generally, the Richeys are good, devoted spectators, although sometimes George is so absorbed that he forgets to applaud when an opponent makes a winning shot.

When the children glance at him—stare at him—during a match, he returns the gaze and no more. He offers no encouragement or advice in the midst of a match because he knows there will be times when he will not be there, and he does not want his children to depend too much upon him.

When the match is over he moves quietly down to the side of the court to wait for his child to join him. Relaxing slowly, he will perhaps turn to accept congratulations, but mostly he just keeps standing there, arms akimbo, staring out at the court.

At times like this you think he must see himself out there, a right-handed George Richey putting on his sweater and picking up his rackets after a victory over Parker or Kovacs or Riggs or others of that time who were better than he, maybe just because they never fell out of an automobile and had to play tennis left-handed. But that is over, and now George Richey has more than just a laminated clipping in his wallet. "There is a wonderful satisfaction in seeing something succeed that you developed yourself," he says, talking of that moment when he stands there waiting for his child who has won. "Look, if you were a great horse-racing fan and every year you went to the Kentucky Derby because you loved it, wouldn't you be even more interested if you had a couple of your own horses running?"

His child comes off the court and to him. This time it is Nancy. George Richey ushers her through the crowd, but sometimes he gets lost in it, so that he must drop behind, and many do not know that he is the father of this player, tagging along. Betty Richey, still in her seat, and Cliff, somewhere nearby, glance fondly at each other and then watch them as the other two go off. It is the same every time, they know. At the very first chance, past the press of the crowd, George Richey will reach out and put his arm about his child, and they will walk off that way, talking tennis. They have great love for each other, they have pride in their life, and they have won.

PHOTOWhenever Nancy or Cliff plays, George is nearby, watching and worrying. PHOTOA floppy hat and shorts are two of Nancy's concessions to efficiency. PHOTOAn explosive temper and bristling talent clash in Cliff at the age of 18. PHOTOAnother battle won, Nancy and her father leave together, sharing the moment.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)