At first, it seemed like a put-on. A transsexual tennis player? A 6'2" former football end in frilly panties and gold hoop earrings pounding serves past defenseless girls? A 42-year-old Yale graduate, Navy veteran, devoted father and respected eye surgeon reaching the semifinals of the $60,000 Tennis Week Open in South Orange, N.J. and demanding to play in the U.S. Open at Forest Hills? In women's singles? Who ever heard of such a thing?
In the past month, practically everyone. And certainly last week there was no escaping the extraordinary spectacle of Renee Richards, nee Richard Raskind, and her assertion that "anatomically, functionally, socially, emotionally and legally I am a female." While conceding that her action might be "mind-boggling," Richards proclaims that she is embarked on a crusade for human rights, a quest "to prove that transsexuals as well as other persons who are fighting social stigmas can hold their heads up high."
If tennis seems a rather fragile or inappropriate vehicle for carrying such a weighty message, it nonetheless provides, as Richards is well aware, the kind of exposure that attracts disciples. After one match last week, Dr. Roberto Granato, the urologist who performed the "sex-reassignment operation" on Richards a year ago, rushed onto the court, embraced his former patient and exclaimed, "Oh, Renee, this is going to help so many people!"
Not everyone is so enthralled. When the Richards controversy surfaced, the U.S. Tennis Association countered by requiring that all women entrants in the U.S. Open take a sex chromosome test, a standard that Richards rejects as "inconclusive at best." USTA President Stan Malless says, "It's all a joke to some people, but it really isn't funny. Everything's being publicized from Dr. Richards' point of view, and I'll bet she/he has a book half written already. Publicity-wise you couldn't ask for more."
The revelation that Richards' Hollywood lawyer, Greg Bautzer, is indeed peddling a book by Richards does not enhance her crusader's image. Still, the fact that there is a body of opinion, both legal and medical, that not only supports her stand but also could have an impact on all sports, dissuades any inclination to dismiss Richards as a self-promoting exhibitionist.
At the Orange Lawn Tennis Club last week, reactions to Richards' crusade seemed to ricochet about like volleys across the sex barrier, veering from astonishment to suspicion, sympathy, resentment and, more often than not, utter confusion.
Caroline Stoll, a tiny 15-year-old who agreed to play in the Tennis Week Open after 25 of the 32 women players dropped out to protest Richards' appearance, got closest to the nitty-gritty. While walking off the court after losing to Richards in three sets, she looked up at her towering opponent and boldly asked, "Are you in it for the money?" "That's absurd, Caroline," said Renee. "I make $100,000 a year as an eye surgeon. Would you change your sex for $1 million?"
Later, after joining Richards at a press conference, the teen-ager voiced the one general sentiment that prevailed throughout the tournament. "Wow!" she exclaimed. "Did you see those forearms? That's where she gets all that power and spin on her serves. It's unfair."
How unfair was obviously very much the issue (how many would have bothered to complain if Richards had been a transsexual midget with a gimpy backhand?), yet it was an issue that many women players seemed reluctant to contemplate. After all, as the foremost champions of equal rights in sports, how would it look if the WTA firebrands suddenly changed their rallying cry from YOU'VE COME A LONG WAY, BABY to YOU'VE GONE TOO FAR, RENEE? The usually outspoken Billie Jean King, for one, wasn't speaking out on this subject; incommunicado all week, her silence said more about the sensitivity of the subject than any words could convey. For one thing, if she did comment adversely on Richards' intrusion, some cynic would surely point out that Bobby Riggs' sex did not prevent King from playing him for the right amount of money.
Those WTA women who did speak were often in sharp disagreement. "By law, Renee is a woman," said Gladys Heldman, the founding mother of the women's pro circuit. "She has all the rights of a woman, except in tennis. Should she have to compete against men? Of course not. Then what's she supposed to do?" Rosie Casals countered, "As far as I'm concerned, Richards is still physically a man and that gives her a tremendous and unfair advantage. This has got to be stopped. Tennis is my profession, and this is a threat to it."
Richards would rather listen to Ilie Nastase. "That crazy maniac Romanian said it all," she declared. What Nastase said was, "If she wears a dress, why not? Now you see how strong the woman players are. She could be their mother, yet they complain. They're afraid."
Partly, it is a fear of the unknown. Since 1972, when Richards was ranked sixth nationally in the men's 35-and-over division, her weight has dropped from 180 to 147 pounds, mostly because of a loss of muscle. Though the female hormone, estrogen, that she takes has further reduced her strength, quickness and endurance, no one can accurately assess how much and to what extent her game has been diminished. Gene Scott, chairman of the Tennis Week Open and the doctor's frequent opponent over the past 15 years, says, "Basically, Dick Raskind never played the power game as a man. But the motion of her serve has changed now, and her mobility is nowhere near what it was."
That was achingly clear in the opening round when Richards shut out a jittery Cathy Beene in the first set, but then, panting and perspiring in the 90° heat, had to ward off near exhaustion to win 6-2. Against Caroline Stoll, Richards was much crisper in her attack, but seemed to occasionally dally before she finished off the youngster 6-2, 0-6, 6-1.
The suspicion that Richards was holding back, playing only as hard as she needed to, was confirmed in many players' minds when she met Kathy Harter in the third round. Once ranked fifth in the U.S., the lanky Californian pressed Richards from the outset, and the doctor responded with her strongest shots, a crackling topspin backhand, a deadly volley and, when she needed it, a flat, hard serve. And Richards needed it, especially in the second-set tie breaker; she finally won 6-4, 7-6.
Watching the match, Linda Thomas, one of the quarterfinalists, said that she had been reading up on transsexualism to better understand the issues—and her possible opponent. After watching Richards hit one of several backhand zingers down the line, she said, "What woman have you ever seen hit a shot like that? Each day she comes out with something new. She's definitely not showing us all she's got."
But in the semifinals, when Richards had to give all that she had, it was not enough. In a duel in the sun that lasted more than two hours, her invincibility gradually drained away like a melting Popsicle. Deftly working her from side to side and setting her up for drop shots, 17-year-old Lea Antonopolis figured that the quarter of a century in age difference would take its toll. And so it did, as the score reflected: 6-7, 6-3, 6-0. Leaving the court to a stirring ovation, Richards was suddenly just one of the girls. That she was not even one of the better girls was reconfirmed the next day when 18-year-old Marise Kruger, a South African who has never been heralded as the next Chrissie or Billie Jean, blew Antonopolis aside in the finals 6-3, 6-2.
After the Antonopolis match, Richards denied that she had ever had an advantage over the other players in the tournament—although allowing that if she were a 22-year-old transsexual, "Then you'd have a very tough thing to deal with, but my feeling is that that's her advantage and she's entitled to it. All good athletes have some physical superiority. That's what makes champions—advantages."
Richards' childhood advantage was that she grew up playing tennis in Forest Hills, N.Y., "the only place," she ironically notes, "that doesn't recognize my rights." In high school she played end on the football team, swam the backstroke and was the leading hitter and pitcher on the baseball team. "Once," she recalls, "after I pitched a no-hitter and then relieved in another game and struck out the side on nine pitches, the pro scouts were knocking my door down."
Yet as long as she can remember, Richards says, "I wanted to be a girl. I dressed up in my mother's dresses and when I went to bed I'd pray to be a girl." At Yale, where she played on the tennis team, Richards says she became expert at "overcompensating to conform to society's image of the macho male."
A graduate of the University of Rochester Medical School in 1959, Richards set up practice in Manhattan. She continued playing tennis, winning the New York State clay-court title in 1964. Two years later she went to Casablanca because "that was the only place they were doing sex-change surgery then." But dissatisfied with the medical standards there, she left and lived in Europe as a woman for one year—a preparation that is required by most sex clinics.
After returning to New York, Richards married a model in 1970 and fathered a son. "The marriage was a kind of backlash thing," she says. "My wife and I were narcissistic mirror images of one another." Shortly after their divorce last year, Richards underwent the sex-reassignment operation in New York and, after a month of convalescence, returned to her practice. By day, wearing a wig and a suit, she was Richard Raskind, by night Renee Richards. "It was not easy," she says. "Not easy."
Discarding her past, Richards moved to Newport Beach, Calif. in February, joined the John Wayne Tennis Club and settled into a new life. Things went smoothly until some tennis friends encouraged her to enter a tournament in La Jolla. After she won easily, a local newscaster checked out reports that a "mannish" woman had invaded the tournament, and a call to the University of Rochester blew her cover. Richards recalls, "I said to myself, 'O.K., now damn it, they're putting my private life out in the street. I'm going to pursue every right I possess to prove I'm a woman and a tennis player.' "
And so she did. Inspired by the letters she began receiving from transsexuals, she mounted a crusade for "all ostracized persons." While the WTA did not ban Richards from the Tennis Week Open, it withdrew its sanction and encouraged its players to stage a walkout lest their participation be interpreted as approval in the event of a lawsuit. Tournament Director Scott, who as a lawyer had gotten "gynecological certification" that Richards is a woman, scoffs, "The women players are always talking about sex discrimination but when it comes to a real issue they run and hide. If we followed them we'd still be reading by candlelight."
Though Richards says that she will take legal action only as a last resort, passage of the Equal Rights Amendment may do the job for her. In fact, new developments in sex research also threaten the validity of the chromosome test used by the USTA as well as in the Olympics. "We're finding that sex determination is a lot more complicated than we thought," says John Anderson, the U.S. Olympic doctor.
What these developments bode for the future of sports is anybody's guess. Short of holding a Transsexual Open, Dr. John Money of the Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins Medical Center goes so far as to suggest, "We may be fast approaching a time when women's tennis as well as other sports will have to be divided into weight classes, just as in boxing and wrestling."
For the moment, though, Renee Richards is in a class by herself. Before returning to Newport Beach last week, she avowed, "I'm going to keep playing in as many major tournaments as I can, including the Australian Open in December. But regardless of how I do, I know that I've already made my point. I've won that game and now I can go home a happy woman."