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Life at 80: Renee Richards on and off the tennis court
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2015-04-15

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She truly is a pioneer, now 80, who has left her three-fold mark worldwide—as a professional tennis player, a still-practicing ophthalmologist, and an early pioneer for the LGBT community, particularly the transgender part of the rainbow.

Pick a term to tag Renee Richards: icon, legend, role model … or all of the above.

But Richards now mostly just concerns herself with which way the green breaks and how she'll nail a 10-foot putt.

Golf is her major passion these days and when she retires, soon, likely this year, she plans to move from New York to Florida, partially to skip the cold and snow of a Northeast winter, primarily to play a lot more golf.

"Of all I've done [professionally and as a transgender person] … it doesn't help me lower my [golf] handicap," she said, laughing.

Richards lives about 80 minutes north of New York City, "in the country, in the woods, on the water," she said of the English cottage she has called home for about 15 years. She lives with her best friend and former office manager of about 30 years—a straight, widowed woman. Richards stopped operating at the end of 2014 and will stop seeing patients later this year. Then the two, and their two dogs, will head south.

Sure, she has a tennis court about 50 feet from her home, but she stopped playing a long time ago. She picked up golf about 20 or 25 years ago, and that's her sporting pleasure these days—her latest sporting venture.

Richards was, mind you, a New York native who played competitive football team as a teen, participated in swimming meets and was such a talented baseball pitcher that she often attracted the interest of pro scouts.

Begs to wonder, what if … and yes, she too, thinks about what if she opted for a different life path as opposed to tennis.

"I had ability in baseball. Who knows what would have happened with my life if I ever [got to] pitch in Yankee Stadium. I don't know. But I'm not good at woulda, coulda, shoulda. I don't like that," she said.

What we do know, though, is that Richards excelled on the tennis court. She was the captain of the men's tennis team at Yale University before transitioning, anchored by her lethal left-handed serve. She played professionally from 1977 to 1981, retiring at age 47—but certainly not without controversy amid her transition.

Her first professional event in the female division was the 1977 U.S. Open, and that year she reached the doubles final with Betty Ann Stuart, ultimately losing to Martina Navratilova and Betty StÃïve. Richards was twice a semifinalist in mixed doubles ( with Ilie Nastase ) at the U.S. Open.

In 1979, she won the 35-and-over singles title at the U.S. Open.

After retiring, Richards ventured into coaching, most notably helping the career of Navratilova.

Richards still follows tennis relentlessly, she said, and remains in touch regularly with Navratilova.

"I am more aware of what's going on in the tennis world than I am in the transgender world," said Richards, who regularly attends the U.S. Open in New York. She is also a member of the event's prestigious Final 8 Club.

Her favorite male player is Novak Djokovic, the Serbian star who is ranked number one in the world. "I think he's a wonderful player, a great spokesperson, representative for the tennis community," Richards said.

Serena Williams is the top-ranked female—and Richards' favorite on that side. "I have to admire the way she plays," said Richards, who also noted that Madison Keys—who was born in Rock Island, Illinois, and is now ranked No. 18 in the world—"shows great promise."

So who would win, Williams vs. Richards ( back in her day )?

"She probably would have killed me," Richards said, laughing.

"Martina was the greatest player who ever lived," she added. "However, you can't compare Martina to Serena because things are so different—the rackets, the technology, the strings, etc. Players now are able to hit the ball so much harder and keep it on the court. You can't compare [players from different eras], be it Rod Laver to Nadal, or [Bill] Tilden to Laver."

Richards' tennis career was, of course, shadowed by her transition, during an era when such a practice was rarely discussed in public, let alone under the worldwide spotlight, as Richards endured.

She didn't want the spotlight, then or now, or anytime in between.

"It just happened to me, and I just kind of went along with everything that happened," she said. "I had no idea when I was younger that I was going to be able to accomplish the sex change; I had no idea I was going to become this infamous, notorious person who did what I did [in professional tennis]."

She endured death threats, yet often was hailed as brave and courageous.

Richards just wanted to play tennis.

"It's amazing what is going on now [in the trans community], compared to when I was [going through my transition]," she said. "When I was [transitioning], it was all hush-hush. You did it, [then] merged into the woodwork if you could, and you were in stealth mode; you change your name and move 3,000 miles away, like I did, and you tried to live life like a new person, if you could.

"Now, people are announcing on television that they are going to have a sex change.

"The world has just changed so much."

But with the progress, there remains transphobia. Trans teens, for instance, have committed suicide at alarming rates. Richards noted that "there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of acceptance and knowledge, with knowledge being the forerunner to acceptance.

"I do, though, applaud the groups and people who are doing the [advocating], including GLAAD and others."

Richards, though, has never been a loud public LGBT advocate. She never wanted that label. In fact, she doesn't even keep up with LGBT—particularly trans—issues other than when approached for feedback. When she does major interviews, she gets advice. For example, for a recent one with ESPN, she had a briefing from an activist trans woman.

"I had no idea what really was or is going on, such as the struggles for high school [student-athletes] to play on teams [based on] the gender they identify," she said. "So much of my life was stressful, during all of those years when I was going through all of this, so I didn't want to have to dwell on it anymore."

Instead, Richards wanted to advocate in a different way—professionally.

"If you are a busy, practicing eye surgeon, there isn't much time to be an advocate for issues unrelated, of which transgender is part of," she said. "I have thought, and still do, that I can do more good for minorities, including the transgender community, by being a good ophthalmologist and being a good tennis coach and being a good tennis player [more] than being an advocate.

"I never wanted to be construed as an activist because that wasn't me."

Her resume also includes, author.

Richards has written two autobiographies, which focus on "going from Dick to Renee," she said.

Her latest book is Spy Night and Other Memories: A Collection of Stories from Dick and Renee. The stories in this book "don't really have anything to do with my transformation … nor anything to do with my pioneering. [Instead, the book] has to do with the other side of my life, which most people don't have any idea about: my life in medicine, my life in sports, my life with my friends, my life as a parent, etc.

"This book is not focused on sexuality, or gender identity, or anything of the sort."

Richards it was fun to write and reminisce, including remembering a summer camp story from decades ago.

"My ending up being a role model, pioneer was inadvertent; I never set out to do that. I never was a public advocate [for LGBT rights or causes]; I never was a public zealot or anything of the sort," Richards said. "But I was embraced because I stood up and did what I thought I was entitled to do—and other people identified with that, so I became this pioneer. But none of it was for altruistic motives; I was selfish, I wanted to do with my life what I felt I had to do and I wanted to play tennis wherever I wanted to play, so that's what I stood up for. Then all of a sudden, I [became] this pioneer."

And that, she truly is.


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