Tennis's reluctant transgender pioneer

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Renee Richards in the opening round of the 1977 US OpenImage source, AP

Renee Richards made history when she walked out on to the centre court of the Forest Hills stadium to play in the 1977 US Open. She was the first transgender woman to play in a professional tennis tournament.

"I had a very good and full life as Dick but I had this other side of me that kept emerging and that kept pushing back, until finally it just wasn't possible to submerge Renee any more and Renee won out," Richards says.

Born Richard Raskind, tennis was a huge part of her life from an early age. She was captain of the men's tennis team at Yale University and later, while serving in the Navy as a medic, won the All Navy Tennis Championship.

She forged a career as a successful eye surgeon, and at a time when the major tennis tournaments were only open to amateurs - professionals were only allowed to compete from 1968 - she took part in the US Open several times as a man.

"I was just another young doctor, married and with a child, practising medicine and having a great life," Richards says.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Renee Richards at her home in New York © Reuters

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But she says it always felt like there were two personalities competing inside her.

As a child, she used to dress up in her sister's clothes. "It gave me some relief and I felt good doing that... Recently Bruce Jenner [Caitlyn Jenner], who's a very famous athlete, is beginning a transition and talked about the same thing. I gave myself the name Renee, which actually means 'reborn' - I didn't even know that."

Richards had gender reassignment in 1975 at the age of 40 and moved to California to start a new life. But when she started competing in tennis tournaments her 6ft 2in (1.88m) frame and trademark left-hand serve began to attract attention - and after she won the La Jolla Tennis Tournament in July 1976 a journalist reported that she had previously competed as a man.

"My world kind of blew up on me when people found out who I was," she says.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Richard Raskind playing tennis in 1972 © AP

Her critics said it was unfair for her to play in women's competitions because she would have an unfair advantage in terms of strength.

But it's more complex than that, says Richards. "Of course the men are stronger and they do hit the ball harder but there are other variables too. Serena Williams sometimes gets her serve up greater than 120mph and some of the men don't serve as hard as 120mph."

Controversy raged over whether Richards should be allowed to play. The US Open was just a few weeks away, but for the first time in its 95-year history a chromosome test was made a prerequisite for female entrants.

"I never had any intention of playing in the US Open... but when they said, 'You're not allowed to play,' that changed everything. I said, 'You can't tell me what I can or cannot do - I'm a woman and if I want to play in the US Open as a woman I'm going to do it,'" she says.

Richards was invited by a friend to compete in the South Orange Open in New Jersey, which took place just before the US Open, but more than 20 women players boycotted the event in protest. She reached the semi-final. Then she set about suing the United States Tennis Association for gender discrimination - and found the odds firmly stacked against her.

"The Tennis Association and the people on the other side had top New York lawyers. They brought in witness after witness that said I shouldn't be able to play and it was a big case. Then on my side, my lawyer Mike Rosen, he only had one witness for me," says Richards.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Billie Jean King won 39 Grand Slam titles and founded the Women's Tennis Association in 1973 © Getty Images

But that witness proved crucial - she was one of the greatest players in the history of the women's game, a former world number one who was still playing on the circuit.

"My lawyer handed over an affidavit from Billie Jean King that said she had met me, that I was a woman, that I was entitled to play, and that I couldn't be denied. And that was it. We won.

"It was very dramatic, and we all went out and got drunk after we got the verdict," says Richards.

The court victory prompted her to turn professional, but she then faced a struggle to get other players to accept her.

"I had death threats, I had people that hated me, I had people that told me I was immoral, and people told me I was awful. There were some players who would walk off the court when I played them or they wouldn't play me at all.

"There was a lot of objection in the beginning and then finally they realised I was OK and I wasn't going to take everybody's money away and gradually a lot of those that had been against me ended up being very good friends of mine.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Renee Richards playing in July 1977 © Getty Images

"I was 43 years old and embarking on a professional career playing against Chrissie Evert, Tracy Austin, and Andrea Jaeger, and they're all 19 and 20 years old. So I had a pretty good disadvantage in terms of age but I said, 'I'm going to do it for a little while and see how I like it,'" says Richards.

In the first round of the women's singles at the 1977 US Open Richards faced that year's Wimbledon champion, Virginia Wade.

"I was on centre court in the stadium at Forest Hills and Virginia Wade had been used to that situation her whole life and I hadn't been. No matter how much good tennis I had played as an amateur there's nothing that compares to playing as a pro in the US Open on centre court.

"I remember she beat me pretty easily in the first set, 6-1. We had a very close second set as I got going and she finally won it 6-4, and that was it.

It was in the women's doubles at the same 1977 Grand Slam that Richards would achieve her best result.

"In the doubles nobody gave my partner Betty Ann Stuart and I much of a chance because nobody had ever heard of us. We won the first round and the second and then all of a sudden we're in the finals of the US Open doubles. We played Martina Navratilova and Betty Stove and we lost to them 7-6 in the second set.

"We stood up there on the podium at Forest Hills on that beautiful Indian summer day, and the band was playing, and they were presenting the prizes. I turned to my partner Betty Ann after we received the silver bowl for being the runners up and I said under my breath, 'Next year we'll be back here for the gold bowl.'"

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Renee Richards and Betty Ann Stuart playing in the 1977 women's double final at the US Open © AP

As it happened, Stuart did not return, and although Richards returned with another partner the following year they were knocked out in the second round.

Richards continued to play in the US and Latin America until retiring in 1981. Despite being banned from tournaments in Europe she briefly reached 20th position in the Women's Tennis Association world rankings.

"I never beat any of the first five women in the world. I didn't beat Martina, I didn't beat Chrissie Evert, but I did have wins over some of the players in the second five. So I was up there but I wasn't at the very top," she says.

After retiring Richards remained in tennis and coached Martina Navratilova to victory in all of the four Grand Slam tournaments. Afterwards she resumed her career as an eye surgeon and now, aged 80, she is planning on retiring later this year.

She is the only player in history to play top-level tennis in both the men's and women's competitions. Initially, Richards says she was overwhelmed by the thousands of people who would try to catch a glimpse of her at tournaments.

"I was not set out for that. I mean I wouldn't say I was reclusive, because I wasn't - I was captain of every team I was on - but I was a quiet person and I lived a private life and now all of a sudden everybody in the world knows who I am.

"I became a public figure, a reluctant pioneer, for all of the disenfranchised groups in the world, no matter whether they were transgender, gay or lesbian."

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