The Courage of Cliff Richey

The image is frozen forever in the eye of my mind. There I was in 1972 at the Royal Albert Hall in London, watching Cliff Richey—one of the leading American players of that era—competing against the stylish, left-handed Jan Leschly of Denmark, a former semifinalist at the U.S. Championships. As soon as the highly charged and immensely passionate Richey completed a, 2-6, 6-2, 6-4 opening round victory over Leschly, I walked out onto the court and conducted a brief interview with him for a magazine story I was pursuing. I had met him a few months before at the 1971 Grand Prix Masters event in Paris, and I had watched him play frequently over the previous five years. I had admired the relentless grit, perspicacity and gumption that Richey had displayed in 1970, when he reached the summit of his career by securing the No. 1 United States ranking. Across the board, I liked what he stood for.

As I stood there a few feet away from Richey to get his instant analysis of the contest he had won by the narrowest of margins over Leschly, I was bowled over by the Texan’s unbridled intensity and his dazzling command of the facts. He recounted point after key point in the match, explained precisely how he had felt during the crucial junctures of the encounter, and gave me remarkably good material — all in a fast paced stretch of five unforgettable minutes! I was struck by his impeccable recall of what I had just witnessed, but not simply by that. I kept watching his eyes, which seemed to turn into the size of basketballs as they lit up with every descriptive word, sentence after sentence. I was reminded that the game he played for a living was also his way of life, and his total immersion in his craft was a joy to behold.

Richey won that tournament in London, defeating countryman Clark Graebner in the final. In the process, he reaffirmed for me why I have always respected him so whole-heartedly. He was more than a champion tennis player who made it to the very top of the ladder in his country; Richey was a supreme gladiator who threw his heart and soul into each and every match. The qualities he exhibited way back when were brought back to me vividly when I read his book a week or so ago. Entitled “Acing Depression,” Richey takes the reader on a powerful journey across his tennis career and on to the larger battle he has fought so obstinately against clinical depression. As courageous as Richey was in testing himself against formidable rivals on the tennis court, that probably pales in comparison with the way he has taken on a more daunting adversary. No opponent demanded more of his resources and his character than has depression, the arch enemy from within.

In the book, Richey fills the pages descriptively with tails of his childhood, including the “night terrors” he experienced during his elementary school years at the ages of seven and eight. He writes, “Maybe the night terrors were a sign of sublimated fear. Was I afraid of getting beaten up by neighborhood bullies? I have no idea. And then, one day, they subsided just as quickly as they had come on.”

Recollecting memories like that one are Richey’s way of explaining the long and debilitating road that eventually led to clinical depression. We keep travelling down that path with Richey, sharing his experiences, watching him fight his demons, reading on with unending curiosity. We find out what it was like for Cliff to grow up in one of the greatest of all American tennis families; with a sister (Nancy) who eventually captured two major singles titles, celebrated four years as the top ranked woman in her country, and made it to the International Tennis Hall of Fame; with a mother, Betty, who was deeply devoted to the game as a family crusade; with a father, George, who was a renowned teaching professional.

Tennis was not only their life, but in many ways it was their religion, their purpose, their reason for getting up every day and pursuing a mission. Cliff Richey does an excellent job in “Acing Depression” of explaining what it was like to live a life with such a central theme, and how it shaped who he was and what he would become. In the book, he refers to the family as “Richey, Inc.,” but “not in a derogatory way. We moved as a unit. People referred to us simply as ‘The Richeys.’ From the outside it looked like the perfect little family. In some ways, it was. But it was too much of a good thing. Winning was the be-all and end-all. It was our life, our business, our religion. We didn’t grow into this syndrome of Richey, Inc. It was never any other way. We thought we did not need anything or anyone else if we could throw ‘winning’ at the situation. That handled everything…… The way we approached it, it was life or death. Winning or losing. You bet it was….. Tennis was my life.”

Following up on that point, Richey writes, “Richey, Inc. gave me my whole life, my profession, my bank account, world travel, an education I couldn’t have gotten any other way. But it can be a little bit suffocating when you’re spending more time together than most people would, under more stressful conditions than most families experience. I don’t have a negative feeling toward all of it but you reach a point where you want your independence. To be your own person. I didn’t do that until very late in life.”

But he realized as a teenager that defining success through the lens of victories on a tennis court was a complicated way to look at things. He writes, “As a teenager, I started to wonder if I might not be normal. I can remember feeling not depressed necessarily, but just real melancholy feeling, real blue. I was playing against men players at the age of 15. In my early teens I felt extreme anxieties, severe highs and lows. I was moody and volatile. But the depression was not bad enough yet to be a shackle. I was already predisposed to clinical depression genetically. Growing up, with my personality bent and nervous structure, my anxieties were soothed by each tournament win… Winning was the antidote I used against them. Winning was like antidepressant medicine early on. I used tennis as a salve for emotional pain.”

Consumed by tennis, Cliff dropped out of high school. He had already won the National 18 Championships at the age of 16, and the Texas Men’s Championship. Richey knew what he wanted and where he was going. His sister had established herself. They were all off and running. But they were ahead of their time, true professionals still competing at the end of the amateur era. “We alienated people,” writes Cliff. “I’m not saying we didn’t deserve to be criticized. A lot of the criticisms were justified. We were a professional little Richey, Inc. unit that moved from town to town. In that pre-Open era, the tennis world was not ready for us yet.”

They soon would be. After the game went open in 1968, the Richey’s were not to be ignored. Nancy won the first French Open in 1968, with Cliff signaling advice from his seat at courtside. After she toppled Ann Jones in three sets to take the title, Cliff went to the men’s locker room, found a quiet place to release his joy over the triumph, and cried his eyes out. Two years later, he had the season of his career in securing the No. 1 American ranking, sealing that achievement with an exhilarating win over Stan Smith—his foremost American rival—in the semifinals of a tournament in Berkeley, California on October 3, 1970.

Their crucial showdown went into a fifth set tie-break, with the score locked at 4-4 in that sequence. This was the old “Sudden Death” version of the tie-break, so it was simultaneous match point for Richey and Smith. The entire year had come down to one enormous point, a point that Richey could not afford to lose, a moment he had to seize. He came in behind a second serve, and Smith attacked behind his backhand return. Both players were stationed at the net. Richey dove for a volley. Somehow, despite his seemingly desperate plight, Richey’s volley turned into an improbable winner. It was the single most important point he would play in his life. At the end of that year, Richey finished atop the points table for the first ever Grand Prix circuit, a tribute to his hard work and immense consistency across that season.

Throughout his career, Richey was often moody and excitable, and he had his share of temper tantrums, and sometimes went over the edge. He writes in the book, “I used to yell and scream on the court. I shouted some curse words occasionally but I was never known as a vulgar person. I didn’t use obscene gestures. I just tended to berate the linesmen. Often I would have some linesmen removed…. I did stuff that wore on my opponent, like taking time to argue a line call. I was like John McEnroe, or more accurately, he was like me. People used to say I invented his whole routine. I was known (not so) affectionately as the ‘Original Bad Boy’ of tennis.”

Richey is not doing himself full justice with that account. I watched him play at least a hundred matches over the years, saw him get embroiled in some controversies, knew he could explode with rage at certain times under duress. But he was—at least in my view—not in a league with McEnroe or Ilie Nastase as a “bad boy” of tennis. Richey was earnest, deeply driven, demanding of himself and those around him. He expected the officials to be as professional as he was. But, in my book, he was not one of the bad actors in the sport, and far from it.

In any case, Richey played on, but from 1971 on he could sense he was declining, and after that strenuous 1970 campaign he was worn out. He still garnered the No. 2 American ranking in 1971, but thereafter he was gradually losing physical ground as a player. Although he made it to his third career Grand Slam semifinal in 1972 at the U.S. Open, and won the CBS Classic in 1974 with victories over Rod Laver and Ilie Nastase, Richey gradually altered his game, attacked more frequently, and relied on strategic acumen to pull him through rather than his old physical warfare. He would write of the latter stages of his career, “I came to believe my very best weapon on the court was my mind.” But he also began to realize how depression was creeping more and more into his life and affecting his game. He writes, “I can honestly say that the depression was less tied to losing matches than to losing skills. “But, he adds, “For the last six years I played the regular tour I knew I wasn’t at my best. The tournament losses just compounded the depression I was also feeling due to loss of skills.”

The struggle was mighty. He writes of the last six years of his career, “From 1973-78 I was in a depressive phase of my life that was just horrendous. It was one long blur of constant play-prepare. During my four year [WCT] contract, come hell or high water I had to play the tournaments on the WCT schedule. I withdrew from a few tournaments and blamed it on a fictitious injury. But during those years, I was what you might call a functional depressive. Rod Steiger, the actor, has said that he often hoped no one on the movie set realized how depressed he was. That’s what it means to be a functional depressive. You feel shitty, but you just try to continue with your daily routine.”

In 1989, when he was approaching 43, Richey fell into a miserable four month “siege of depression.” His heart was beating irregularly and he was diagnosed with a benign heart condition. The doctors noted that his “outlook” was negative, but strangely they did not recommend a treatment for depression. But five years later, in the summer of 1994, Richey knew once and for all he was confronting full bore depression. He had been having stomach problems and wasn’t feeling well. His mother made him promise he would give up drinking beer and chewing tobacco.

Cliff elected to try to quit those habits “cold turkey.” He had been drinking beer for 23 years and chewing tobacco for 16. And he went into a terrible downward spiral.

What followed—as he recounts in the book—were “three horrific years.” He was closing in on 50 in 1996 and his life was at the lowest possible ebb. And then he had a serendipitous appointment with a dermatologist to remove some skin cancers. The skin doctor had spent a year in a psych ward and he realized Richey was suffering from clinical depression. He did not say anything to Cliff, but later told Cliff’s wife Mickie what he believed—that Cliff needed to go on an antidepressant. With typical forthrightness, after giving it some candid thought, Cliff called the dermatologist and said, “My Dad always told me to change a losing game. Call in the prescription.”

That phone call was a life altering moment. Richey writes in “Acing Depression,” “there’s a difference in thinking you might have depression and knowing that you have it. You finally have convinced you that you have a problem. The day that happened, it didn’t scare me. I accepted his diagnosis. In fact, I felt stupid for not realizing it before. I was convinced he was right, and that very minute, I tried to get help.”

He went on Elavil but soon shifted to Zoloft, which has been his antidepressant ever since. As he writes of the Zoloft, “It doesn’t elevate your mood past that of a normal person. It just levels the playing field. It gives you a window of opportunity to use your coping skills and prevent certain episodes that might degenerate real far, real quick. It definitely isn’t a cure-all. But in my mind, my entire life is divided into pre- and post—1997 (the year I went on anti-depressants.). I would even go so far as to say that anti-depressant medication has been the single greatest factor in my recovery.”

Richey explains in the book that he still has his “bouts” with depression even with the medication, but he has coped with that remarkably well and has moved on productively with his life. He has become a tireless advocate for mental health, travelling over different parts of the United States to raise awareness and put his good name behind the issue. As Richey reflects on the last 13 years since he got on medication and began waging a brave and successful fight against depression, he is immensely grateful for the opportunity he has had to start over in a fundamental sense.

He writes, “I have been given so many second chances in my life. I started taking Zoloft on my 50th birthday, New Year’s Eve of 1996. That was the first of many rebirths. The beautiful thing is that in recovery, almost everything in your life becomes a second chance. Hope is the foundation of our great country in America. Hope is such a driver of the normal human condition. The sum total of my awful disease was ‘loss of hope’. That’s the truly awesome thing about recovery: once you come back, your whole life after that feels like a second chance.”

To me, the way Richey concludes the book is entirely true to character. It reminds me of the Richey I knew during his playing days, that indefatigable warrior, that ferocious competitor who put himself on the line every time he stepped on the court, that player who would never give in. He writes, “The bottom line is: depression can be beaten. Far worse than losing is not staying out on that court. Depression will tell you it’s not worth fighting, but you don’t have to listen to that voice. Listen to what I’m telling you instead. Even if you forget everything else, remember these words: NEVER, EVER, EVER GIVE UP.”

The book is a treasure. It is the story of a man who has triumphed in multiple ways, on and off the court, in and outside the arena. It is the work of a prideful individual who looks at himself with absolute candor, and calls it precisely the way he sees it. It is poignant, gripping, emotional , even gut-wrenching. And the way I see it, “Acing Depression” is one of those books you owe it to yourself to read from cover to cover.

Originally Published Tennis Channel March 30, 2010

Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.