Richey's path to peace

5/5/2010 - Tennis
Cliff Richey admits that his boorish on-court behavior was a mask for depression. Courtesy Cliff Richey

Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance,

and there is only the dance.

-- T.S. Eliot

If it's possible to describe a person with a single word, here's one for America's former No. 1 tennis player, Cliff Richey: unblinking. As a competitor, his eyes would bulge, his pupils dilate, every sinew of his soul engaged. As he said, "You had to bring a sack lunch and work pretty darn hard if you were going to beat me."

Yet all along, wrapped in the cocoon of family love and work and what he calls "the goofy tennis life" of solitary competition, travel to every continent and the perks of a celebrity, a whole other storm was brewing, a storm that in some ways was the perverse mirror opposite of all the zealotry that had taken Richey to the top -- a long and painful struggle with depression that would turn his entire world upside down.

The will to win -- better yet, the will to prepare to win -- had been bred into Richey from an early age. Richey's father, George, was a rough-and-tumble Texan who'd taken to tennis after a car accident derailed his baseball career. The tenacious George taught himself to play tennis left-handed and eventually became both a prominent coach and a touring pro. Cliff's older sister, Nancy, was a fierce baseliner, her wins at the 1967 Australian and '68 French Open singles earning her a spot in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Only in the past two years, when Dinara Safina matched her brother Marat Safin's feat of becoming ranked No. 1 in the world, has tennis seen a sister-brother duo as successful as the Richeys.

Cliff's zenith came 40 years ago. In 1970, Richey won eight titles, reached the semis of the French Open and Wimbledon, paced the U.S. to victory in the Davis Cup and concluded the year atop the newly created Pepsi Grand Prix, a worldwide points tracking system that was the forerunner to today's ATP computer rankings.

Raw data hardly does his manner justice. Before the over-the-top intensity of Jimmy Connors, there was Richey. As Connors writes in the forward to Richey's recently published book, "Acing Depression" (a book Richey co-wrote with his daughter, Hilaire Richey Kallendorf), "He was what I wanted to watch and try to learn from. He had that 'never say die' attitude and the will to win at all costs." To the Richeys, raised to tennis in a time when there was little money, the sport was hardly a passing fancy. Until the emergence of Open tennis in 1968, American tennis was filled with tales of upwardly mobile men and women for whom tennis was but a passage toward meeting the right people in hopes of finding a cushy white-collar job.

But for the Richeys, tennis was serious business. Leave the cocktail parties to the lazy rivals and high-society dilettantes who populated the clubs. Cliff and Nancy would head to a back court and get in more practice. As Cliff wrote, "It was Richey Inc. against the world. That's all I knew." The Richey's family gestalt embodied a phrase often stated by any tennis player walking out to play a match: I'm not going to give this guy anything.

Allen Fox, a psychologist and former pro, recalled, "We were friends, but in 1970 we were set to play each other in the U.S. Open. The day before, we were each walking from the tournament to the subway, and I figured we'd have a pleasant talk. But Cliff went on the other side of the street. I was now the enemy, at least until we were through playing."

The tour was an escape mechanism. It gave me places to run from my troubles and worries.

--Cliff Richey

Guarded? Certainly. Attuned? Absolutely. For in the heat of battle, nothing escaped Richey's eyes, heart and mind. But beneath what he called "a high-low temperament," trouble was brewing. Said Richey, "My first episode of depression came in the late '60s. I had extreme anxiety all through the juniors and at the beginning of my life on the tour."

Yet figuring out what was truly festering within him was difficult. Said Nancy, "We knew there was a problem of some kind, but we didn't know what it was. He was irritable and out of sorts all the time -- short and sharp. He hadn't been diagnosed."

"The tour was an escape mechanism," wrote Richey. "It gave me places to run from my troubles and worries." Even as he ended his ATP career in the late '70s, Richey soon enough find more solo escapes -- golf, in which he became a scratch golfer and competed on a celebrity circuit; and soon enough, more tennis on a senior tour.

All this kept the darkness at a distance -- to a degree. For when he wasn't engaged in his escapes, Richey's life lacked all the discipline and focus he'd brought to his tennis. Said Richey, "I was not a good father. I had a negative attitude. I didn't understand that a kid might just want to play soccer for the fun of it." As much as Richey tried to love his daughters and wife, Mickie, depression left him exceedingly aloof, paranoid to the point where he would decree a family-wide budget cut, insist they dine repeatedly on cut-rate foods and medicate himself with alcohol.

As tennis ended, Richey grew even more insular. Through the '90s, as he neared the age of 50, there were days when he was so depressed, so uncertain of who he was and what he'd become, that the man who'd kept his eyes open so widely sought to shut out the world. Richey placed black trash bags over the windows of his house, stayed in bed for hours in tears and struggled to find the best possible diagnosis and medication. Said Nancy, "We were afraid he was going to die."

Finally, one day in the late '90s, practicing his putting in the living room, Richey looked up, turned to Nancy and said, "I think I feel a little more at peace." Of course it's hardly that simple, a tale of ups and downs, confusion and relief, more confusion and more relief that Richey explores in depth in his book.

These days he takes 200 milligrams a day of Zoloft, an antidepressant. And after living decades of what he calls "the selfish life" of an athlete, the man nicknamed "Bull" is channeling that same tenacity toward becoming an advocate for mental health. Where once upon a time initials like ATP and USTA defined his life, the letters dear to Richey's heart these days include NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), MHAT (Mental Health America of Texas), MHMR (department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation) and a host of others throughout his home state of Texas and all around the country and the world.

"For the first time ever, I'm in a position to give," said Richey. "Mental illness is the stepchild of the medical community. I see myself adding my voice to something that's timeless, that reaches people. I can stand up and say, 'Hey! I'm a Davis Cup champion who has mental illness.' When I saw that it would make a positive impact on one person, I saw that I had to do it."

"Acing Depression" is part of Richey's campaign. To bring the book to life, he reached out to his daughter, Hilaire, who holds a doctorate not in psychology but in comparative literature and is currently an associate professor at Texas A&M. Given Richey's self-admitted shortcomings as a parent, the collaboration would be not just an intellectual experience but a deeply emotional one. As he purged himself of his pain to a woman he loved but had been remote to for so much of her formative years, Richey learned much. He'd never known, for example, that his wife had not just one, but two miscarriages. Said Kallendorf, "My mom was very much a single parent. My childhood was trying to find a little corner where I wouldn't be yelled at. I escaped into the world of books."

Though in her youth and early adulthood Kallendorf distanced herself from her father's pain, the topic of Kallendorf's dissertation was exorcism -- the purging of demons. Her second book addressed Catholic rituals related to priests and confessors. In large part, exorcism and confession were the core topics of her work with her father. Said Kallendorf, "I think in some ways my scholarship helped me explore so much of what went on with my dad. Working together gave us a reason to get to know each other a great deal better, particularly as two adults. And I do know I'm every bit as competitive in my world as he was in his."

On Oct. 3, 1970, Richey was in the semifinals of the Pacific Coast Championships (what's now the ATP's SAP Open in San Jose) at the Berkeley Tennis Club just outside of San Francisco. His opponent was Stan Smith. The winner would be the top-ranked American that year -- this at a time when national rankings were highly significant. The tiebreaker had been introduced in 1970, which in those days was won by the player who first reached five points -- sudden death. It came down to 4-4 in the final-set tiebreaker. One point for everything. Richey served in the ad court. As was the style of the time, even after missing his first serve, Richey approached the net on his second. Smith struck a crosscourt backhand. Richey stretched to make a backhand volley that went crosscourt. Smith now lined up a backhand. Richey darted to his right, read Smith's drive -- and struck a reflex volley for a winner.

It was one point. One moment. One single moment to feel all he could feel and savor all that was good in a life Richey had worked so hard for. But for a long time in his life, the possibility of more joy hovered on the brink of extinction. Now once again, Cliff Richey is able to enjoy each moment. For that he is grateful.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.