The story of Richard Raskind - tennis champion, Lieutenant Commander in the Navy and a famous ophthalmologist, is also that of Renee Richards, also an ophthalmologist, professional tennis player and coach. But what can these two characters have in common? They are the same person, and probably the most famous example of a transgender athlete…
“The greatness of sport is the ability to win in a stadium filled with people who just want to see you lose.” That month of September 1977, the former football coach George Allen came to see the U.S. Open. A simple first-round match, but there already was a riot in the press-room. Connors? Borg? No, Renée Richards, a 43-year-old American who was playing that night in her first Grand Slam. Her age wasn’t the cause of this curiosity. In truth, behind Renée Richards hid Richard Raskind, the divorced father of a 12 year-old boy and one of the most famous ophthalmologists in New York and a modest amateur tennis player. Yes, two years earlier, Richard had a sex change! Except that in July 1976, while she was playing a small tournament in La Jolla, California, Renée was recognized and outed by a man whose identity has remained secret. The USTA, the U.S. Tennis Association, then ordered her not to participate in any women's competition. “After months of procedure, the Supreme Court of New York finally stated that I was now a 'standard of femininity',” said the only athlete to have ever played a game of men's singles, a men's doubles, a ladies' single and a ladies' doubles. “Before all that, I was a quiet person. I mean, I was not that introverted, but I was a very private person. People loved me and respected me. Then this day of September 1977, I became a caricature, a notorious public figure. I was stripped naked in front of the whole world.”
“I had no choice”
Before becoming the freak of women's tennis, Renée Richards was born on the 19th of August 1934 under the name Richard Raskind. This little middle-class New York Jew was, in public, a young and confident athlete, rather cute, and captain of the tennis team at Yale University in Connecticut. But at home, he stealthily began to borrow the clothes of his nine year-old sister. In the privacy of his university dormitories, he shaved his legs and disguised his genitals. After graduated in ophthalmology, the man whose friends used to call "Dick" then went to do his military service as a navy officer, where he won every tennis championship. Not really an effeminate environment at first glance. "In the army, I had the details of a psychiatrist who specialised in treating transgender people,” he said. “He started to prescribe me injections of progesterone and oestrogen. My body softened. I was taking a lot of pictures of myself. I was looking for a feminine silhouette, graceful and slender." Upon his return from the army, at a party held at a friend’s, he met a gorgeous model - "the most beautiful woman I've ever seen," he said - with whom he tied the knot six months later: "No, I wasn’t homosexual." Together, they gave birth to a son, Nicholas, in 1972. "There is nothing more selfish than what my father did" said the resentful now-grown child in 2009. The marriage didn't last long and, after living a few months as a transvestite in a bedsit in Paris, Dick headed for Casablanca in Morocco. There, he began surgical procedures, called "sexual reassignment», which he couldn’t get in the United States. How much? 3000 euros paid in cash, immediately. "I had no choice,” he said. “In my head, it was almost a matter of life or death." Before becoming Renée, Richard was an honest amateur player, unknown to the public. Richard, after becoming Renée, at 6 feet, with size 11 shoes, miniskirt and her Mezuzah necklace (Jewish pendant, Ed) around the neck, was now at a level to be able to play against the cream of the WTA. "I chose to be called Renée, because in French, it is a conjugation of the verb 'reborn’.”
Prozac, ophthalmology and identity tee shirts
During these four additional years of tennis, where she reached the semi-finals of the Seattle tournament in 1979, Renée struggled to really feel like a female player despite a career-high of 20th place in the WTA rankings. First, everyone was wondering why she gave up her job as an ophthalmologist at 43 years old to start a new life in tennis, a profession that used to pay significantly less than the treatment of strabismus, her former speciality. "It wasn’t a militant act, not at all, but something very selfish at first,” she said. “I’m very sad and disappointed to hear people say that I did it for the money. I lived really well as a doctor, and I am now poor as professional tennis player." Then there were the jokes and teasing. Often, Renée said she felt "like a monkey in a glass cage". The press ironically used to say that she could play a mixed doubles by herself. Some players like Chris Evert, expressed reservations regarding the right of Renée to play with women. "If only we could be sure that it’s only Renée,” said the Floridian to The Washington Post. “But there's always that nagging feeling that there will be another transsexual there, younger and stronger, better positioned to dominate the tour." Two players, participating in the same American tournament as Renée, even arrived wearing a t-shirt bearing the slogan: "I am a real woman." During a match on grass, the husband of the Australian female player Kerry Reid, frustrated with the results, went down the stands himself and took his wife by the skirt to take her off the court, two games away from defeat. In the previous round, a fellow American, Joanne Russell, even gave her the finger during the middle of the match. "Because of some hormone injections, I lost 30% of my muscle mass and almost 90 pounds,” claimed Renee. “Frankly, why were they so mean? Given my age, 43, I wasn’t a threat to anyone”. But the hardest part for Richards was probably not being allowed to participate, like her colleagues, in all the tournaments on the tour. She almost only played in the United States. At Wimbledon, she was purely and simply not allowed to enrol. Why? "Wimbledon has a regulation that allows us not to have to give a reason for the rejection of a player" the organizers said. In 1977, she was declared persona non grata in Rome. In Paris, she was asked take a sex-test, which she refused. Finally Renée’s real success came from the side-lines when she decided to coach Martina Navratilova, of whom she made a great champion. Cultivated, intelligent, Renée Richards pushed the Czechoslovak to think about her matches before they even started, and to prepare a strategy based on the style of her opponent. Something that wasn't obvious at a time when coaching was still in its infancy. Today, Renée has returned to her first love: medicine. She still has, at 79 years old, an ophthalmology office on Madison Avenue in New York. Always wearing a hat and draped with a pink sweater, her husky voice is no longer making the headlines. She leads a secretive life, giving very few interviews, two books, and in the waiting room, a newspaper clipping of the American edition of Tennis Magazine, dating from 1979. In these lines, she almost regrets her intervention: "To those who are 18 or 20 years old, and who really want to do it, I always say go for it! Correct what nature did wrong. But if you are a 45 year-old airplane pilot, and you have an ex-wife and three kids who are teenagers, it is better to take Prozac and Zoloft and stay away from all that. Because ultimately, doesn’t everybody think his life could have been different?"
By Victor Le Grand