SI Vault
Frank Deford
July 05, 1965
Under the omnipresent eye of their father, Cliff and Nancy Richey, talented but often misunderstood, are united in their passion to become the best players in the world
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July 05, 1965

The Highest Ranking Family In Tennis

Under the omnipresent eye of their father, Cliff and Nancy Richey, talented but often misunderstood, are united in their passion to become the best players in the world

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Richey quickly became proficient enough in the sport to earn scholarships to two Texas colleges. After marriage, the war and a half-hearted attempt at chicken farming back in San Angelo, he became a tennis pro. In 1952 Richey was good enough to be the eighth-ranked professional in the country, but it was as high as he ever got. He still carries in his wallet a wire-service clipping, laminated in plastic, of those 1952 rankings.

As a teacher Richey can be a martinet, but he tempers his demands with the understanding that he is only interested in meeting you all the way—or not at all. "I never cared if Nancy and Cliff played tennis," he says, "but, if they wanted to, all I asked was that they really devote themselves to it."

The charges that Richey has driven his children unmercifully are, taken as a lot, patently foolish. Richey drives them, yes, he saturates them with this game and the importance of victory, but the children approve of his demanding methods. "As George says," Mrs. Richey explains, " 'If we pushed them too hard, well then, why did we get a $400 phone bill in calls from them from Europe last summer?'

"They used to kid Cliff at school, always asking him why he didn't want to have any fun. He would just grit his teeth and try to explain. I remember how wonderful I felt a couple of years ago when we were all driving back to Dallas after the Sugar Bowl tournament. Cliff had won a great big trophy—oh my, you should see it—and we were just driving along together when all of a sudden Cliff grabbed that trophy and hugged it and said: 'They talk about me not having any fun. Why, this is the greatest fun in the world. This is the kind of fun that lasts all year.' And we drove on like that, laughing. We all felt so wonderful. Can you understand?"

Cliff was batting a tennis ball around from the time he was old enough to walk, but George Richey was more inclined to laugh at the chubby kid's efforts than to pressure him into playing the game. Cliff actually gave up tennis when he was 8; he took it up again when he was about 12 upon discovering that his school tennis team took auto trips to matches. Cliff and Nancy's dedication has increased steadily in recent years—which is rarely the case with truly force-fed child athletes. For example, Nancy dates hardly at all now, while the earliest recollection many of the girls on the circuit have of her is seeing her show up at the junior tournaments with her steady's high school ring flapping from a chain around her neck.

Cliff used to go steady, too. "It was very heavy," Mrs. Richey says. "He brought her perfume from Paris." Ham Richardson, still the country's seventh-ranked player though he spends most of his time as a Dallas stockbroker, is Cliff's favorite and most formidable hometown opponent. Richardson tells this story: "Last year I was playing Cliff, and he was not concentrating, which is, of course, extremely unusual. I won two sets from him and offered to play him one more. This astonished him, because usually I am the one who quits first. He got very red and grimaced and said that he wasn't sure he could. Cliff didn't say so, but I know he had a date. Finally he mumbled something between his teeth, ran inside the club, called up and broke the date. I can't fool around with girls,' he told me. 'Girls are nothing but trouble for a guy.' I don't think he has had a date since then." (He has not.)

On the circuit Nancy and Cliff spend most of their time together. They keep strict training, up at 9, in bed by 11. In between there is practice and matches. Seldom indeed do they bother with social functions. Nancy is thus something of an unknown quantity to her touring companions, and although she is never abrasive, the way Cliff can be, the other girls let her go her chosen way, playing and talking tennis with her brother.

She is petite, only 5 feet 3, with auburn hair, delicate skin and the intense look of her father. But there are three things that everybody says (in order) about Nancy Richey: she is sweet, she is domesticated and she will make somebody a good wife. And these are things that also describe her mother.

Betty Richey can be as frank as her husband, but she has tact and grace. She is a kind, sensitive woman and even those who dislike George Richey and his methods take pains to find fault with Betty only because of her choice of husband. When she moved from Electra, Texas to San Angelo Junior College, where she met her husband, she knew nothing of tennis. Today she is her husband's assistant, teaching beginners and helping to run the tennis shop at Brook Hollow. Despite their devotion to a sport, however, both Mrs. Richey and her daughter remain refreshingly feminine, content in the old southern style to be overshadowed by the men in the family. George Richey or Cliff will often interrupt either of the women, even when one of them is trying to explain something as personal as her emotions.

Not surprisingly, Nancy rarely creates any sort of public commotion. The one exception is her fondness for wearing shorts instead of a skirt when she is playing. Writing in World Tennis magazine last year about the Italian championships, Correspondent Gloria Butler suggested that mass Italian male apoplexy had been occasioned by Miss Richey's unfeminine apparel. "Nancy was a curiosity to the Italians," the article said. "They are very woman conscious and they just could not understand how such a pretty girl could ruin herself by wearing unbecoming clothes. The face is adorable, but she wears a floppy hat which hides it, a T-shirt and long Bermuda shorts which emphasize the wrong part of her anatomy."

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