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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It is true that Nancy's outfit is hardly what you would call beguiling, but it is functional and, as such, it is Nancy. It is also the Richeys. Mr. Richey himself designed and sells the hats ("mesh panels on the side of the crown for coolness and air circulation"), and Nancy gave up on the fetching little swishy skirts for reasons even more utilitarian: she likes to keep the extra ball in her pocket and sometimes she has caught her racket in her skirt.

The rest of Nancy's court manner draws little attention, because her excellence is so mechanical. She appears to be a player constructed, a wind-up doll. While playing she is mute, a bundle of combative pugnacity. She speaks not at all to her opponent, no matter how well she may know the girl, and emits only unladylike grunts—"oomm"—nearly every time she hits a ball. She looks over at her parents less than Cliff does when he is playing, but her gaze is more painful and beseeching, as if she were trying to communicate on some new level. The other girls on the circuit believe that Nancy must have her father in attendance to play her best, and Nancy herself admits that she is happier now that Cliff is traveling with her. (Of his father's omnipresence Cliff says frankly: "Sometimes you realize that he is a crutch you don't need.")

On the court Nancy seldom ventures from the baseline, stroking the ball perfectly, boom, "oomm," again and again. Because her ground strokes are nearly flawless, she plays her best tennis on slow surfaces such as clay, where the stress is off the serve and volley. Having improved her volley and overhead, Nancy now comes to the net with more confidence and regularity. After four years of being ranked near the top, she attained the No. 1 U.S. ranking in 1964, and she is well on her way to retaining it for 1965.

To become the world's top woman player, however, Nancy must improve her performance on grass. She has never progressed beyond the quarter-finals at Wimbledon or the semis at Forest Hills, and you don't become No. 1 like that. But her all-round play has never been better than this year, and on clay and composition surfaces she has consistently beaten the three women ranked ahead of her: Maria Bueno (1-1), Margaret Smith (3-1) and Lesley Turner (3-1).

Nancy's climb to the top should be helped as attrition works on those above her. Miss Bueno is 25 now and has been ill again this year (she was out of competitive tennis for a year with hepatitis). The two Australian girls are increasingly less interested in the pursuit of tennis balls. Nancy, however, loves the tennis life more than ever and is quite content to do Cliff's laundry while waiting for that somebody to be a good wife to.

"Nancy took every home economics course there was at Southern Methodist and then left," Mrs. Richey says. "She is very domesticated. She can cook, and she sews quite well. I wish Cliff would have some other interest. When he was a little boy he used to play the guitar, and we'd like to get him to do that again. Now he just has nothing but tennis.

"He's so intense that it's—well, it's scary. You ought to see his notebooks. It's no wonder he didn't do as well in school as he should have. Why, every page is just lists of players that he beat and their records."

Cliff is no longer in school, still lacking more than a year to graduate from Highland Park High, the suburban Dallas alma mater of Doak Walker and Bobby Layne. Cliff was taken out of school for the spring semester last year and then again this spring. But this time there are no real plans for him to go back, though there is idle talk of correspondence courses.

His quitting is something that obviously concerns Mrs. Richey, and she admits that this was one thing done in the name of tennis that bothered her. "But school was so difficult for him," she concedes. "We would pick Cliff up at school in the afternoon and get on the courts about 5 or so. Of course, we always had to wait until the members had gone. Then we would practice till about 7, when we would go home. I would cook the dinner while they all took showers. It was very easy for me to fix—a steak, potatoes, and I would make a salad. I asked George once if we shouldn't have something different, but they all said, 'Why change?'

"By the time we finished dinner it would be 9:30 or so. That was when Cliff should study, but he just couldn't do it then, because he was so tired. My, for a long time he had some very bad tension headaches. Oh, I'd try to get him to study after dinner, but he'd be so tired then, and that's when he'd break all up and start crying."

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