Richards would rather listen to Ilie Nastase. "That crazy maniac Romanian said it all," she declared. What Nastase said was, "If she wears a dress, why not? Now you see how strong the woman players are. She could be their mother, yet they complain. They're afraid."
Partly, it is a fear of the unknown. Since 1972, when Richards was ranked sixth nationally in the men's 35-and-over division, her weight has dropped from 180 to 147 pounds, mostly because of a loss of muscle. Though the female hormone, estrogen, that she takes has further reduced her strength, quickness and endurance, no one can accurately assess how much and to what extent her game has been diminished. Gene Scott, chairman of the Tennis Week Open and the doctor's frequent opponent over the past 15 years, says, "Basically, Dick Raskind never played the power game as a man. But the motion of her serve has changed now, and her mobility is nowhere near what it was."
That was achingly clear in the opening round when Richards shut out a jittery Cathy Beene in the first set, but then, panting and perspiring in the 90� heat, had to ward off near exhaustion to win 6-2. Against Caroline Stoll, Richards was much crisper in her attack, but seemed to occasionally dally before she finished off the youngster 6-2, 0-6, 6-1.
The suspicion that Richards was holding back, playing only as hard as she needed to, was confirmed in many players' minds when she met Kathy Harter in the third round. Once ranked fifth in the U.S., the lanky Californian pressed Richards from the outset, and the doctor responded with her strongest shots, a crackling topspin backhand, a deadly volley and, when she needed it, a flat, hard serve. And Richards needed it, especially in the second-set tie breaker; she finally won 6-4, 7-6.
Watching the match, Linda Thomas, one of the quarterfinalists, said that she had been reading up on transsexualism to better understand the issues—and her possible opponent. After watching Richards hit one of several backhand zingers down the line, she said, "What woman have you ever seen hit a shot like that? Each day she comes out with something new. She's definitely not showing us all she's got."
But in the semifinals, when Richards had to give all that she had, it was not enough. In a duel in the sun that lasted more than two hours, her invincibility gradually drained away like a melting Popsicle. Deftly working her from side to side and setting her up for drop shots, 17-year-old Lea Antonopolis figured that the quarter of a century in age difference would take its toll. And so it did, as the score reflected: 6-7, 6-3, 6-0. Leaving the court to a stirring ovation, Richards was suddenly just one of the girls. That she was not even one of the better girls was reconfirmed the next day when 18-year-old Marise Kruger, a South African who has never been heralded as the next Chrissie or Billie Jean, blew Antonopolis aside in the finals 6-3, 6-2.
After the Antonopolis match, Richards denied that she had ever had an advantage over the other players in the tournament—although allowing that if she were a 22-year-old transsexual, "Then you'd have a very tough thing to deal with, but my feeling is that that's her advantage and she's entitled to it. All good athletes have some physical superiority. That's what makes champions—advantages."
Richards' childhood advantage was that she grew up playing tennis in Forest Hills, N.Y., "the only place," she ironically notes, "that doesn't recognize my rights." In high school she played end on the football team, swam the backstroke and was the leading hitter and pitcher on the baseball team. "Once," she recalls, "after I pitched a no-hitter and then relieved in another game and struck out the side on nine pitches, the pro scouts were knocking my door down."
Yet as long as she can remember, Richards says, "I wanted to be a girl. I dressed up in my mother's dresses and when I went to bed I'd pray to be a girl." At Yale, where she played on the tennis team, Richards says she became expert at "overcompensating to conform to society's image of the macho male."
A graduate of the University of Rochester Medical School in 1959, Richards set up practice in Manhattan. She continued playing tennis, winning the New York State clay-court title in 1964. Two years later she went to Casablanca because "that was the only place they were doing sex-change surgery then." But dissatisfied with the medical standards there, she left and lived in Europe as a woman for one year—a preparation that is required by most sex clinics.