At first, it seemed like a put-on. A transsexual tennis player? A 6'2" former football end in frilly panties and gold hoop earrings pounding serves past defenseless girls? A 42-year-old Yale graduate, Navy veteran, devoted father and respected eye surgeon reaching the semifinals of the $60,000 Tennis Week Open in South Orange, N.J. and demanding to play in the U.S. Open at Forest Hills? In women's singles? Who ever heard of such a thing?
In the past month, practically everyone. And certainly last week there was no escaping the extraordinary spectacle of Renee Richards, nee Richard Raskind, and her assertion that "anatomically, functionally, socially, emotionally and legally I am a female." While conceding that her action might be "mind-boggling," Richards proclaims that she is embarked on a crusade for human rights, a quest "to prove that transsexuals as well as other persons who are fighting social stigmas can hold their heads up high."
If tennis seems a rather fragile or inappropriate vehicle for carrying such a weighty message, it nonetheless provides, as Richards is well aware, the kind of exposure that attracts disciples. After one match last week, Dr. Roberto Granato, the urologist who performed the "sex-reassignment operation" on Richards a year ago, rushed onto the court, embraced his former patient and exclaimed, "Oh, Renee, this is going to help so many people!"
Not everyone is so enthralled. When the Richards controversy surfaced, the U.S. Tennis Association countered by requiring that all women entrants in the U.S. Open take a sex chromosome test, a standard that Richards rejects as "inconclusive at best." USTA President Stan Malless says, "It's all a joke to some people, but it really isn't funny. Everything's being publicized from Dr. Richards' point of view, and I'll bet she/he has a book half written already. Publicity-wise you couldn't ask for more."
The revelation that Richards' Hollywood lawyer, Greg Bautzer, is indeed peddling a book by Richards does not enhance her crusader's image. Still, the fact that there is a body of opinion, both legal and medical, that not only supports her stand but also could have an impact on all sports, dissuades any inclination to dismiss Richards as a self-promoting exhibitionist.
At the Orange Lawn Tennis Club last week, reactions to Richards' crusade seemed to ricochet about like volleys across the sex barrier, veering from astonishment to suspicion, sympathy, resentment and, more often than not, utter confusion.
Caroline Stoll, a tiny 15-year-old who agreed to play in the Tennis Week Open after 25 of the 32 women players dropped out to protest Richards' appearance, got closest to the nitty-gritty. While walking off the court after losing to Richards in three sets, she looked up at her towering opponent and boldly asked, "Are you in it for the money?" "That's absurd, Caroline," said Renee. "I make $100,000 a year as an eye surgeon. Would you change your sex for $1 million?"
Later, after joining Richards at a press conference, the teen-ager voiced the one general sentiment that prevailed throughout the tournament. "Wow!" she exclaimed. "Did you see those forearms? That's where she gets all that power and spin on her serves. It's unfair."
How unfair was obviously very much the issue (how many would have bothered to complain if Richards had been a transsexual midget with a gimpy backhand?), yet it was an issue that many women players seemed reluctant to contemplate. After all, as the foremost champions of equal rights in sports, how would it look if the WTA firebrands suddenly changed their rallying cry from YOU'VE COME A LONG WAY, BABY to YOU'VE GONE TOO FAR, RENEE? The usually outspoken Billie Jean King, for one, wasn't speaking out on this subject; incommunicado all week, her silence said more about the sensitivity of the subject than any words could convey. For one thing, if she did comment adversely on Richards' intrusion, some cynic would surely point out that Bobby Riggs' sex did not prevent King from playing him for the right amount of money.
Those WTA women who did speak were often in sharp disagreement. "By law, Renee is a woman," said Gladys Heldman, the founding mother of the women's pro circuit. "She has all the rights of a woman, except in tennis. Should she have to compete against men? Of course not. Then what's she supposed to do?" Rosie Casals countered, "As far as I'm concerned, Richards is still physically a man and that gives her a tremendous and unfair advantage. This has got to be stopped. Tennis is my profession, and this is a threat to it."