Throwback Thursday: The Rise of Renee Richards

39 years ago this week, transgender tennis player Renee Richards was barred from participating in the U.S. Open after refusing to take a chromosome test.

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Aug 27 2015, 2:12pm

PHOTO: PA IMAGES

She may not have appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair - at least not yet - but Renee Richards was among the original trailblazers for transgender athletes. 39 years ago today, on August 27, 1976, she was barred from participating in the U.S. Open after refusing to take a chromosome test to confirm her gender. Richards had transitioned to a female the previous year and believed there were no grounds to take such a test.

This would lead her to gain a level of fame she had never wanted, and eventually play one of the greatest female players of the era.

Born Richard Raskind in 1934 and assigned male at birth, she was a promising athlete in her youth, becoming a member of her school's football and baseball teams, as well as a talented tennis player and swimmer. She later attended Yale University, where she was captain of the men's tennis team, and then became an ophthalmologist (a specialist eye doctor, if you've never been).

Richards had been cross-dressing since college. However with attitudes towards transsexualism and knowledge of it far less developed she largely hid this, and battled depression as a result.

During the mid-60s Richards seriously considered travelling to Africa for gender reassignment surgery. However she made a late decision to back out, returning to New York and later marrying the model Barbara Mole, with whom she fathered a son. During this time she continued to enjoy a successful amateur tennis career.

Richards and Barbara divorced after five years of marriage. In the early '70s Richards finally made the decision to transition to a female, successfully doing so in 1975. After this she moved to California where she continued working as an ophthalmologist.

None of this affected her enthusiasm for tennis. In 1975 she started playing on the amateur women's circuit, but it was here that she began to attract attention, with her status as a transgender woman becoming public.

"My world kind of blew up on me when people found out who I was," she told the BBC's Sporting Witness programme this year. The initial reaction was that she enjoyed a physical advantage over her opponents.

"Of course men are stronger and hit the ball harder, but there are variables there, too," she said. "Serena Williams sometimes hits her serve at greater than 120mph and some of the men don't serve as hard as 120mph."

In 1976, by now aged 42, she applied to play in U.S. Open. Initially she had not wanted to be placed in the spotlight, but when this was turned down her approach changed.

"I never had any intention of playing in the U.S. Open as a pro — I was a practicing eye surgeon! But, when they said 'you're not going to be allowed to play in the U.S. Open as a pro,' that changed everything, because I said you can't tell me what I can and cannot do. I'm a woman and if I wanna play in the U.S. Open as a woman pro, I'm gonna do it."

Richards's next step was to sue the American tennis authorities on the grounds of gender discrimination. The odds appeared to be against her, but when the case came to court her counsel were able to produce a single star witness: Billie Jean King.

"She said she had met me and that I was a woman and that I was entitled to play. And that was it, so we won.

"It was very dramatic, and we all went out and got drunk after we got the verdict!"

But despite being endorsed by the 12-time Grand Slam champion, Richards still faced significant prejudice.

"I had death threats. I had people tell me I was immoral. There were some players who walked off the court when I played them or they wouldn't play me at all.

"Gradually a lot of those that had been against me in the beginning ended up being very good friends of mine."

Her journey culminated at the following year's U.S. Open, when Richards played Virginia Wade in the opening round of women's singles. As a former U.S. Open winner and the reigning Wimbledon champion, Wade was among the biggest names of the time.

"No matter how much good tennis I'd played as an amateur, there's nothing that compares to playing as a pro on centre court in the U.S. Open," Richards recalled.

Unsurprisingly Wade won out, cruising through the first set 6-1, though Richards provided a sterner test in the second, which ended 6-4 to the Brit.

But her singles efforts were eclipsed by her performance in the doubles. Playing with Betty-Ann Stuart, she reached the tournament's final, only losing out to the duo of Martina Navratilova and Betty Stöve.

"I was up there but I wasn't at the very top," Richards later reflected.

Her achievements on and off the court are nonetheless impressive. She played on until 1981, winning the 35 and over singles title at the U.S. Open in 1979. She later acted as Navratilova's coach, working with the Czech-born player during two Wimbledon titles. She has since returned to eye surgery and is still practicing in her 80s.