Friday, January 28, 2022

Acing Depression



Acing Depression, a tennis champion’s toughest fight, a new autobiography from former pro tennis star Cliff Richey, begins with a bang. In the first few pages of the book, Richey’s daughter Hilaire Richey Kallendorf offers an observation that cuts to the bone: “My sisters and I agree that our father, famous celebrity or not, was among the top few flaming assholes of all time.” Kallendorf continues, “I remember the drunken rages, inevitably followed by a depressive stupor. To this day, I wake up with a panicky feeling in my stomach, afraid at some subconscious level that he’s going to yell at me for something I did not do.”

Richey, the hot-headed bad boy from Texas, has written a compelling story about his life on the professional tennis tour and his ongoing battle with depression. His exploits on the professional tennis circuit are colorful and sometimes entertaining, but it is his endless battle to understand his moods, both on and off the court, that make this book a must-read for any tennis enthusiast. Dating back to my own days as a ball-boy, I knew both Cliff and his sister Nancy Richey because the two of them played in the United States Clay Court Championships at our home club in Milwaukee. One of my sharpest memories of the Richey family was their relentless approach to practicing: after a short break on the practice court, brother Cliff would reach for a big grocery bag of tennis balls, then proceed to strike “hundreds” of ground strokes until not a single ball remained in the bag. Rarely was a word spoken and it appeared that the brother-sister combo was not having any fun, as no one smiled for the entire hitting session.

On another occasion, my father, the Player-Personnel Director, was summoned to the Town Club locker room to meet with Cliff after a tough defeat. Tournament officials had heard a rumor that the fiery Richey was bolting the tournament, even though he was scheduled to play doubles with Arthur Ashe. My father spent three long hours convincing young Cliff that he had an obligation to fulfill, and it was simply not acceptable to walk out on it. To my father’s relief, Cliff agreed to stay in town to

Doug Browne, with Steve Martin in Newport this summer. Submitted photos

Doug Browne, with Steve Martin in Newport this summer. Submitted photos

play doubles with Lieutenant Arthur Ashe. But on the court, Cliff often was unable to control his explosive temper. The score didn’t matter; it was the imperfection that drove young Cliff to explode like a lit firecracker. Life inside the Richey household, which the young Cliff dubbed “Richey, Inc,” gives readers a glimpse into the pressure the young player faced. Cliff says, “‘Richey, Inc.” is my retrospective name for a creed and an enterprise. It entailed inordinate success, a strong work ethic, fidelity in marriage, and a conservative approach to finances.” Richey’s father, George, was a struggling club tennis pro, and the family lived a meager existence, at times living in poor neighborhoods. The stigma of this challenged Cliff as a child and he was subjected to bullying from kids who lived down the street near his home. Both parents had high expectations for their kids, and as Cliff began to play tennis, his father was determined to build a champion. Dad quickly realized that his son had a greater talent than he did, and he started to push young Cliff to maximize his abilities. Quickly, Cliff began to win enough big events to move to the professional tour. Once on the circuit, Cliff met the love of his life, Mickie, and they soon married. To save money, the newlyweds moved in with Cliff’s parents. But as Cliff traveled the world, playing as many as eleven tournaments in a three-month span, his emotional life began to spiral out of control. Now that Richey was almost constantly separated from Mickie and his new family and unable to cope with bad losses, his depression started to take a toll. Ironically, it took an observant dermatologist to diagnose his depression, and almost as soon as Richey began taking an antidepressant, he began to see his life turn around. Today, Cliff says philosophically, “Excellent can be the enemy of good. When I made a come-back on the senior tour, I changed my thinking to: ‘Bring it on. I’m man enough to lose.’” With Cliff’s tenacious attitude, he knows that he can battle depression and lead a truly fulfilling life. Whether one is an athlete or not, Richey’s book is a treasure because it captures the true heroism of turning a life of trouble into a life of triumph.

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