More Than a Game

RENÉE RICHARDS, eighty-seven, has admitted she has some regrets. Among them is that she never pitched for the New York Yankees, a job MLB scouts once seemed to think she had a real shot at.

Her contributions to the sports landscape, though, ended up being far greater than a few years in pinstripes. Had she played for the Yankees, she might never have had a sex change (her preferred term). Had she never had a sex change, she never would’ve had to fight tennis officials for a spot in the women’s draw of the 1977 US Open.

In Richards’s two autobiographies, Second Serve and No Way Renée, published in 1983 and 2007, respectively, she offers a glimpse into what it was like being a transsexual (also her term) in the 1970s—a time when trans people were met with derision, if they were acknowledged at all—even as it seems she’d rather be writing about almost anything else. The books, cowritten with John Ames, offer no easy answers about trans inclusion in athletics. Richards, also a world-renowned eye surgeon, doesn’t attempt to position herself as a comfortable, straightforward avatar of the trans-rights movement in sports.

As Richards, often a slippery interviewee, told GQ in 2015, “​​My life is bigger than one data point. I’m a doctor, a surgeon, a Naval officer, a Yale graduate, a tennis champion. I’m many things.”

She is not, she would like you to know, anyone’s transsexual role model.

But reading Richards’s memoirs today, it’s impossible not to set them against the backdrop of our current moment in sports: transgender athletes are fighting for their right to compete in the midst of an onslaught of anti-trans sports bans that have passed in fifteen states and counting since 2020.

These bans, pushed largely by conservative state legislators, affect mostly but not exclusively trans girls and women, preventing them from competing in girls’ and women’s sports from the middle school through college levels, depending on the state. A handful of states also prevent trans boys and men from competing in boys’ and men’s sports.

In states such as Idaho, Tennessee, Florida, and West Virginia, athletes are pushing back, suing alongside groups like the ACLU, Human Rights Campaign, and Lambda Legal for the right to compete, to stay fit, to unwind with their friends, to have fun after school. They’re being painted by anti-trans legislators—who swear they’re protecting Title IX—as fighting to destroy their competition and take scholarship spots away from cisgender athletes. In reality, these legislators have turned the livelihoods of trans athletes into a wedge issue used to score political points.

University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas competed in women’s events in her senior season after transitioning earlier in her collegiate career. She won one race, the five-hundred-yard freestyle, at the NCAA championships in March. She lost two others. She set no records. For months leading up to the event, she was the focus of scrutiny by those who believe she should not have been allowed to compete. Michael Phelps called for the need for a “level playing field.” Papers like the Daily Mailtracked her every move, even reporting on her supposed habits in the women’s locker room by sourcing accounts from anonymous teammates.

One of the most prominent of Thomas’s adversaries was one of the greatest tennis players of all time: Martina Navratilova. Over the 1970s and ’80s, she racked up eighteen Grand Slam singles titles. Navratilova is a founding member of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, which, in its own words, rejects “the effort to disadvantage females by forcing them to compete against some trans athletes with male sex-linked physical advantages,” while also claiming to not want to exclude trans athletes from competition.

An entire chapter of No Way Renée, which elsewhere resorts to simply rehashing Second Serve, is devoted to chronicling thewarm professional relationship between Navratilova and Richards. The latter coached the former to several of her major wins on the tour over the years. Richards has stood by her, using scientific-sounding language to back up Navratilova’s anti-trans views.

“It is just biology. Men have 10 times the amount of testosterone that normal women have,” Richards told Sports Illustrated in 2019 in support of her famous pupil, who had been removed as an ambassador from the queer advocacy group Athlete Ally. “Now you want to get rid of that testosterone? O.K., but then it is going to take a couple of years for that to equilibrate. And men still have a larger frame with a larger cardiac output, a larger lung capacity.” Never mind that the available research on trans athletes is slim.

But reading Second Serve, even with her complicated present-day views top of mind, it’s hard not to find Richards likable.The book is dotted with volleys of dry humor (e.g., “Believe me, I have great respect for the resiliency of the human penis”). Of her Prentice Cup experience in Europe with fellow Yale and Harvard players, she writes, “The point was not simply to play tennis but also to broaden the outlooks of the graduating collegians. My chief broadening came in the form of a comparison of English prostitutes as opposed to French ones.”

Beyond the quips, the parts of Second Serve that center on actual tennis are clear-eyed and illuminating. It’s not often we hear directly from trans athletes about how their bodies have changed—and how they feel about those changes (and it’s not something owed to us as either fans or readers). Richards writes about the freedom she felt, after starting hormones, wearing sleeveless dresses without the definition of her various arm muscles embarrassing her. She estimates that after six months on hormones, she had retained four-fifths of her previous strength.

Richards also makes clear that sports can be seen as a privilege reserved for cisgender people. Everyone under the sun warned her against competing after her sex change, though she had been a fierce competitor in the men’s game. “If you want to remain anonymous, stay away from tennis,” her friend told her. “There isn’t a player in the country who wouldn’t recognize that crazy windup on your forehand side.” So she resolved to give up the sport after starting a new chapter of her life in Newport Beach, California, even though John Wayne’s tennis club was right by her apartment, beckoning.

That resolve didn’t last, of course. Richards couldn’t resist first practicing with her club, then competing in local tournaments. Sure, she recalls thinking, she took some hormones and underwent a surgery. Why should that mean she couldn’t access a sport she’d loved all her life? A sport where she’d felt safe and sane?

She paid the price for her boldness after daring to enter a more prominent tournament in La Jolla, getting outed by none other than the father of Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson. Soon enough, tennis officials were saying Richards wasn’t allowed to compete in the US Open without passing a chromosome test, even before she had expressed a desire to play.

So she hired Roy Cohn—best known for assisting Joseph McCarthy’s investigations of suspected communists and for mentoring Donald Trump—as her attorney and filed a groundbreaking lawsuit. She won, and then she lost in the 1977 tournament, bowing out in women’s singles in the first round to Virginia Wade, but making it to the finals in women’s doubles with Betty Ann Grubb Stuart. It was, unmistakably, a triumph.

“My fight for recognition and much of Renée’s tennis career can be seen as her adolescence, full of the risk taking and extravagant behavior that youngsters often exhibit,” she reflects in No Way Rénee. (In both books Richards dabbles in the third person to differentiate between her past selves, as she sees them.) Elsewhere in the book, she writes, “Though I am glad that I stood up for my rights and became an inspiration to many disenfranchised people, I regret many of the effects of that decision. . . . I regret the animosity and negativity I caused in the world of tennis.”

There’s that word again: regret. It’s clear that Richards is reluctant to write it. What’s transpired in the decades after her lawsuit is, indeed, complicated. She holds beliefs that don’t jibe with many trans people’s views today: she thinks gender is a binary. She thinks some people don’t make good women when they transition. She has stood by Navratilova. She even told writer Emily Bazelon that had she transitioned earlier in life, she likely would’ve unfairly crushed the women’s tour.

Richards does not think she is perfect, and she isn’t. She won’t let herself become the face of trans inclusion in sports. Then again, when you consider how poorly trans people are treated in sports, can you blame her?

Julie Kliegman is Sports Illustrated’s copy chief. Her book Mind Game: An Inside Look at the Mental Health Playbook of Elite Athletes is forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield.