Acing Depression: A Tennis Champion's Toughest Match

Acing Depression: A Tennis Champion's Toughest Match

by Cliff Richey, Hilaire Richey Kallendorf

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Before there was John McEnroe and llie Nastase, the original "Bad Boy" of tennis was Cliff Richey. His career was highlighted by a 1970 season where he led the United States to the Davis Cup title, finished as the first-ever Grand Prix world points champion and won one of the most exciting matches in American tennis history that clinched the year-end No. 1 U.S.

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Before there was John McEnroe and llie Nastase, the original "Bad Boy" of tennis was Cliff Richey. His career was highlighted by a 1970 season where he led the United States to the Davis Cup title, finished as the first-ever Grand Prix world points champion and won one of the most exciting matches in American tennis history that clinched the year-end No. 1 U.S. ranking. However, the tantrums and boorish behavior simply served as a mask for his internal struggle with clinical depression. During his darkest days, Richey would place black trash bags over the windows of his house, stay in bed all day and cry. With the same determination that earned him the nickname "The Bull," Richey fought against his depression-the-toughest opponent of his life. Through 10 years of recovery, with the aid of antidepressant medication, he began to feel well for the first time. The fight is not over, he says, but he encourages those suffering from depression: never give up. Acing Depression: A Tennis Champion's Toughest Match lends a personal face to an epidemic disease that afflicts one in 20 Americans. Penned with passion and candor, this memoir is a deeply human story of nightmare and redemption.

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Editorial Reviews

San Angelo Standard Times
Enlightening, highly entertaining, extremely informative, humorous, oftentimes melancholy and downright gross at times.
Psychology Today
An inspiring story of how a man can still make meaning out of even the most savage and unrelenting depression . . . an entertaining yet serious read.
Long Island Tennis Magazine
A compelling portrait . . . a testament to one man's struggle against mental illness.
From the Publisher

"Cliff Richey brings to you an insight that will benefit not only those that battle depression, but people that face difficulties every day. A champion in every sense of the word, Cliff puts you on and off the court with his challenges. A must read for all."  —Johnny Bench, member, Baseball Hall of Fame

"An inspiring story of how a man can still make meaning out of even the most savage and unrelenting depression . . . an entertaining yet serious read."  —Psychology Today

"The Richeys inspired a whole generation of kids to believe in themselves and strive for excellence. Cliff's story gives people hope when life has dealt them darkness."  —Lynn Rutland, executive director, MHMR

"Cliff Richey approaches his recovery from depression with great passion and determination. He provides hope and understanding through this powerful memoir."  —Lynn Lasky Clark, president and CEO, Mental Health America of Texas

"Enlightening, highly entertaining, extremely informative, humorous, oftentimes melancholy and downright gross at times."  —San Angelo Standard Times

"Real men do get depression—even champion athletes. Cliff’s story is an inspiration to all those who are battling mental illnesses and a wake-up call to the public." —Jackie Shannon, past president, The National Alliance on Mental Illness

"A compelling portrait . . . a testament to one man's struggle against mental illness."  —Long Island Tennis Magazine

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Acing Depression

A Tennis Champion's Toughest Match

By Cliff Richey, Hilaire Richey Kallendorf

New Chapter Press

Copyright © 2015 Cliff Richey and Hilaire Richey Kallendorf
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-942257-66-3


Sudden Death Victory

Saturday, October 3, 1970. The famous "Sudden Death" match. Incredible as it may seem, the No. 1 tennis ranking in the United States rested on a single point. I was playing against Stan Smith at the Berkeley Tennis Club near San Francisco, California. The score was four points all, six games all in the fifth set.

It's the only match I ever played where there was a simultaneous match point for both players. It can't happen any more because they don't use that kind of tiebreaker now. The nine-point tiebreaker was called "sudden death." I always enjoyed playing "sudden death" tiebreakers, myself. I kind of liked them. I guess I've always liked to live on the edge.

We all knew the No. 1 ranking was up for grabs until the very end. Stan had beaten me two matches to one that year. But I had had a better year over all, and we were both ahead of all the other players. I felt like if I could beat him one more time, I would be ranked No. 1 in the country.

Stan and I had an emotional rivalry. We really didn't like each other that well. We had high respect for one another, but I just hated losing to that guy. And vice versa. It was probably as much that as worrying about the ranking.

My sister Nancy, who was the top-ranked American woman herself in 1964, 1965, 1968 and 1969, helped me with my serve the day before. For most matches in general, I would not go out and practice my serve that way. But we both knew exactly what that match meant. She knew and I knew. I remember trying to wind myself up to go out there the next day. Stan had a serve-and-volley, attacking style of play. I was more defensive with my playing style.

The match was on hard court. Everyone knew that the surface favored Stan. But I was better on fast surfaces than people gave me credit for. Nonetheless, the perception was that I was invading his bailiwick, his backyard. I knew I had to get a high percentage of first serves in. I needed to feel comfortable with my serve.

So Nancy and I went out the afternoon before to work on it. I got a basket of 40-50 used balls. I practiced my serve for at least an hour and a half. I knew I was running the risk of ending up the next day with a dead arm. But in my mind, if I had a bad day serving the next day, I would not win. My serve had never been my biggest strength.

In my characteristically obsessive way, I hit at least 200 practice serves that afternoon before. Nancy acted as another pair of eyes. She knew my game. What I tended to work on. I'd ask her if the toss looked high enough or if my shoulders were rotating into the court. She was an enormous help to me that day.

Going into the match, my mental state was good. I was coming down off of an unbelievably good year. I had won eight of the 26 tournaments I entered and was in the finals of five more. I was in the semifinals of eight or nine more still, including the French and U.S. Opens. A fellow player came up to me at the end of that year and asked, "Cliff, do you know how good of a year you just had?"

But as good as the year was, it was tiring. I don't care if you're young, you can still get tired. If you take just the one month leading up to that match, it was exhausting. Nonetheless, I had a lot of confidence. Emotionally, I was up.

So now we had just one more point to play. I missed my first serve. I threw in a little chicken-shit second serve. It was just a hit and a hope. The first order of business was just somehow to get the ball in the court. I came to the net off of that serve. He hit the return of serve. And then he came to the net! So we were both at the net! I dived for a backhand volley. I did a 360-degree turn. I just instinctually went for where I thought the ball was going to be. Stan thought he had passed me on the last shot, but I reached out and hit a winner. I hit a winning forehand volley. He still thinks it bounced off the wood frame of my racquet. I disagree. It certainly doesn't matter now. ... And then it was over. I was No. 1.

Stan recalls that right after that, I sort of went into a trance for about five minutes after shaking hands. I was in that "zone" people talk about. It was like I kind of flipped out or something. I was beside myself with excitement. I went back over to him and gave him a hug. After four hours, the winning score was 7-6, 6-7, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (5-4).

It was not my destiny for that to be my only "sudden death" experience. With emotional illness, a swift spiral downward can also seem like a "sudden death." I used to say to Dad, "I'm the most blessed person I know. I ought to be the happiest person in the world. What's wrong with me?" Dad would point to the wall and ask, "Don't those trophies mean anything to you?" I would say, "No, they mock me."

Perhaps I didn't adjust well mentally as I went along. Eddie Marinaro, the football player, once said to me, "You've got the successful man's disease." When you have trophies hanging on the wall and a nice bank account and a nice house and no debts, but you still aren't happy, you have to realize the problem might be with you.

I made it to the top in tennis in all age divisions — midgets to seniors. I had major breakdowns all in between. While playing 1,500 tennis matches in 500 tournaments, I was like a fair-haired person who gets skin cancer from staying out in the sun too long. Genetically, I was predisposed for what happened, but circumstances also combined to produce my condition.

When I won that "sudden death" victory, I was at the top of my game. I had no idea at that point that I was already emotionally sick. I would have scoffed at the idea if someone had told me then, when I was 23, that my next 40 years would bear the stamp of clinical depression.


Night Terrors

You get these reactions from people when you start talking about your depression. They don't want to hear about it. Don't want to know about it. I'm just wanting to say, "You don't know me." Depression has formed me in so many ways but nobody wants to acknowledge that part of who I am. They want to talk about my tennis career. But they don't want to talk about my depression. You want to be known for who you really are. I'm a depressed person. It's not a choice!

I was born on New Year's Eve, 1946, in San Angelo, Texas, in the middle of a blizzard. That was almost like an omen or something. It never snows in the desert of West Texas! But somehow, in my case, that almost seemed appropriate. As it turned out, my subsequent life and career would be about as unusual as — well, as a snow storm in the West Texas desert.

I had a happy childhood, albeit a short one. I did typical things up until the time I was 12. My career started early in life. So childhood for me was everything before that.

I don't remember sleeping in a cardboard box as a baby — but it happened. Our little house was nothing but a cardboard box itself. It didn't matter to me. I never felt deprived as a kid. I didn't perceive myself as living in poverty. I always had enough to eat. I had two parents who loved me and an older sister. I also had plenty of neighborhood kids to play with. Life was good.

My sister Nancy has memories of growing up on a chicken farm. Six months after I was born, we moved to Houston. We lived there until I was 11. During the summers we would sometimes go to upstate New York, where my dad would take short-term jobs teaching tennis. Herbie Fitzgibbon, a fellow tour player, recalls seeing me chasing frogs by the side of the tennis court at the Gypsy Trail Country Club in Mahopac, New York. I remember hitting balls against a wire fence when I was five or six years old. I don't remember a time when I didn't have a racquet in my hand.

My earliest childhood memory dates back to that same summer, 1951. We lived in a rented farmhouse. There was a summer camp for kids in the woods nearby. I got to be friendly with some of them. We stumbled onto some cigarettes. Took a few puffs. I guess Mom smelled it on my breath. I couldn't believe she had such powers to know I had been smoking! Her uncanny ability to divine when I had gotten into trouble would only grow keener in later years.

I had a pretty normal childhood. I loved goofing around with my buddies. I'd sometimes ride my bike as far as three miles from home. No one thought anything of it back then. My parents gave me pretty free rein. I used to run around wearing a coon-skin cap because I wanted to look like Davy Crockett.

Mom was a real good cook — homestyle, Southern cooking. Like buttermilk biscuits, cornbread and fried okra. My two favorite things she made were tapioca and rice pudding.

When I was very small, I didn't want to let Mom out of my sight. That was probably a natural phase little boys have. Between the ages of five and nine, I can remember messing around, playing on our gravel road there in Houston. One day she was getting in the car to go to the grocery store. I was playing with some kids. I ran over to go with her because I didn't want her to leave without me.

Dad used to give tennis lessons on some courts at the Shamrock Hotel. Mom would be tending me while he gave the lessons. To keep me occupied, she would challenge me to walk all the way around this big circle driveway. She watched carefully the entire time. It made me feel like a big grownup that I could walk the whole thing. But I probably wouldn't have done it if she had been out of my sight.

It was during those years that my mother was diagnosed with a neurosis. I remember some of it. I remember Dad would leave to go to his job as tennis pro at the Houston Country Club. It was hard for my mother to be left alone with us. She was afraid something terrible might happen. I was like five or six years old at that time. Dad wrote down the pro shop number for me in case I needed to call him. I overheard her say she didn't want him to leave.

It was just horrible for Mom to live with so much fear. I didn't have the reaction to it that you'd think. It was never like I didn't want to be around her. I loved her so much. I was unaware at the time how much anguish and misery she was in. I was too young to comprehend that part of it. A kid can't understand that kind of emotional pain. I don't remember seeing her cry very much. She certainly was never a nonfunctioning mother because of it.

She went to a psychiatrist a couple of times to find out what was wrong with her. She definitely had a breakdown of sorts. She felt like there was a long period when she was in a black pit. Her Christian faith pulled her out. She just kept hanging on to Jesus.

Maybe she was like that from when I was born. If not, I still might never have noticed the difference. I don't remember if she suddenly became ill or if she was always that way. She has always been afraid she might slip back into that darkness. So she used to say she could relate to what I have been through.

I have good memories of Dad taking me over to Moody Park in Houston, six blocks from our house. We'd go shoot beebee guns. I enjoyed that. I was a pretty good shot. In that same park, he taught me peewee league baseball. He also used to drive over there and run laps around it to stay in shape. He had weak lungs. I remember sitting in the car, watching him run.

When I was 10 years old and Dad had a job at Golf Crest Country Club, Nancy and I used to play a game on a ping pong table where we'd let the ball bounce on the floor once before hitting it back. We called it "gnip gnop," for "ping pong" spelled backwards. We'd listen to Elvis Presley on the radio while we played.

I used to get in trouble, like most kids do. Mom was the disciplinarian. She's the one who spanked me. Dad didn't like it when she did that. We'd still be at the tennis club, and she would say I was going to get a spanking when we returned home. We lived 20 minutes away. That was far worse than the actual punishment — the anticipation. I was praying for every red light!

I picked up tennis balls to earn my first bicycle. Dad would pay me a little money for picking up the balls when he gave lessons. When I had earned enough to buy the bike, I promptly quit. He was so mad!

I had won my first trophy at age eight, but I wasn't serious about tennis yet. Mom really encouraged me to get out there at least once a week just to keep whatever skill I had going. She would ask me to fill the fourth slot with her friends to play doubles. I don't think she had it in her mind necessarily that I would be a professional player. She probably just wanted me to get some exercise.

In Houston, we lived in what I would have to call, kindly, a one-room shack. It really was the premier example of a shotgun house. You could open the front door and the back door and see right through it. There was a bathroom and a little kitchen. Fairly early on, Mom and Dad built a bedroom for themselves off to the side. They later built a front sitting room where I slept on a couch which converted into a pull-out bed. Nancy slept in the middle of the house. It was a fairly good-sized property. We had a lot more land than floor space.

You didn't have to worry about crime back then, like you do these days. All the kids would just wander the neighborhood. The street wasn't even paved. Everybody had a ditch in the front yard. It was a drainage system for the rain. We used to hunt crawdads there after a storm.

The critter population wasn't limited to the outdoors, unfortunately. Inside the house we had two cockroaches we just never could seem to get rid of. Finally, Dad gave them names: Dixie and Sckockie. He said Nancy should keep them as pets, seeing as how she didn't have any friends.

We lived in a tough neighborhood. It was a typical below-middle-class area. My friend David's father was a repair man for Sears. Mr. Bowley. On one corner there was a Mexican family, the Quintanillas. A guy who lived next door to us, his name was Shorty. There was an empty lot across from us. Toward the end of when we lived there, someone built a brick house on that empty lot — 1100-1400 square feet. It looked like a palace to us. The owners left their garage door open one day. Somehow we got ahold of these persimmons and splattered them all over the garage walls. They called the cops. That was the only time I got in trouble with the police.

The friends I was running around with used to go out, stealing hubcaps. I remember them getting arrested for that. There were also whispers of marijuana use. That was a huge big deal in those days. I lived in fear of someone stealing my bicycle. I would try to hide it in the carport so it wouldn't get stolen. I think there was some trauma growing up just because we lived in a pretty rough end of town.

At my elementary school, Looscan, a lot of kids would show up with white skull caps because they had lice. Mom wanted me to switch to a school with a little better clientele. When I started fifth grade, I did change schools. The new one was much nicer.

I didn't look to big sister to defend me. But Nancy, for her part, felt protective of me. During some of those years in Houston, one of the neighborhood kids used to pick on me. Nancy saw him as a bully. She went after him and beat him up! He left me alone after that.

One night, I was having this awful dream. The only thing I remember is that I woke up, and my dad and I were sitting in his car, in the carport, on the backseat. The reason for that, he said, was that I had gone to his room in the middle of the night. He thought I was awake. I was so frightened, I felt like I had to grab him and go to the car. It was a 1954 Ford, dark blue. He didn't realize I was asleep until I woke up, sitting there, and asked him what we were doing out in the car.

My childhood night terrors might have been an early form of panic attacks. I probably had quite a few of them, but some I don't remember. The part of your brain that's experiencing it goes underground later and gets lost. One can only imagine how much it affected me at the time.

It's hard to describe the sensations you experience during a night terror. It's a nightmare. It's a dream that's just so realistic. From what I remember, night terrors are kind of like scared sleepwalking, but with your eyes open.

Kids are more prone to night terrors than adults. I had quite a few of them over a period of about a year and a half when I was seven or eight years old when we were living in Houston. They would usually happen within an hour of when I went to sleep. Some were not as frightening as others. I don't remember the story content of the terror. I think I probably walked in my sleep quite a bit.

The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy says night terrors are an indication of extreme anxiety. Maybe the night terrors were a sign of sublimated fear. Was I afraid of getting beaten up by neighborhood bullies? I have no idea. And then, one day, they subsided just as quickly as they had come on.

Before we left Houston, my best childhood friend, David, came over and said goodbye to me. I remember watching him walk away. That was pretty hard.

Some 30 years later, I drove back to that same neighborhood in Houston. I saw that kid Nancy had beaten up, still sitting there on that same front porch. I used to walk into that house like it was my own. He got up and said, "You came back!" They used to see my picture in the paper. He remembered and was real glad to see me.

But by then he was schizophrenic. He had become a chain smoker. I think he had been in Vietnam. It really freaked him out. I asked his keeper if he was dangerous. He intimated that he could be. I stayed and talked a while. Maybe I should have been more worried for my safety, but I wasn't. That was my old neighborhood, after all.


Excerpted from Acing Depression by Cliff Richey, Hilaire Richey Kallendorf. Copyright © 2015 Cliff Richey and Hilaire Richey Kallendorf. Excerpted by permission of New Chapter Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Johnny Bench
"Cliff Richey brings to you an insight that will benefit not only those that battle depression, but people that face difficulties every day. A champion in every sense of the word, Cliff puts you on and off the court with his challenges. A must read for all."--(Johnny Bench, member, Baseball Hall of Fame)

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