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Renee Richards: ESPN Films Probes Story of Sex-Switching Tennis Player

Zack PumerantzAnalyst IIIJanuary 18, 2017

Renee Richards: ESPN Films Probes Story of Sex-Switching Tennis Player

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    It's a story of perseverance, of a shy, yet determined tennis player who refused to say no to a cynical and skeptical society.

    In a world full of refusal revolving around a straight-laced way of life, Renee Richards fought the odds and provided her fans and supporters with hope and inspiration.

    A transgender athlete, Richards—formerly known as Richard Raskin—was barred from playing in the 1976 U.S. Open because of a supposed women-born-women policy.

    She didn't take no for an answer and continued to fight for a spot in the tournament. Her unrelenting desire to be accepted, understood and appreciated began to pay dividends in 1977, when the New York Supreme Court ruled in her favor, permitting her to play in the 1977 U.S. Open.

    It was the battle with herself, her family and friends and her daily struggles that gives this story a unique flavor.

    Here is the story of Renee Richards, a transgender tennis player who beat the odds.

    Enjoy.

A Promising Start

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    Born in New York City in 1934 as Richard Raskind, Richards displayed her tennis skills early on, ranking among the top-10 Eastern and national juniors in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

    While she won the Eastern Private Schools Interscholastic singles title at the tender age of 15, it was her ability to lead that separated her from the pack.

    After captaining her high school tennis team, Richards went on to Yale University, where she was the captain in 1954.

    With her father an orthopedic surgeon, her mother one of the first female psychiatrists in the United States and her sister Josephine a psychiatrist, a medical career seemed imminent for Richards.

    She moved on to medical school at the University of Rochester to pursue a career as an eye surgeon, then served in the United States Navy as a Lieutenant Commander.

    In 1972, Richards reached the final of the men's national 35-and-over tennis championships, showing fans why everything she was doing paled in comparison to her athletic prowess.

    Things weren't so clear in the coming years.

Transitioning Her Lifestyle

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    While the signs weren't as clear cut as one might imagine, the inclinations were omnipresent. 

    In the 1960s, Richard Raskind dressed as a woman and traveled to Europe to see famous gynecological surgeon Georges Burou, who could ideally guide him on how to approach sexual reassignment surgery. 

    He then decided against it and traveled back to New York, where he started a family. Despite being a devoted husband and father of his son, Raskind couldn't fight the strong urges.

    He had successful surgery to become Renee Richards in 1975.

A Dilemma Becomes an Opportunity

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    While she was banned from playing as a woman, without submitting to chromosomal testing, in the 1976 U.S. Open, Renee Richards didn't take no for an answer.

    She sued the United States Tennis Association and won the case, allowing her to play in 1977 as a woman, without testing.

    A career-high overall ranking of No. 20 in February of 1979 headlined the prosperous career she had between 1977 and 1981.

    She may be known for defeating Nancy Richey for the 35-and-over singles title at the 1979 U.S. Open, but it was arguably her coaching that cemented her name in the Hall of Fame.

    Richards coached Martina Navratilova to two Wimbledon wins after her own career was finished.  She was deservedly inducted into the USTA Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame in 2000.

Her Impact Beyond Sports

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    While she doesn't regret her transition, Renee Richards seemingly points out in her two autobiographies that she regrets the level of fame that came with her lifestyle.

    She published her first autobiography in 1986, Second Serve, and her second in 2007, No Way Renee: The Second Half of My Notorious Life.

    With ESPN films jumping on her story as well, Renee Richards continues to garner respect and admiration for her fight against all who kicked her to the side.

    A truly inspirational sports hero.

Her Legacy

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    Fans often see their favorite athletes as heroes, as role models to mold themselves after.

    But Renee Richards was a different type of hero. Her situation is so unique that most can't possibly fathom relating to the hardships that she dealt with.

    Her role as a tennis star pales in comparison to her pursuit for a fair shot.

    She is an inspiration and a hero to all who hear her story.

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