Original Nine Spotlight:
Steve Flink | March 25, 2020
In honor of the 50th anniversary of women's professional tennis, International Tennis Hall of Fame writer and historian Steve Flink will be doing Q&As with each member of the Original Nine for USTA.com over the next few months. In his second interview, he talks with Nancy Richey.
One of the most accomplished American women’s players of the late amateur years and the early Open era was a redoubtable Texan with an immense heart and a limitless supply of willpower named Nancy Richey. Between 1960 and 1976, she spent no fewer than 16 seasons entrenched among the Top 10 in her country, garnering the No. 1 ranking four times. In both 1968 and 1972, she was recognized by leading authorities as the No. 2-ranked player in the world. She captured two major singles titles, taking the 1967 Australian Championships and the first French Open the following year.
A tenacious competitor with the most technically sound backcourt game of her time, Richey was essentially a flat-ball hitter, and her depth from the baseline was unanswerable.
Moreover, Richey hailed from one of the great tennis families of all time. Her brother, Cliff, was a top-flight player and a ferocious fighter who achieved the No. 1 American ranking in 1970. In fact, Nancy and Cliff were the first brother-sister combination from the United States to reach the Top 10 in the country and, more importantly, to reside at the top. Their father, George Richey, was among the most prominent American teaching professionals. He groomed both of his kids to treat tennis as more than a game but as essentially and unabashedly a way of life.
Nancy Richey was a crucial member of the “Original Nine,” a group of nine women who signed pro contracts with Gladys Heldman and competed in the first Virginia Slims tournament at Houston in September 1970. In this exclusive interview, she offers her remembrances and insights on the monumental move the women made to establish their own tour. Throughout this 30-minute session, Richey’s candor, geniality and humility were strikingly apparent.
Steve Flink: When you signed with Gladys, you were thrown into a different competitive arena. How daunting or even frightening was it to be competing in women’s-only tournaments?
Nancy Richey: I don’t think it was that daunting because we were going nowhere. We had Open tennis, but we were being shafted. If we were going to get suspended, so what? At that point, I really didn’t care. Compared to the men, we weren’t getting any money. I did not see it as a big risk, what we were doing.
Flink: What do you remember most about that first tournament in Houston and the bonding of the players as you realized your lives and careers might be altered forever?
Richey: It kind of evolved quickly. Gladys got the tournament in Houston off the ground. She proposed it, and we all agreed. We had a meeting at the Houston Racquet Club and talked about it amongst all of us. We just signed the contracts with Gladys and did the photograph with us holding the $1 bills. And from there it all really unfolded.
RELATED: Interview with Julie Heldman
Flink: You, Rosie Casals and Billie Jean King had a meeting with Gladys a few weeks earlier at the US Open. How important was that in leading to Houston and beyond?
Richey: We were there at Forest Hills for the US Open, and all of this talk was in the air about Jack Kramer and his very low prize money for women at his tournament in Los Angeles. I talked to my father, and he said, ‘Why don’t you talk to Gladys? See if you can get her involved, and get Rosie and Billie Jean to join you.’ So I spoke to Rosie and Billie Jean at the West Side Tennis Club, and we met with Gladys. Gladys said she would see what she could do. She really ran with it and got the tournament in Houston in no time flat.
It was unbelievable what she did. She got Joe Cullman to sponsor it with Virginia Slims, which was a godsend. The whole thing was just perfect timing. At that time, the Virginia Slims motto was ‘A Long Way Baby,” and there was all this women’s lib stuff. All of that would not happen today, but it was perfect for then, and it was the beginning. Without Gladys, it would never have happened.
Flink: You get to Houston, play the tournament, Casals wins it, and then, when it was over, there was a meeting at the Heldman house. Billie Jean’s husband, Larry King, came in to make a case for promoting your upcoming tour. Take it from there.
Richey: The most shocking thing was it came out in the newspaper that Larry was on his way to Houston. Gladys showed me the story in the paper at the Houston Racquet Club saying Larry had this plan. So we had a meeting at Gladys’ house. We had dinner, and then all nine players went into Gladys’ bedroom, which had a big circular bed. Larry showed up and gave this spiel of what he was proposing for a tour. Then Julie Heldman spoke up on behalf of her mother and said everything her mother had done had been a success, while Larry had flops. My mouth hit the floor.
We were given slips of paper to vote. But before we voted, we went to another part of the house and talked amongst ourselves, and Peaches Bartkowicz looked at me and said, ‘Who are you going to vote for?’ I called my dad and told him what was going on. He told me to vote for Gladys, which I had already planned to do. So we voted, and Gladys won. We were all very happy, except maybe Rosie and Billie. I just felt that Larry’s deal was a goofball deal compared to Gladys’.
Flink: How do you look at the contributions of Gladys, Billie Jean and Joe Cullman in establishing that first tournament and the ensuing Virginia Slims tour?
Richey: Gladys was our godmother. She was everything. It was her baby, and she did it. Without her, it wouldn’t have gone like it did. Joe came in with his finances, which was huge with Virginia Slims and their staff and their amazing tournaments. And Billie worked her rear off to make it all work. It was a great package with terrific crowds from the beginning.
Flink: You came from a great and close-knit tennis family and were accustomed to traveling together and supporting each other wholeheartedly. How tough was it to adjust to a women’s tour, where you were more on your own?
Richey: It was tough playing a lot of tournaments on my own. That was hard for me. I do remember Mom and Dad did go with me in 1972 to some of the tournaments. We drove to Oklahoma, and Cliff met me in Washington, D.C., when I beat Chris Evert in the final. So I had them with me periodically but not like it was back in the amateur days in the ‘60s, when we were traveling as a family and the tournaments were men and women together. Yes, it was an adjustment.
Flink: How much more did you as players need to do off the court to make the women’s tour work? How many sacrifices were there?
Richey: There was quite a bit going on, with clinics and things that we never had to do in the amateur days, but not an overwhelming amount. We would go several weeks ahead of time to a tournament for promotion, but it wasn’t that time consuming, and we knew it needed to be done. The Original Nine is a big deal now, but we didn’t know it at the time. That is for sure. We just did what we needed to do to make it happen.
Flink: But what about the fans? How did they seem to feel about the tennis being played, the different styles of play being offered and the relatability of it all?
Richey: We had good crowds, and they seemed to really like the product. The attendance was very good from the start. The men thought we would totally flop, but we didn’t. It was a successful product from the beginning. The only blowback we got was a little bit about having a cigarette sponsor with Virginia Slims. There was a good response to our tennis and our different styles of play. Compared to today, there was a huge difference, although at the US Open this past year, Taylor Townsend and a few of the girls were using the serve-and-volley game, which I had not seen in years. That was nice to see. But to get back to our day, the different playing styles were very definitely there on our tour, and the fans liked it.
Flink: In 1971, you made $15,300 in prize money. Although you earned about $50,000 in both 1972 and 1973, that seems like very little money compared to these days. Prize money skyrocketed over the decades since. How do you feel about that?
Richey: They have had all these years of the buildup to get to this point. We were starting from nothing. It was just about minus-zero when we started. We were happy to be making anything. I am thrilled that the girls are making what they are today. It is fantastic. That is why we did what we did in our day. I am glad it has grown and is so popular, with people enjoying watching the women play and coming out to support it. I am ecstatic about that. It was nice to get the money in my day, but the whole emphasis was on results and how I was doing. It wasn’t like I was going out every week to see how much money I could make. I didn’t think a whole lot about it then.
Flink: How satisfying it is to look back on your contributions and what all nine of you did to get it off the ground?
Richey: I am proud of the fact that I was part of that movement, or whatever you want to call it. We made a huge impact on women’s tennis. I am proud that I was instrumental in bringing women’s pro tennis to where it is today and playing pro tennis for six or seven years during those evolutional years in the ‘70s. I saw it all. And I am happy it all unfolded the way it did and that I came along at that time. I wouldn’t change it at all. I have no regrets.
The only thing that does grate on me was the fact that we still had to play as amateurs in the first year of Open tennis in 1968, so I could not play for prize money when I won the first French Open. It was per diem. I asked the USTA for a $900 appearance fee to play the US Open because we could not play for prize money, but they wouldn’t give it to me, and I didn’t play. That year was probably my best chance of winning the US Open, but you think you have got all the time in the world. I felt like I probably wasted that opportunity at the US Open in 1968.
Flink: How much enjoyment do you get watching women’s tennis today, with all of the big hitters and the professionalism of it all?
Richey: It has grown into something I don’t even recognize. The money has changed everything. It is just a totally different animal from the game I knew in the amateur days and early in the pro era. I really enjoyed the US Open in 2019. Coco Gauff was exciting, and Andreescu winning it was exciting. There was some new blood and a style of game we hadn’t seen in years. That was fun for me.
Flink: How gratifying is it to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Original Nine and to know the role you played in opening up so many opportunities for the women who came along after you?
Richey: It is kind of breathtaking. When we did it, we had no idea where it was going. But now I look back on it as an accomplishment. It gives me a warm feeling that we were part of something that grew women’s tennis into what it is today. It is just a very special thing we were part of, and Gladys Heldman gets all the credit. I am just so thankful to her for what she contributed and the amazing things she did for all of our Original Nine.