It has been more than four months since a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled that medical evidence indicated overwhelmingly that transsexual Renee Richards is "now female," and therefore cannot be denied access to women's tournaments in the United States. But instead of finding acceptance on the women's tour, Richards has faced an apparently growing wave of opposition fron her colleagues - some of it friendly, some impersonal, some viciously hostile.
Richards - who, as Richard Raskind, captained the varsity tennis team at Yale, played in men's tournaments, became a renowned opthalmologist, and fathered a son - is playing the Virginia Slims Circuit for the first time. She is scheduled to meet Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade in the first round of the $100,000 Virginia Slims of Washington University's Smith Center Monday evening.
Until Judge Alfred M. Ascione ruled in August that Richards must be admitted to the U.S. Open, she had been excluded from most women's pro tournaments because she was not female according to the Olympic chromosome test set up as an entrance standard by the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) and International Tennis Federation.
"I don't think she should be playing on women's tour," said Wade. The court's decision is not necessarily the one I would have made. But as someone made that decision, I am prepared to accept it." Wade beat the 6-foot-2, 43-year-old Richards, 6-1, 6-4, in the first round at Forest Hills in September.
"Honestly, I don't mind. If she's on the other side of the court, that's O.K., and I have every respect for her as a human being. It's a little strange, but I don't have any strong feelings about it.
"I do think some of the other players have behaved very badly. If there was going to be a fuss about Renee, it should have been made before the court's decision and not after."
Richards said at Forest Hills that she would "like to play down this precedent-setting thing, this whole zoo-like business . . ." But in the ensuing weeks, particularly when Richards did well in tournaments, some of the players on the tour made her participation uncomfortable. In some cases, they were downright cruel. For example:
At Pensacola, Fla., British Wightman Cup players Lesley Charles and Glynis Coles appeared at a tournament wearing T-shirts emblazoned, "I Am A Real Woman."
Charles changed hers when someone suggested it was in poor taste, but Coles persisted. She refused to shake hands after losing a doubles match to Richards and Billie Jean King, and was quoted in newspapers as saying, pointedly, "I don't think he should be playing," and "as far as I'm concerned, he's just a man who's had an operation."
In Atlanta, Australian Dianne Fromholtz beat Richards, then called her "a freak" and "a sideshow" in a post match press conference.
"Something like that is against human nature and takes away from our tour. It gives us a bad image with the public. The people are laughing at us, at the way she walks on and acts like a female," Fromholtz went on.
Asked what she would have done had she lost to Richards, Fromholtz replied, "Drowned myself."
At Phoenix, Australian Kerry Melville Reid - former U.S. Open finalist, Australian Open champ, and three-time runner-up in the Slims of Washington - walked off court and defaulted while trailing Richards, 6-7, 1-4, in the quarterfinals. Her husband, Raz Reid, barely missed Richards as he threw a towel down onto the court.
Reid left the stadium without comment, but her husband, an American from Greenville, S.C., said, "We don't believe Renee is a woman. Kerry will never play her again."
Fromholtz is entered in the tournament here, while Reid, Coles and Charles are not.
Generally speaking, there seems to be a correlation between how well Richards does on the court and the degree of hostility exhibited by the other players.
"I think most people like Renee personally, but as she does well enough to beat a Kerry Reid or a Rosie Casals (Richards' best wins last fall), the level of resistance is increased," observed WTA publicist Jim Bainbridge, a sensitive individual who finds himself caught in the middle of the "Richards issue."
"It shouldn't be that way. It should be a matter of principle, but it is a factor," he said. "Or perhaps the feeling, pro and con, is constant, and you just hear more about it when she wins a couple of rounds. The feelings come to the surface more.
"The crowd response in most places has been fair and neutral. Renee is doing her level best to be just another one of the players, but it's difficult, for her and for the others. Many players are dead-set against her playing, but still friendly and sympathetic to her. That's not because they're dishonest, it's just there is so much gray area.
"The reactions almost goes along national and cultural lines," Bainbridge continued. "The Australian, South African and British women seem to have a fundamental belief that she should not be playing. They can't accept Renee, but some handle it better than others. The American women tend to be more understanding, and the Europeans seem noncommital.
"It's had to get a real reading, but I think if you took a poll of all the players, it would be 80-20 that Renee shouldn't be allowed to play . . . As one player said, 'If we could be sure it was only Renee, then I think we could all just let it ride.' But there's always the nagging feeling that there will be another transsexual, younger and stronger, in a better position to dominate the tour."
Casals, who at one time considered leading the women players in a legal action against Richards, says she likes her personally, admires her courage, sympathizes with the mental anguish she has gone through, but still does not think she should be admitted to women's tournaments. Those sentiments are typical of many American women on the tour.
Billie Jean King - who has maintained that Richards' eligibility is an issue for the courts to decide, not her colleagues - said, "I don't think the women are angry at Renee directly, but some are angry she's playing. They think she's too strong, that she was holding back until she got the court order allowing her to play.
"One or two of the women are just awful. Horrendous. Glynis Coles has just got a problem. In our doubles match, she tried to hit Renee every time she had an easy volley. Fromholtz is just not very sensitive."
Wade agrees. "I think what they have said is just terribly impolite - rude; derogatory, and in bad taste," she said. "Those remarks don't make anyone look good."
Will Richards' inclusion become a polarizing political issue within the Slims tour? Wade was asked.
"I haven't thought about it in those terms, really," she said. "I suppose that depends on how well she does. If she does outstandingly well, I suppose so. But I don't think she will.
"I think you have to treat her as a serious, proper opponent. You certainly can't do what Kerry Reid did - walk off the court for no specific reason. Renee is an opponent and a serious one."