The Alcoholism of a Tennis Great
Tennis pro Cliff Richey ruled the courts while suffering from alcoholism and then depression. It was only when he retired that he figured out how to truly win the game.
Before John McEnroe began terrorizing umpires and line judges on the pro tennis circuit, there was Cliff Richey. Over the course of his 15-year career—from 1963-1978—Richey was the number one ranked player in the US and ranked among the top 10 in the world as he led the US to two Davis Cup titles and won 11 pro tour titles. When he retired, he moved into playing on the senior tennis tour before becoming a founding member of a golf circuit known as the Celebrity Players’ Tour.
But Richey’s matches on the court paled in comparison to the two biggest battles of his career: alcoholism and depression. He drank almost daily while playing on tour and when he finally got sober long after retiring in 1994, his relatively low grade depression turned into a crippling illness that left him unable to get out of bed. Through counseling and medication, he was able to get back on his feet. Now 65 and living in San Angelo, Texas, Richey is telling his story in a new memoir, Acing Depression: A Tennis Champion’s Toughest Match.
In our exclusive interview, Richey talks about what made him decide to stop drinking, the tailspin of depression that followed quitting cold turkey and why he truly has no desire to pick up the bottle again.
By stopping cold turkey, my depression got much more severe and I went into a three year tailspin that I wouldn’t wish on anybody.
When did you first start to drink heavily?
I remember starting to really get drunk when I played in Australia for the first time around 18 or 19, but I didn’t have a daily habit. From around the age of 23 through 25, though, I’d have three or four beers every day. As my depression worsened, I was drinking more for the numbing effect. Some people will say that four drinks is nothing but it adds up to almost 30 drinks a week when you’re doing it every single day.
Did you ever walk out on court still drunk or lose a match because you were hung over?
I knew that five beers was my limit before I really started feeling the effects so I still had the discipline to not have more than that the night before a match. But when you’re drinking every day as I was—especially towards the end of my career when it was basically over—I had quite a few more nights where I let my guard down. I couldn’t even tell you how many I had some nights.
Would you say that your drinking and your depression went hand in hand?
Absolutely. When I was on tour, I always had periods of low-grade depression but simply chalked it up to traveling the world by myself and feeling lonely. I’ve always fought anxieties and been a Type A personality. But my last five years on the tour—from 1973-1978—the depression got pretty rough. Because of my age, my game was leaving me and I just wasn’t in sync with the rest of the world. Before those six years, I would get really drunk maybe eight or nine times a year. But those final years on tour, it was closer to 30 times a year and the rest of the time would be my usual four drinks. Up until I quit drinking in 1994, I was self-medicating my depression through drinking. I knew at 5:30, I’d have a couple of hours of relief.
Did the drinking get better or worse once you stopped playing?
Probably a bit worse. Even though they were linked in some ways, my drinking was a completely separate battle from the depression. In 1994, I was playing a pro golf tour for celebrities and it was actually pretty high stress because there was prize money involved. I wasn’t playing well and I was being very hard on myself because of it. I was drinking during the day and taking ibuprofen to deal with the pain from playing while skipping meals and then taking Valium to sleep.
What made you decide to stop drinking then?
I had been having stomach pains for quite a while largely due to my drinking. On July 26, 1994, my mom called me and said to stop by her place on my way home from the golf course. When I got there, she gave me a book on alcoholism and said, “I want you to read this and promise me you’ll stop drinking and chewing tobacco.” I was chewing at the time and the acid from that was also affecting my stomach. I tend to handle things directly and don’t try to defend my behavior if the other person is right—especially when it’s my mother. So I quit drinking and chewing tobacco cold turkey.
But the problem is that by stopping cold turkey, my depression got much more severe and I went into a three year tailspin that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. The first four or five months of that were just awful. During the worst of it, I literally put black trash bags over the windows of my house, stayed in bed all day and cried.
Did you go to AA meetings or support groups while you were beginning your sobriety?
I quit almost entirely on my own. I was in counseling in 1996 for depression and went to a handful of AA meetings with a friend whose son was an alcoholic. But from the meetings, I learned that not only do depression and anxiety go hand in hand, but alcohol and drugs in general also create depression. They go a long way towards wrecking your brain chemistry further. Alcoholism is often fostered through co-dependency or dysfunction in your family in the same way that depression is.
What advice would you give to people who are trying to maintain their sobriety?
Speaking as someone who suffers from depression, I can honestly say that going on an antidepressant did so much for me in creating that level of sobriety. I went on Zoloft in January 1997 and it’s been a miracle drug for me. For people who fight depression as a lot of alcoholics do, I’d recommend studying up and becoming knowledgeable on the effects of alcohol. It’s one of the worst things out there for depression. As a former athlete, I want to preserve all the youth I have and I know how bad drinking is. I won’t drink again because I know what a favor I’m now doing myself health-wise. I'd tell fellow sufferers to investigate all of the underlying factors that create the need to self-medicate. And if you do suffer from depression, there’s a great deal of help available out there.
McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer currently residing in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Time Out New York, The Huffington Post, abcnews.com and usopen.org, among others. He has also written about Carré Otis and Celebrity Rehab, among many other topics, for The Fix.