Thoughts on Cliff Richey’s New Book “Acing Depression”

depression

Richey is honest, open, and smart.

I thought Andre Agassi’s book was unusually honest and insightful, but it pales in comparison to Cliff Richey’s new book. Cliff describes his own mental processes as he developed into a tennis champion and later, as he was stricken with debilitation depression in an incredibly lucid, insightful, and vivid manner. The reader is able to virtually ride along inside Richey’s mind during the triumphs and horrors of his past 50 years. His descriptions are so genuine you can almost feel what he felt. And you can certainly see what he saw.

Cliff was a near-great player in the 1970’s, achieving the #1 ranking in the United States, reaching the late rounds but not winning most of the Slams, and beating the best players of his day – Laver, Newcombe, Connors, Smith, Rosewall, Roche, Emerson, etc. Cliff and his sister, Nancy, were the only brother and sister pair to ever be ranked #1 in the United States!

Richey becomes a great player but suffers in his personal life.

The book traces his development as a tennis player in an achievement-obsessed, driven, close-knit, and loving but somewhat isolated and paranoid family atmosphere. The overlying theme of the book is Cliff’s ongoing and growing battle with depression. He notes his family background of mental disorder and describes in horrific detail the thoughts and feelings he had as he competed as a world-class tennis player while slipping inexorably into a nightmare of anxiety, self-absorption, self-loathing, and despair. He details the appalling effects his illness had on his family and on the other people around him. It provides a stark example of the chasm that can exist between celebrity/apparent success and happiness.

I spent time with Cliff on the tour but knew nothing of his personal problems.

The book is particularly interesting to me because I was on the tour with Cliff in the 1960’s and considered him to be a friend, not bosom-buddies, but a bright and funny guy who I always enjoyed spending a bit of time with. In those days the tour was a close group – a little fraternity of players – who played most of the same tournaments, practiced together, and shared experiences. We were all friends. At the time I was older and on the downswing of my tennis career (such as it was in the pre-open era) while Cliff, seven years younger, was on the upswing of his. In 1966 we even travelled together to South America on the Davis Cup team and to Australia for tournaments. Yet I had no idea that Cliff had these tortured mental issues or that he viewed his fellow competitors more as potential enemies than friends.

Maybe I should have suspected this when I was scheduled to play him in the second round of the US Open, as I recall, in about 1970. I had been off the tour for a couple of years due to a chronic hip injury. I was only playing part-time and was not really a competitive threat to Cliff, at least in my mind. The evening before our match we both happened to be leaving the West Side Tennis Club at the same time returning to our hotel. In those days we took the subway back to Manhattan (the West Side Club was on Long Island), and the station was a few blocks away at the other side of the little town of Forest Hills. As we left the club I was looking forward to a pleasant walk, a chat, and a few laughs with my old friend, of whom I hadn’t seen much since I left the tour. Instead, Cliff crossed to the other side of the street and wouldn’t speak to me. This was a hint. I just thought it was funny (ha, ha funny) and put it down to Cliff being a bit of an over-the-top competitor.

Cliff is extraordinarily smart, driven, and funny.

Although Cliff had never even graduated from high school, I liked him a lot because he was obviously very smart and had a bizarre sense of humor. In those days much of the charm of the tour was the players themselves, and we particularly appreciated the odd characters, of which there were many and Cliff was one. The major objective was to have fun, and we didn’t take the idiosyncrasies too seriously. We used them for the laughs, and we all played into them somewhat. Everyone had nicknames. Cliff was “the Bull” because of his single-minded, tenacious, ferocious competitiveness. I was “the Commander (of the space patrol)” the Aussies claimed because of my scientific take on everything. In fact no one was ever called by their given names. John Newcombe was “Newk,” Tony Roche was “Rochie,” Ken Rosewall was “Muscles,” Pancho Gonzales was “Gorgo,” Rod Laver was “Rocket,” Chuck McKinley was “Stump,” etc. So I thought “the Bull” was just playing into his tour persona when he walked across the street before our match at Forest Hills. It wasn’t until I read his book that I realized that I actually was the enemy. I thought he was kidding!

Cliff’s superior intelligence comes out in his book in his constant use of tennis analogies to highlight his points about depression. (I say this because as a general rule in making meaningful analogies it’s necessary to have a broad perspective in order to identify common characteristics.) Cliff continually compares his strategies in fighting depression to his strategies in winning tennis matches. He is very analytic. He describes exactly the mental qualities that made him a superior tennis player – how he practiced, how he developed a better serve, how he adapted his strategies against certain players to turn losses into wins, and how he could stick with an idea for solving a problem even if there was no improvement in the short term – and applied them to fighting and beating depression.

We learn a great deal about depression and its cures.

Cliff also gives us useful information about the relationship of depression to obsessive-compulsive personality characteristics, anxiety, and stress. He talks about how depression starts gradually and how significant changes in one’s life can make it accelerate. He goes into detail about therapies – counseling and drugs – and tells what it feels like to take various anti-depressants and receive counseling and how well each of them works. And it is all interspersed with fascinating stories about big matches and life on the tennis tour – just a great read.

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