This Monday begins a championship that waited 34 years, the women’s version of the Buenos Aires Tennis Open, a tournament whose list of champions includes idols such as Gabriela Sabatini (she won the last edition, 1987) and little-remembered iconoclasts, such as the American Reneé Richards, a transgender tennis player who was consecrated in 1977.
More than 40 years later, the presence of a pioneer of trans visibility in Argentina by Jorge Videla causes astonishment. Because it was also a visit with sporting significance: Richards, who competed ten times in the United States Open (five as a man, still called Richard Raskind, in the 1950s, and five as a woman, between 1977 and 1981), she won her only official title on the WTA circuit in that foray for the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club.
In the final played on Sunday, November 13, 1977, the same day that River won the Metropolitan tournament, Richards – already 42 years old – defeated the Argentine Ivanna Madruga, then from Argentina, 4-6, 6-2 and 6-2. 16. “It was quite an event, the genre was not as present as it is now. Renée was the first to open a path for many people to dare to live their lives, for each one to have their choice ”, recalls Madruga from her native Rio Tercero. “I was a girl and I just wanted to do my tennis and win. He didn’t see any difference, he was playing against a woman. It was a beautiful experience ”, adds the Cordovan woman, who in 1980 would be 16th in the world ranking.
The organizer of that tournament was Raquel Giscafré, 12th in the world in 1974 and the first Argentine to qualify for the Masters (WTA Finals, in 1975). “In the last months of my career I started organizing tournaments,” reconstructs the Santa Fe, who lives in Los Angeles. “Renée’s visit was a milestone, there was a lot of interest. It was broadcast on Channel 11, with Pipo Mancera (historical TV presenter). The tournament gave points for the WTA and belonged to the Colgate series, which was the world sponsor of women’s tennis ”, says Giscafré, who in a video on YouTube appears as a translator of Richards for an interview with Argentine television – the videograph, erroneously , quotes it in 1980-.
“In women’s tennis there are tall players like me, or stronger. The difference is not made by the physique but by the talent, the quality of the player, ”said Richards in Buenos Aires in 1977, already used to having to answer the same question. Born a boy in New York in 1934, Raskind was a promising tennis player in his youth (first at Yale University, then in the US Navy) and reached the second round of the US Open in 1955 and 1957. But tennis It was only part of her life: Richards was – and still is, at 87 years old – an internationally recognized ophthalmologist. Later she received her degree as a neurologist.
As a boy he liked to dress as a woman, always unhappy with his body from birth, although being so athletic and stocky – 1.88 meters tall and with a powerful left foot – it allowed him to stand out in sports. His story has some points in common with that of Bruce Jenner, the 1976 Olympic champion American decathlete (and father of the Kardashian sisters) who years later would culminate his gender reassignment process and would become Caitlyn.
Still called Rasking, the then former tennis player married his girlfriend in 1970 and was the father of a son, until he finally followed the will that his body indicated to him and began to take hormones to accompany his feminine side. In 1975 she underwent surgery to change her sex, moved to California, opened her ophthalmology center and bet again on sport, that formidable social tool: she started playing women’s tennis.
He was in his late thirties and his cataract of victories on the US national tour drew attention. His looks, too. She was a stranger but she was invited to the 1976 United States Open, although she could not play it because a veteran tennis journalist noticed that it was Raskind, that promising young man of the 50s. So, at the request of some players who felt at a disadvantage physics, the WTA circuit required a chromosome test. Richards refused and was suspended, but appealed to the New York Supreme Court, which agreed with her and authorized her for the 1977 US Open, at the beginning of September (Guillermo Vilas won it in men). In that tournament she was eliminated in the first singles round but reached the doubles final and, less than two months later, she would visit Buenos Aires.
“I met her at the US Open, she beat me in the doubles semifinal, and she seemed very open, calm, very happy too,” recalls Giscafré, the organizer of the Argentine tournament in 1977, then called Río de la Plata. “They had told her that she was only allowed to play until November of that year, and then the one in Buenos Aires would be her last official tournament,” contextualizes the Santa Fe, who would later organize the WTA San Diego Open for 2 years.
Contrary to what transpired then, Richards’ passage through Argentina was not short-lived. “I had an apartment in Marcelo T. De Alvear y Charcas, and she stayed with me there. I met a cool, sensitive person, dear. We trained together and with Delfonte (Juan Carlos, Vilas’ historical physical trainer), while I was trying to get sponsors for the tournament. He felt so comfortable in Buenos Aires that he stayed for a month. At that time there was a very strong earthquake in San Juan (on November 23) and he was so scared that he ran out of my apartment. We also went to Carrasco, in Montevideo, to play an exhibition ”, adds Giscafré.
“You think that in Argentina there are people who have preconceptions but no, everyone treated them royally. I remember receiving a huge amount of letters from Argentine guys who were interested in the sex change operation. She was a very advanced girl ”, adds who was her rival and employer and is still her friend.
Richards, who eliminated Giscafré herself on her way to the final, became champion against Madruga. There were not only 26 years of difference between the 16 of Argentina and the 42 of the United States. “In the magazine Radiolandia They made us a note and compared our hands, feet, height. She, for example, wore 42. I am 1.63 and she is almost 1.90. He was a charismatic, peaceful person, always conciliatory, but at the time they focused more on that, ”recalls Madruga, the runner-up.
In the stands of the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club were Pío Laghi, the Vatican representative in Argentina – accused by relatives of the disappeared for complicity with the regime that murdered, raped and tortured tens of thousands of Argentines – and the star Moria Casán. According to the chronicle published by the magazine The graphic, “Richards still keeps the potency of his masculine stage and doses it wisely so as not to waste his energy which is limited by his 42 years. But still, it’s too much for a 16-year-old girl. For speed, Madruga took the first set but, when her shots gained in depth and her serves in strength, Richards left her no choice ”.
The sports weekly also made it clear that the champion would have a long stage without playing. In fact, the title of the coverage was “Renée Richards, triumph and farewell.” The text added: “It was perhaps his last tournament. The International Tennis Federation will ask her for the sex determination test, which she is not willing to undergo ”.
Madruga remembers that that experience in Argentina was a milestone for a friendship between the two. “We toured together and we were in Europe for a long time. They did not let her play in European countries but she still went and threw the set, although it was another time and they saw her as a man. Meanwhile we trained. I remember doing it at the Racing club in Paris during a Roland Garros. He once said to me ‘Do you realize how important all this is?’
“Renée had a very strong serve and some players protested. He did not play again, except exhibitions. She was very intelligent, then she would be Martina Navratilova’s coach ”, adds Giscafré, referring to the former world number 1. In fact, since then, Richards’ participation would be limited to the United States Open and other tournaments in his country, where he had the endorsement of the Supreme Court of New York, until he retired in 1981.
Just as Madruga and Giscafré remain in proud contact with Richards (the Cordovan, through Facebook, and the Santa Fe, with face-to-face meetings in the United States), the courage of the American inspired countless people around the world, also in Argentina. Mía Fedra Acosta, the country’s first transgender tennis player, played in the first round of the Argentina Open pre qualy that will begin tomorrow, at the beginning of October.
“My tennis and Richards’s is incomparable, but I do believe that we are pioneers. I am an absolute fan of hers, I look at all her articles ”, acknowledges Mía, who plays for the Darling club and, although she lost in the tiebreak against Priscila Landi for the pre-tournament in Buenos Aires, she assures that she will try again next year. “I entered very nervous, it was the first game I played at this level, but in 2022 I will return more charged,” says Mía. Transgender athletes took a big step in their rights during the recent Tokyo Olympics, when New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard (born male) entered the female category. She was eliminated after three unsuccessful attempts and the next day she announced her retirement.
After the loss of the Santa Fe Nadia Podoroska due to injury, the Argentina Open 2021 lost its great sports reference of the present (there will only be two players from the top 100, with the Egyptian Mayar Sherif -64 in the world- as the highest classified). But on her return after 34 years in which only men’s tournaments were played, and in that lesson from Richards and her rivals-friends, the triumph is assured.
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The story of the transgender tennis player who was a champion at the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club