WATCH: Modern Health and the WTA honor World Mental Health Day

Cliff Richey had done just about everything a tennis player could do. In the late-1960s and early 1970s, he had been ranked No. 1 in the United States, and as high as No. 6 in the world. He had led his country to a Davis Cup title. He had reached the quarterfinals or better at all four Grand Slam tournaments, and twice made it to the semifinals at the US Open.

Nicknamed The Bull, this wiry, no-nonsense native son of West Texas was one of tennis’ tough guys and bad boys. On court, despite being just 5’9”, he was a hard-charging serve-and-volleyer; off court, he drank as hard as an athlete’s lifestyle would allow. In a mid-match confrontation that pitted two hot-heads of different generations against each other, Richey even succeeded in getting a young John McEnroe to shut up.

So why, Richey wondered as the ’70s progressed and his 30th birthday approached, was he more on edge than ever? Why, on so many nights, did he find himself going well past his old limit of four beers? Why had he suddenly developed the yips on his backhand? Why couldn’t he sleep until he’d downed 40 milligrams of Valium? Why, one morning before a match in Atlanta, was he still so high he “couldn’t feel his feet when they hit the carpet”?

“I didn’t know what was wrong,” Richey, 75, says from his home in San Angelo, Texas. “My brain was in a storm for five or six years. I was self-medicating with alcohol and basically a functional depressive, but I didn’t have that term.”

Richey thought his malaise was just part of life on tour, where loneliness and jet lag are the norm, your friend one day is your opponent the next, and slumps can crush even the most iron-willed player’s soul. Few people, and even fewer male professional athletes, talked about depression in those days. That went double in tennis, a sport with a strong ethos of self-reliance. Among Richey’s peers, only Arthur Ashe expressed concern about his countryman’s work-hard, play-hard lifestyle.

“I always had bad anxiety, even in the juniors, but I wrote it off,” Richey says. “I didn’t know it wasn’t normal. In my family, it was nothing but tennis, and I’d always worried about how good I was compared to others.”


Richey's greatest challenge was discovering his true opponent.

Richey's greatest challenge was discovering his true opponent.

For Richey, tennis was a double-edged sword as far as his anxiety went. On the one hand, the sport heightened it; on the other, his nerves helped motivate him.

“I like things that are clear cut, and I liked that in tennis you either won or lost,” he says. “But there’s also nowhere to hide. Whatever you did, it was in the newspaper the next day.

“The one thing I could fall back on was my skill. I could always count on that to get me where I wanted to go.”

Until he couldn't. By 1979, Richey’s skill was no longer enough to keep him on tour. But even as his tennis game was declining, his golf game was improving. By the early 1990s, he had joined the Celebrity Player’s golf tour. But it didn’t take long for the old demons to follow him from the court to the course.

“Two years into the tour, I was losing my game, replaying my horror of losing my tennis game,” Richey says.


Once I understood what was happening to me, I made depression my ultimate opponent. Cliff Richey

For a second time, Richey’s safety net—his athletic ability—had been ripped out from under him. This time depression hit harder. Richey plastered black garbage bags on his windows, and spent days crying in bed. He says he was largely “non-functional” from 1994 to ’97. Yet it wasn’t until 1996, when he visited his dermatologist, who was also a family friend, that Richey understood what was happening to him, and what he needed to do about it.

“I laid my heart out to him,” Richey says.

After his dermatologist helped secure him a prescription for an anti-depressant, Richey quit drinking, got therapy, and started taking Zoloft. “I’m happy to be on it,” he says two decades later. He returned to the celebrity golf tour and retired from his second sport in 2007.

“I always knew from tennis that you change a losing game, and it was time for me to change,” Richey says. “Once I understood what was happening to me, I made depression my ultimate opponent.”


The objective of World Mental Health Day (October 10) is to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health. Modern Health supports people across the globe with a single platform that adapts to wherever they are in their mental health journey.

The objective of World Mental Health Day (October 10) is to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health. Modern Health supports people across the globe with a single platform that adapts to wherever they are in their mental health journey.

It has been 50 years since Richey’s “brain went into a storm” while he was on tour. Today, the life of a tennis pro is just as lonely and cutthroat as it was then, and every player’s self-confidence still hangs on a knife’s edge from one week to the next.

Fortunately, some of those players have begun to ignore the age-old stigma that kept athletes from revealing any sign of vulnerability. A decade ago, Mardy Fish talked openly about his struggles with an anxiety disorder. Serena Williams has discussed her postpartum depression. Naomi Osaka appeared on the cover of Time magazine alongside the headline, “It’s OK to Not Be OK.” Madison Keys, as a spokesperson for FearlesslyGiRL, has helped shine a light on the bullying that many athletes endure over social media. Iga Swiatek and Ons Jabeur, the top two players in the WTA, employ full-time mental coaches and speak regularly about their psychological struggles on court.

According to Richey, though, there’s still work to be done.

“You see it written about more now,” he says, “but it hasn’t changed nearly enough.”

Noah Rubin, a former pro from Long Island who retired this summer, has tried to do something about that. Unlike Richey, a baby boomer born in 1946, Rubin, a Millennial born in 1996, is already well-versed in the subjects of anxiety and depression. He has experienced them first-hand and sought professional help for them. During his seven years on tour, he also observed the symptoms of them in his fellow players.

“I’m passionate about mental health,” Rubin says. “I’m passionate about knowing my feelings and sharing what I feel.”


We need to normalize talking about anxiety. Noah Rubin

In the juniors and college, Rubin met with little but success. When he was a student at John McEnroe’s academy in New York, McEnroe called him “the most talented player we’ve come across.” Rubin won the boys’ title at Wimbledon in 2014, and reached the NCAA Division I final as a freshman at Wake Forest.

But as with so many other talented young players, the pro tour was a steeper hill to climb. Despite making improvements to his game, and pushing Roger Federer hard at the 2016 Australian Open, Rubin was never ranked higher than No. 125. One low point came at a Challenger event in Spain in 2018, when he found himself alone in a dark and near-empty club at 11 at night, having just lost his fifth straight match, “with tears slowly dripping down my face.”

But Rubin also discovered that he wasn’t the only player who felt alone. The life of the rank-and-file pro hadn’t changed much since Richey’s day. The travel was just as arduous, the jet lag just as debilitating, the slumps just as devastating, and the money worries just as all-consuming. It finally proved to be too much for Rubin, who announced that he was taking “an indefinite break from tennis” this summer, at age 26.

“You’re by yourself most of the time, and you’re dealing with failure most of the time,” Rubin says. “You’re struggling financially. It has a snowball effect.”


Rubin (right), who stepped away from pro tennis earlier this year, believes the sport's relentless structure lends itself to mental health burdens.

Rubin (right), who stepped away from pro tennis earlier this year, believes the sport's relentless structure lends itself to mental health burdens.

According to Rubin, something else hasn’t changed since Richey’s day: alcohol as a survival tool.

“I know a lot of players who, to cope and to get ready for the next week, spend 12 hours drinking,” Rubin told The Daily Telegraph in 2019.

In Rubin’s mind, the sport’s structure only exacerbates these problems. The season is too long, the best-of-five-set matches too grueling, and the chase for money and ranking points too frenzied. To help reveal a little more about the nature of his fellow players’ lives, Rubin did what any social-media-savvy Millennial might do: He created an Instagram account. Called Behind the Racquet, it’s a place where pros of all levels can share their stories. In part, Rubin sees the site as a way to advertise the game to a generation of fans who are accustomed to knowing everything—the good, the bad, and the ugly—about their favorite celebrities.

“I feel like there’s a disconnect between tennis players and fans,” Rubin says. “The way the sport is promoted, fans can’t relate to players at a deeper level.”

Traditionally, tennis players have been leery about broadcasting anything that could be perceived as weakness to their colleagues. “I’m not here to make friends,” has always been an acceptable, even admirable, philosophy on tour. Rubin calls those concerns “antiquated.”

“If I’m in a third set against a guy, I’m not thinking about something he revealed about himself in the past; it doesn’t work that way,” Rubin says. “There’s this toxic masculinity in sports, that you have to be the alpha male, but I don’t think that’s relevant once you’re in a match.”


If the response from his fellow players is any indication, Rubin is onto something. Behind the Racquet now features the personal and sometimes painful stories of more than 200 people from across the tennis tours. Women and men, Top 10 players and Challenger players, active pros and retired pros, 40-somethings and teenagers, fans and announcers: Rubin tries to offer a space where everyone can open up.

Roberto Bautista Agut tells the story of how he dealt with the deaths of his parents, at relatively young ages, in 2018 and 2019. Keys talks about being judged for her weight when she was 15, by people who saw her on TV. “Eventually, that truly got into my head,” she says. Coco Gauff caused a stir when she posted on Behind the Racquet that she had been “really depressed” in the year leading up to her 2019 Wimbledon breakthrough.

If it’s still startling to hear a young superstar talk about depression, Rubin hopes his site will make it less so.

“I wanted Behind the Racquet to be a form of therapy,” says Rubin, who also hosts a podcast of the same name with tennis commentator Mike Cation. “To start the conversation and get people to at least think about how they’re feeling. We need to normalize talking about anxiety.”


Can tennis, a sport that rewards stoicism, be a pioneer in de-stigmatizing the discussion of mental health? That revolution came too late to prolong Cliff Richey’s playing career, but he has seen the benefits since. In 2010, he teamed with his daughter, Hilaire Kallendorf, to write Acing Depression: A Tennis Champion’s Toughest Match, a memoir of his peaks and valleys on tour.

“As you can probably guess, I wasn’t the world’s greatest father when I was a player,” Richey says. “But doing this book really brought my daughter and I closer.”

Along with personal healing, Acing Depression gave Richey an identity far removed from that of most former jocks. He became a regular speaker at mental health conferences, and has helped counsel hundreds of fellow sufferers over the years. In 2017, he published a second book, with Mary Garrison, Your Playbook for Beating Depression.

“So many people still don’t know what the signs are for depression,” Richey says. “I tell them, ‘Know what loss is getting to you. Read up on the disease. Address the issue.’”

Like the net-rusher he once was, Richey has fought his demons by understanding his opponent and going to battle with it.

“Tennis is a selfish sport,” he says. “Everything’s about you. So it means something to me to think that I could help save some people. I’d like to be known as a pretty darn good tennis player, and a mental health advocate.”

“I love kicking depression’s ass any chance I can get.”