Roland Garros ruminations: Nancy Richey makes history in Paris in 1968

Roland Garros ruminations: Nancy Richey makes history in Paris in 1968

By winning the French Open, the American became the first woman to win a Grand Slam tournament in the Open Era.

Back in the spring of 1968, when the first French Open was held at Roland Garros, the city of Paris was in utter turmoil. Taxis and all public transportation were on strike. There was no gasoline. Garbage piled up in the streets. Electricity was nonexistent for a few hours every day at unpredictable times. Telephone service was sorely disrupted. Lance Tingay wrote in World Tennis Magazine about “the threat of a civil war.” Rex Bellamy said in the World of Tennis yearbook, “Roland Garros was a port in a storm.”

But amidst this utter chaos, a strikingly composed and single-minded American woman with a large heart, calm demeanor and limitless supply of determination ruled on the red clay and made history of a high order by securing the singles crown. Nancy Richey thus established herself as the first woman to win a Grand Slam tournament in the Open era, and that was no mean feat. Seeded fifth, Richey accounted for the top two seeds—from a set down in both instances—to win her second major title, reminding everyone that she was one of the great clay-court players of her era and a quietly ferocious competitor to boot.

“We played Fed Cup in Paris the week before the French Open, so the Fed Cup team met in Brussels and practiced for a day or two and then we took a bus to Paris,” Richey told me recently, during an expansive telephone interview 52 years after the crowning moment of her career. “There were no flights going in. The planes were totally grounded. We were at some hotel during Fed Cup and then I moved to another hotel because they were starting to have problems with the official cars.

“There was a bit of a gap between Fed Cup and the French Open, and then my brother Cliff arrived after renting a taxi from Luxembourg for a hundred dollars with some other players. They asked us to move again to another hotel to be even closer to Roland Garros. I could not make a telephone call out of the country. I never saw any of the rioting, but it really was chaos and a three ring circus in Paris.”

Richey came from an incomparable tennis family. She was raised in Texas by her renowned teaching pro father George, joined in her unbridled devotion to the game by her brother Cliff and revered by the sport’s closest followers for the dignified way she comported herself on the court. Nancy and Cliff were warriors who came at tennis with almost religious zeal. It was their way of life and overriding obsession. Both brother and sister resided at No. 1 in the nation and were perennial members of the world’s Top 10. She would conclude 1968 at No. 2 in the minds of many experts, and would replicate that feat four years later.

Richey was still an amateur in 1968, but her mindset was unmistakably professional. Her ground game was picture-perfect. Richey’s flat forehand was her signature shot, but she could drive through the backhand forcefully with unrelenting depth. She was seeded fifth in Paris behind Billie Jean King, Ann Jones, Francoise Durr and Rosie Casals—the four women who had been playing that year on George MacCall’s National Tennis League pro tour, along with leading men like Rod Laver, Pancho Gonzalez, Roy Emerson and Ken Rosewall.

Nancy Richey

Richey had forgotten about being seeded unfairly low, but she said it was not worth being irked by that devaluation.

“I don’t even remember being seeded fifth, but I had no recourse,” she says, before adding with a chuckle, “I can’t believe I was seeded behind Rosie! I was probably disgusted about that.”

In any case, Richey was in the midst of a remarkable 30-match winning streak as she started her campaign. She had won tournaments in Curacao, New York, San Juan, St. Petersburg, and River Oaks in Houston, and was also unbeaten in Fed Cup singles on her way to Roland Garros.

“I knew I was playing good tennis,” she says. “In retrospect, I should have played more tournaments in other years the way I did in '68. I just hated being away from home so I curtailed my travels. But that year it helped me for the French Open to have played the whole Caribbean circuit. I was in good shape and felt good going into the tournament.”

She came through comfortably in the first two rounds, but was pushed to her limits by the tall Australian Karen Krantzcke, 6-4, 5-7, 8-6.

“Karen had a big forehand, a pretty good serve and a backhand she kind of sliced, but worked it around well,” she recalls. “She had me down one match point but I managed to gut out the match. She was big and rangy and she came in some. That was a tough one.”

In the round of 16, Richey had another hard skirmish but overcame Galina Baksheeva, 6-4 (10-8), 4-6, 6-1. Now that Richey had reached the quarterfinals, she had sunk her teeth into the tournament. There, the American granted Elena Subirats only one game in two sets.

That took Richey into an eagerly awaited showdown with King in the penultimate round. A few months earlier at Madison Square Garden in New York, Richey had made one of the most spectacular comebacks of her career, winning the last 12 games from a set and 5-1 down to defeat King in the semifinals, 4-6, 7-5, 6-0, saving a match point along the way. But that was indoors in entirely different conditions; this was outdoors on the clay, where Richey was so formidable.

Richey was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2003. (Getty Images)

And yet, King was very capable on that surface, too. Four years later, she would complete a career Grand Slam in singles by ruling at Roland Garros. On this occasion, King started with gusto to win the first set decisively. Nevertheless, Richey was not unduly worried.

“I had so many matches in the past that I had won when I was down,” she says. “I still felt pretty confident that I could win this match, I actually had more trouble with Billie on clay than I did on grass and hard courts. She was a great athlete and she would get the ball back on clay without much pace on it. She would come in some as well. She was tough for me to play on clay. I felt I could hurt her more on other surfaces.”

Be that as it may, Richey found her range to win the second set and soon the match was locked toward the end of the decider. Her brother Cliff was in the stands following every point of the contest with his eagle eyes and agile mind.

“Cliff was sitting behind the court on Court 2, and he motioned to me— by moving his head to the side—to urge me to go into the net at 4-4,” Richie remembers. “Billie Jean was tiring and she was trying to pinpoint the ball. When I was coming in, she was making errors. I followed Cliff’s instructions and that won me the match. Cliff helped me again that way in the final. I think I have to give him half of that title.”

Following that 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over the top seed, Richey confronted No. 2 seed Ann Jones, a guileful left-hander from Great Britain who had beaten her in the 1966 Roland Garros final. The triumph over King gave Richey a considerable boost coming into her duel with Jones.

“Pulling out a match like I did against Billie Jean gives you confidence,” she says.

Yet Richey was in another bind when she faced Jones, down a set point at 1-5.

“I got that first set back to 5-5,” she points out. “Even though Ann won it, making that set so close and prolonging it probably won me the match. Later on, in the third set, she started getting tired.”

The fatigue from Jones may have started sooner. The British player led 4-2 in the second set and was closing in on the title, but the tenacious Texas native swept 16 of the next 17 points, including four games in a row, to salvage the set.

Nancy Richey

“In the second set, Cliff could see that Ann was getting tired," Richey remembers. "So he was motioning for me to start coming to the net more at that stage, and I did that. In the third set, I felt strong and she started making more errors. She got even more tired. The first set-and-a-half was grueling with long running points. But I played a really good third set. I was pounding my forehand.”

Richey had achieved a career milestone by beating Jones 5-7, 6-4, 6-1 for the title, winning 10 of the last 11 games in the process.

“It was really rewarding beating Billie Jean and Ann in the sense that George MacCall had not even asked me to be one of the four women pros that he signed to play with the men that year on his tour,” she says. “I had back problems in 1967, and I think he believed I was iffy physically, so he didn’t ask me to play. Winning over King and Jones was especially satisfying for that reason. Ann had her lefty topspin forehand and it was always unsettling to play her. She was gritty and did not give you a lot of pace to play off. It was thrilling to beat her.”

Richey knew how important it was to win the first French Open and fulfill a lifelong dream. Did that mean the world to her?

“Absolutely,” replies Richey. “It was the highlight of my career. Cliff went into the locker room after the match and he said he cried for 20 minutes because he was so happy. For me, winning that tournament was unbelievably satisfying. It seemed like a lot of times when I won tournaments there would be a letdown afterwards. But winning the French Open was such a high, just an amazing feeling. And the strike lifted that afternoon in Paris so I was able to call home and tell my Dad. That was also a thrill.”

Richey’s exhilarating victory had lasting implications. She had won the Australian Championships in 1967 the year before Open tennis came along, and adding a second major in singles was historically potent. She was later inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2003.

Does she feel the Roland Garros victory was a key to her Hall of Fame honor?

“Oh, definitely, “she answers. “Winning the Australian was exciting, but not as exciting as winning the French. Looking at the majors, anybody would want to win Wimbledon. But if I had to pick between the US Open and Paris, I would pick Paris. I was known as a clay-court player and I wanted that title a lot.”

That evening in June of 1968, Richey went out to dinner with her brother and his wife.

“We were at the same restaurant where we always ate," she says. "I decided to order the most expensive thing on the whole menu for the three of us. I didn’t even know what it was, but I figured it would be good. I pointed to it on the menu to show the waiter what I wanted. But I could smell it coming out of the kitchen. It was kidneys! I could have died.

"I told the waiter to please take it back to the kitchen and bring us three steaks. Then we had a really great celebration dinner. I was very proud of taking that title.”