Cliff Richey and the Belly of the Whale: Acing Depression

Jeffrey Sparr holding his painting, Beat Depression

You’re a frigging protozoan sitting there. You’re fixing to drown.* In the catacombs of early Christian art, the Jonah story lingers, pointing to an extensive oral history of dramatic tellings and retellings. You start reaching pain levels you didn’t think were there. Heaviness descending over you. It sits on you. The whale crudely drawn on catacomb walls, Jonah allegorically seen as Christ, at first, then the Christian believer, delivered from death. Perfect for all the dead lying buried around. I put black trash bags over the windows. I sealed the edges with tape. My mind became dark; and then darker; and then darker still.

For Cliff Richey, the belly of the whale has a contemporary name: clinical depression. So how does anyone confront such darkness, despair? As Cliff Richey details in Acing Depression, one way is analyze all our own strengths and weaknesses and never stop fighting, never give in. Good advice for any tennis player! Another way is to emphasize faith, another meditation, another science with its endless ways of addressing this or that chemical imbalance. I have fallen in love with the image here of Jeffrey Sparr holding up his own painting, Beat Depression, with its movement from darkness into light. A four-year starter and team captain on Ohio State’s tennis team, he was diagnosed with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) in college. Since then, painting has become his means of coping with anxiety and mental illness, his richly bespeckled smock a beautifully messy record of drips and drabs of the many colors and ways he pursues beauty, peace, freedom, life.

For Cliff and Nancy Richey, arguably the greatest brother-sister duo in the history of tennis, “winning was the be-all and the end-all. It was our life, our business, our religion.” While such a laser-like focus on winning might help one beat depression, it might also, at least for many athletes, lead to some form of depression later in life. How many might be partially cured when they share their story, as Cliff Richey has courageously done, as a kind of guidebook to help others cure themselves? How many more are cured when life becomes not so much winning and losing but helping and supporting others? Good question for any tennis player! Some might say that’s when God saves anyone from the belly of the whale.

* The words in Italics and quotes are all from Cliff Richey’s Acing Depression: A Tennis Champion’s Toughest Match, published by New Chapter Press. A three-time grand slam semifinalist in singles, Cliff Richey was a top American tennis player for many years, reaching a career high of #6 in the world in 1970. His sister, Nancy Richey, won the first French Open singles Championship in 1968 and is a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Our gratitude to Cliff Richey for sharing his private struggles in such a public way. He has helped many in their own battles with depression. We will never know their numbers. 

About the Artist (taken from

A mental health advocate and self-taught artist, Jeffrey Sparr was a four-year starter and team captain on the Ohio State University tennis team. When he graduated in 1985, he was the 3rd winningest player in Ohio State History. Diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in college, Jeff battled with this disease for many years before discovering, on a whim, that painting dramatically subdued the symptoms of his OCD, providing a creative outlet and sense of control. Sparr has been crowned the “Forrest Gump” of painting: Forrest didn’t stop running, Sparr hasn’t stopped painting. This discovery changed the course of Jeff’s life. Ever since then, Jeff has been on a mission to help others through the arts, founding, along with his cousin, the nonprofit organization PeaceLove. You can learn more about Jeff Sparr’s art and work as a mental health advocate on his website.

About PeaceLove

For those looking for an easier way to find emotional relief, PeaceLove is the no-pressure self-care method whose simple creative activities foster a more joyful journey to peace of mind. Through their on-demand classes and kits, they offer a safe, enjoyable way to relieve anxiety, stress, and tension. Through their CREATORS program, they train front line professionals in their approach and curriculum so they can help people express what’s going on inside when finding the words feels tough. CREATORS are facilitating vital emotional healing in the schools, hospitals, prisons, and community centers where help is needed most. You can learn more about the great work PeaceLove does with its many partners on their website. 

  Jeffrey Sparr   Artist & Co-Founder  

“Cliff Richey and the Belly of the Whale” was first published in Tennis Players as Works of Art with the National Senior Men’s Tennis Association.

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