The least publicized, underrated, and possibly underrated tennis player of the past half century, died Thursday at Northridge Hospital.
Her name was Darlene Hard and she would have turned 86 on January 6th. If you’ve never heard of her before, you’re in the majority. It’s not a question of age. Her name fills a gap even among tennis fans in their 60s and 70s.
In her heyday she was one of the best in sport. She left Montebello, where her mother Ruth taught her to play, after their relationship turned up because Darlene started beating her mother in tennis at the age of 15. Darlene toured the world, winning major tournaments and shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth who presented her trophies. At a Wimbledon champions dinner, she sat next to Prince Philip and talked to him. It was easy for someone who was so happy and happy with himself.
“He was interesting, not at all stuffy,” she recalled a few years ago.
She returned home long enough to graduate from Pomona College with a degree in pediatrics. There she won the first national individual title for women. That was in 1958, and she was already number 2 in the world rankings.
“I quickly realized that it was easier to play tennis than to become a doctor,” she says.
Queen Elizabeth, right, presents Althea Gibson with the trophy for the 1957 Wimbledon title after defeating Darlene Hard, left.
Hard won a national hardcourt title with Billie Jean King and with King as a partner also the decisive game of a Federation Cup over Australia. King, perhaps the greatest name in the sport in the last 50 years – whose name is on the world’s largest tennis facility at the US Open – spoke fondly, even in awe of Hard on Friday.
“She was amazing, one of my heroes,” said King, who is eight years younger than Hard. “She was a great doubles player, had quick hands and was a great athlete. I was 13 when she asked me to play on the national hard courts with her. We won, but I was so afraid to let them down. “
In 1959 Rod Laver, who is now 83 years old, reached the final of the men’s singles, doubles and mixed games. That year he only won the mixed doubles. His partner was Hard. Laver, whose tennis legacy matches King’s and who is the only male player to win all four major tournaments in the same year – he did so twice – spoke of Hard on Friday as if she were the star of their pairing.
“I went out with her and told the other team that I didn’t have to hit overheads. Darlene would meet them all, ”he said. “You started throwing hard shots at her and she would get them all back. The word was soon known. You better hit the ball with Laver. “
They played mixed doubles at Wimbledon again the next year and won again.
“She was just a great doubles player, maybe one of the best mixed players of all time,” said Laver.
She wasn’t bad in the individual either. She won two US Open titles, one French and lost twice in the Wimbledon final. In total, she won 13 Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles and mixed, had a record of 14-4 in the French, 29-7 in Wimbledon and 43-9 in the US Nationals (now Open). And her best title was her last.
Hard had retired five years earlier and began teaching tennis at facilities she owned in the San Fernando Valley. She promised one of her students that if she made it through a qualifying event, she would play doubles with her at the US Open. This was 1969, the second year of the Open Era of tennis when players could actually be paid to win. By then, all of Hard’s tennis successes had earned her a total financial payout of $ 200.20. That was seven years of expense allowance – $ 28.60 a year – spent at Wimbledon. But in 1969 she wasn’t allowed to play with her student, an amateur player, because Hard was a professional. A teaching professional.
“I never thought about that,” she said when telling the story years later.
Without hanging out with a partner, she ran into an acquaintance from years of fighting with the boys at the LA Tennis Center. The acquaintance brought her together with another player whose partner had let her down.
“Darlene Hard, meet Francois Durr,” said Pancho Gonzalez.
Durr, a veteran from France with a high international standing, played soft corners and served small lollipops, which she bravely followed into the net. Bullets struck hard, stormed the net and cracked hard angled volleys. They were the weird couple in tennis. They also made it to the finals.
Their opponents were Margaret Court and Virginia Wade, both veterans and big winners. Hard and Durr soon followed, 0-6, 0-2. Hard told Durr that they’d better get at least one game on the scoreboard to avoid total embarrassment. They won 12 of the next 17 games and the title. Hard got $ 1,000, bringing her total tennis winnings to $ 1,200.20.
“She was amazing, one of my heroes.”
Billie Jean King
Hard returned full time to Los Angeles to her tennis instructor job and disappeared from a sport that was just beginning to gain popularity and attention nationally and internationally. And she couldn’t have been happier about that. As sociable and colorful as she was on the pitch, Hard was also private outside of it. Over the years it grew even more. The self-applying athlete disgusted her, and she said so when asked.
The thing is, she was rarely asked. Nobody knew where she was.
One of her tennis students was Mona Cravens, who then and now was the director of student publications at USC. One day while she was in class, Cravens noticed a 3 “by 5” card promoting tennis lessons. The card said the teacher was a “two-time national champion”. In those days before Wikipedia, Cravens had to go to the USC library and look up that Darlene Hard. Sure enough. She had taken dozens of lessons from her and Hard never mentioned anything about being a Grand Slam champion or being number 2 in the world.
Cravens admired Hard’s work ethic, and soon, when a position became available in the USC publications department, Cravens offered Hard a job – assuming a tennis master wouldn’t like to sit in an office 40 hours a week. She was sure the answer would be no. She was wrong.
That was in 1981. Hart took the job, partly out of fear of skin cancer attacks. She did everything from designing USC yearbooks to researching stories about the USC online. She remained in this position until recently with a few fits of illness interrupting the run when she fell and fell into a coma from which she never awoke.
Around the USC she was known as “Darlene in Publications”; not “Darlene, famous tennis champion”. There are perhaps hundreds of USC faculties and students who read an obituary for her and will be stunned that Darlene in publications was actually Darlene Hard, who was the best tennis player in the world for four or five years in the late 50s and early 60s in the world.
Her anonymity would make Darlene happy. Once she put tennis in the rearview mirror, that’s how she wanted it.