Hard, Darlene (1936—)

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Hard, Darlene (1936—)

American who won the U.S. doubles titles for five consecutive years (1958–62) and was ranked #1 among U.S. women's tennis players (1960–63). Born in Los Angeles, California, on January 6, 1936; graduated from Pomona College, Claremont, California; never married; no children.

Among the top tennis players in the world from 1955 to 1964, Darlene Hard was born in 1936 and grew up in a modest neighborhood of Los Angeles, where she mowed lawns to help the family finances and left high school for a time to waitress. As a youngster, she played tennis at Griffith Park, learning the game from her mother, who was at one time a leading metropolitan player. When she began to show promise, the Los Angeles Tennis Club stepped in to help, as did Perry Jones, then the leading sponsor of Southern California tennis. Hard later credited much of her success to tennis great Alice Marble , who suggested that she change from a Continental to an Eastern grip, thereby giving her more control on her flat and top-spin shots.

Hard began playing on the Eastern circuit in 1954 and was a semifinalist at Wimbledon the following year. It was not until 1957, however, that she achieved international recognition. That year, she reached the finals of the Wimbledon singles and won both the women's doubles and mixed doubles, with America's Althea Gibson and Australia's Mervyn Rose, as respective partners. Hard was also a first-time member of the Wightman Cup team, which defeated England's top women players in July.

Hard played little competitive tennis in 1958, concentrating instead on her studies at Pomona College. She did become the first winner of the U.S. Intercollegiate title, and also made a respectable showing at Forest Hills, where she was runner-up in the singles and won the doubles with Jeanne Arth . In 1959, she again reached the finals at Wimbledon, losing the singles to Maria Bueno but winning the mixed doubles while teamed with Rod Laver.

Hard's best year was probably 1960. She took the French singles with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Yola Ramirez of Mexico. In Paris, she aced the doubles with the help of Maria Bueno then, in June, captured the Northern England Tennis title at Manchester. Later that month, she helped

America triumph over England again in the Wightman Cup matches by winning her two singles and the doubles. Only the Wimbledon championship continued to elude her. She lost a quarterfinal match to Sandra Reynolds of South Africa, although she shared the doubles title with Bueno. The two women also won the national women's doubles title at the Longwood Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. Playing perhaps the best tennis of her career, Hard battled it out with Bueno in early September at the U.S. Open championships at Forest Hills. It was her sixth bid for the national singles title, and Hard finally triumphed over the Brazilian in a 6-3, 10-12, 6-4 win. As the year wound down, Hard was ranked first among American women players by the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association.

Unfortunately for Hard, 1961 got off to a shaky start. After losing the final round of the Thunderbird tournament in Scottsdale, Arizona, she embarked on a tennis tour in the Caribbean and Europe. In Paris for the French championships, both she and her partner Maria Bueno were stricken with hepatitis. Although less seriously ill than Bueno, Hard was forced to take to her bed for six weeks. After her own recuperation, Hard nursed Bueno back to health. The hiatus resulted in exclusion from the 1960 Wightman Cup team. A turn-around began that August with a win at the Essex invitation tournament. Then, at Forest Hills, Hard captured the American doubles title with partner Lesley Turner and retained her national title, beating Britain's Ann Haydon , 6-3, 6-4. In Sports Illustrated (September 18, 1961), Huston Horn wrote that "with almost embarrassing ease, Darlene the tigress gulped up the comparatively gentle lambs who opposed her." In November 1961, World Tennis magazine ranked Hard fifth among women then playing tennis, and in December, she placed third behind track star Wilma Rudolph and golfer Mickey Wright in the Associated Press poll for female athlete of the year. She was also once again ranked first among American women tennis players.

After an extended tennis tour of Australia in early 1962, Hard complained that the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia had treated her like a "puppet" rather than a player and called the $4.20-a-day living allowance "ludicrous." It was not the first time that she had openly spoken her mind, a habit that did not always sit well with tennis officials. Despite her occasional outbursts and fierce competitive spirit, Hard's ready smile and warm personality made her a favorite with both spectators and fellow players.

Later in 1962, Hard won the Italian doubles with Bueno, but lost in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon to Vera Sukova of Czechoslovakia. At Forest Hills, Hard also lost her singles title to Australian Margaret Smith Court . The one bright note was her win of the national doubles in late August, partnered again with Bueno. Hard told Gene Roswell of the New York Post (September 6, 1962): "I like doubles. I like to have someone to talk to out there, someone to clown with or to encourage…. I play better if someone depends on me."

In 1963, her last full year on the circuit, Hard lost the singles title at Wimbledon and Forest Hill, and she and Maria Bueno also succumbed to Margaret Smith and Robyn Ebbern in the doubles championship. Hard and Billie Jean King did, however, pace the American team to a triumph over the Australians in the Federation Cup tournament, and Hard also played magnificently against Margaret Smith in the finals of the Pennsylvania grass-court championships. In December 1963, she was ranked for the fourth consecutive year, as top American tennis player. In May 1964, Hard turned professional, taking a teaching position at a tennis ranch in Carmel Valley, California. She returned briefly to competition in 1969, winning the U.S. doubles with Françoise Durr . Reflecting on her tennis career, Hard once said, "It's more fun to be on the way up than to be there."