In Memoriam: Darlene Hard ‘61, 21-time Grand Slam Champion from Southern California (Part I)

In honor of Women’s History Month, we would like to dedicate this week’s alumni feature to Darlene R. Hard ‘61, a 21-time Grand Slam champion, former No. 2 player in the world, and international tennis Hall-of-Famer, who passed away on December 2, 2021. She was 85 years old. A memorial service was held on December 15, 2021 at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California.

Darlene was born on January 5, 1936 in Los Angeles, California. She grew up in the city of Montebello, where her mother, Ruth—who had played high school tennis—helped her develop a powerful serve-and-volley game on the local public courts. Darlene would constantly run out onto the tennis court and seek out hitting partners—even if they could only play for a moment. Since tennis players had to be quiet and wear white, she mentioned in a letter to Lisa Beckett, Professor of Physical Education (from 1987 to present) and PPWT (Pomona-Pitzer Women’s Tennis) Head Coach (from 1987 to 1998), that she did not initially take to the game seriously in her youth.

However, as Darlene told Coach Lisa in that same letter in the fall of 1997, “It was probably the beginning of my love of net play, as I was small and didn’t want to waste time getting back to the baseline and wait for the ball to come… I wanted to be busy, so in my younger years, I used my racquet for hitting dirt clods, and I played softball for my father where we could chant and carry-on.”

Darlene’s tennis career began at age 13 when a family friend asked if she would like to play doubles at a major tournament in Southern California. Darlene not only won the doubles with Mary Lou Maxwell but also defeated her partner to win her first singles title at the 13 and under Southern California Junior Tennis Championships.

With this victory in hand, Darlene received a guest membership to LATC (Los Angeles Tennis Club). Because her family could not afford tennis lessons, she would complete her household chores and take the bus to LATC to learn more about the game. She would carefully watch all-star players like Louise Brough, serve as a ball girl for their matches, and, on the rare occasion, hit some balls with some of these athletes.

Despite her immense talent, Darlene was only permitted to practice with members of the boys’ tennis team at Montebello High School. She could not play in any of their matches. 

For three years after graduating from high school, Darlene played tennis tournaments across Africa, Australia, Europe, and the United States. She traveled with both female and male players on combined tours, receiving support for airfares as well as housing from tournament committees. 20-time Grand Slam champion Rod Laver even carried her luggage, while the Sagehen alumna kept track of the racquets and some of the other smaller items. The winners would earn emeralds, gold, clocks, and trophies for their victories, with the exception of the monetary prize that was offered by the South Africa tour. 

Darlene eventually won 18 Grand Slam doubles titles and three Grand Slam singles titles, while partnering with, and, in some cases, playing against, numerous tennis legends such as Maria Bueno, Althea Gibson, and Billie Jean King.

She reached seven major singles finals, winning the French Championships in 1960 and the U.S. Nationals in 1960 and 1961. Although the clay courts did not necessarily suit her big-hitting game, she achieved her first Grand Slam victory at the Stade Roland Garros in France, where she defeated the No. 2 seed, Maria Bueno, in the semifinals 6-3, 6-2 and the No. 6 seed, Yola Ramírez Ochoa, 6-3, 6-4. For two straight years, Darlene came out victorious over Maria Bueno and Ann Haydon at the U.S. Nationals in Forest Hills, New York.

Queen Elizabeth II congratulates Althea Gibson and Darlene Hard for reaching the 1957 Wimbledon singles final. That same year, Darlene paired with Althea and the two of them won the Wimbledon doubles title. 

Darlene was a masterful doubles player. With seven different partners—Jeanne Arth, Maria Bueno, Lesley Turner, Althea Gibson, Beverly Baker, Shirley Bloomer, and Françoise Durr—in women’s doubles, Darlene won five U.S. Nationals (1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962), one U.S. Open (1969), four Wimbledon Championships (1957, 1959, 1960, 1963), and three French Championships (1955, 1957, 1960). In mixed doubles, she won three Wimbledon titles and two French titles while partnering with Mervyn Rose, Rod Laver, and Gordon Forbes.

Darlene once shared with former PPWT Head Coach Lisa Beckett that at the National Doubles hosted by the Longwood Cricket Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, “Harry [Hopman] allowed Maria Bueno and me to work out with the Aussie men’s team, offering help whenever he could sneak it in. Maria and I would hug the net in a two-on-one effort against all the top males and somehow we held our own.” 

Rod Laver recently recalled, “I’d go out onto the court with her and I’d tell the other team that I wouldn’t have to hit any overheads. Darlene would hit them all. They’d start hitting hard shots at her at the net and she would get them all back. Pretty soon, the word was out. You better hit the ball at Laver.” Reflecting on their time as doubles partners, he remarked that “she was just a great doubles player, maybe one of the best ever at mixed.”

After returning to the tour in 1960, Darlene could not find a fashion designer to dress her for Wimbledon. A friend ultimately designed and created a new dress for her just in time for the Hurlingham Exhibition Sunday. Her outfit stunned all of the other players and designers, as she unsnapped the buttons on her dress and took off the big bows on her shoes before playing any matches.

With a 10-4 record at the Wightman Cup, Darlene helped the Americans defeat the British four times (1957, 1959, 1962, 1963). At the 1963 Pan American Games in Sao Paulo, Darlene won a bronze medal in singles and a gold medal in doubles. 

That same year, Darlene also achieved a 6-1 record at the inaugural Federation Cup, playing alongside Billie Jean King and Carol Caldwell. The duo of Darlene and Billie Jean played doubles together, saving two match points and leading the United States to victory in the first Federation Cup, which is now called the Billie Jean King Cup. With fond memories of their historic win, Billie Jean commented that “being [Darlene’s] teammate and winning the first Federation Cup… was not only a highlight of both our careers, it is a part of the rich tennis history in our nation.”

Though Darlene primarily played during the amateur era, at 33 years old, she won the 1969 U.S. Open doubles title with Françoise Dürr—just one year after the professional, or “Open,” era had commenced in 1968. The pair of Darlene and Françoise were initially 0-6, 0-2 down to Margaret Court and Virginia Wade, but managed to claw their way back to a resounding 6-4, 6-4 victory in the second and third sets.

By the end of her tennis career, Darlene was a top-10 player in the world nine times, ranking as high as No. 2 globally in 1960 and 1961. She was ranked in the top 10 in the U.S. from 1954 through 1963, including four years as the No. 1 player in the nation. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1973. 

Since Darlene once shared some incredible fan-assembled videos of her tennis days, Coach Lisa said, “Darlene, who was so humble, enjoyed having two tennis friends [Coach Lisa and Anne Bages, Pomona College Professor Emerita of Physical Education (from 1959 to 2003) and Head Coach (from 1959 to 1984),] really enjoy the quality of her play. And, I think she had the best backhand volley that has ever existed.”

As reflected by Coach Lisa, Darlene cherished every opportunity to travel, compete, and represent her country, as well as the camaraderie and the friends that she made along the way. The former PPWT head coach still remembers Darlene saying that “she loved traveling with the other players, serving as each other’s hitting or training partners, and staying in the homes of tennis patrons when she traveled the world… and she said she wouldn’t trade it for any amount of money.”

This sentiment was similarly expressed by Darlene herself in We Have Come a Long Way: The Story of Women’s Tennis, a book that was co-authored by Billie Jean King and Cynthia Starr in 1988. Darlene explained, “I didn’t do it for money. I was the last of the amateurs. I won Forest Hills and I got my airfare from New York to Los Angeles. Whoopee. But we still went for our titles. We went for the glory. I was happy. I loved it. I loved tennis.”

Billie Jean King, Carole Caldwell Graebner, and Darlene holding their trophy after winning the inaugural Federation Cup in 1963.

Eventually, Darlene taught tennis as a professional instructor and active volunteer and even owned two tennis shops in the Los Angeles area. In 1981, she received a job offer to work at USC (University of Southern California), where she designed the El Rodeo yearbook and Daily Trojan newspaper, researched stories about the university, and assisted with maintenance on the computer systems for around 45 years. 

Though Darlene had mostly closed the tennis chapter of her life by the time that she met Coach Lisa and attended her induction in the Intercollegiate Tennis Hall of Fame, she maintained a number of lifelong friendships and connections with members of the PPWT community. Please keep an eye out for Part II, where we will zoom in on her years at Pomona. Many thanks to Coach Lisa for sharing so many of her wonderful stories about Darlene. 

For videos of some of Darlene’s matches and other coverage of her extraordinary accomplishments, please see:

(Images courtesy of Lisa Beckett, Associated Press, and International Tennis Federation)

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