In Memoriam: Darlene Hard ‘61, First Women’s Intercollegiate Singles Champion (Part II)

While Part I covered Darlene Hard’s ‘61 Grand Slam victories and major accomplishments on the tour, Part II will focus on her life as a Pomona-Pitzer Sagehen. We are endlessly grateful to two legendary former Head Coaches of the PPWT (Pomona-Pitzer Women’s Tennis) Team—Anne Bages, Pomona College Professor Emerita of Physical Education (from 1959 to 2003) and Head Coach (from 1959 to 1984), and Lisa Beckett, Pomona College Professor of Physical Education (1987 to present) and Head Coach (from 1987 to 1998)—for sharing these precious memories of Darlene. 

Hoping to become a pediatrician, Darlene took the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) while on tour in Miami and gained acceptance to Pomona College in 1957. In high school, Darlene had enrolled in as many of the medicine-related courses as possible to prepare her for her future collegiate studies and potential career in pediatrics. 

At Pomona, Darlene organized and played a wide range of competitive sports, including basketball, field hockey, soccer, and tennis, across campus. In a letter to Coach Lisa in the fall of 1997, Darlene reminisced about the times that she and her friends played pick-up-sticks eliminations during late-evening study breaks. She also taught tennis classes and helped conduct clinics for the Physical Education Department. 

As a stand-out player, it is no surprise that Darlene not only competed in but also won the very first women’s intercollegiate national singles title in 1958. 

On the last day to register for Fall 1959 classes at the College, Darlene met the then-new Coach Anne at the “old” tennis courts, where the Oldenborg Center for Modern Languages and International Relations now stands. Coach Anne, who agreed to organize, oversee, and support the women’s tennis team, still remembers when Darlene “arrived in her red car with the horn (that sounded like a bugle) blaring and announcing her arrival!”

At their first practice together, Darlene introduced herself and subsequently borrowed Coach Anne’s brand-new Wilson Pancho Gonzales racquet. Coach Anne recalled that Darlene “played her usual aggressive game and chased all over the court running down balls and scraping my racquet on the court and basically trashed it in one afternoon!”

Darlene Hard ‘61 chasing after a ball during one of her matches at the Wimbledon Championships in 1960.

During many weekends, she would head out to Long Beach, California, to hit with young athletes like Billie Jean King.

With fond memories of her time with Darlene, Billie Jean shared on Instagram, “She was the best doubles player of her generation and when she asked me to be her doubles partner at the 1960 U.S. National Clay Courts, when I was 16 years old, she boosted my confidence immensely.”

Coach Anne continues to cherish the times that Darlene would take her to Billie Jean’s home and to one of the public parks in Long Beach to watch Billie Jean play. Darlene would also bring Coach Anne with her to LATC (Los Angeles Tennis Club) to see many of the best female tennis players.

As covered in Part I, Darlene decided to return to the professional tour by the end of her fifth semester at the College. In honor of her numerous athletic achievements both inside and outside of college, she became the first woman to be elected into the Sagehens’ Athletic Hall of Fame roughly a decade and a half later in 1974. 

Darlene being inducted into the Pomona College Athletic Hall of Fame, alongside four other Sagehens, during the annual spring sports banquet held at the Los Angeles Police Academy in Elysian Park in 1974.

Upon arriving at Pomona in 1987, Coach Lisa learned that Darlene was a PPWT alumna. She had first learned about Darlene in a “Women in Sport” college course that she had taken at Sonoma State University. Coach Lisa decided to call Darlene on the phone, introducing herself as the new coach and inviting the 21-time Grand Slam champion to an on-campus alumni tennis event. Although she could not attend, Darlene graciously thanked Coach Lisa for calling. Coach Lisa promised to stay in touch and continued to invite Darlene to the annual alumni tennis event for the next decade.

Darlene was inducted into the Intercollegiate Tennis Hall of Fame at The College of William and Mary, in 1997. Coach Lisa can still remember traveling to Williamsburg, Virginia, with Darlene and her mother, Ruth. “[Darlene] invited me (well actually, she later told me that I had invited myself) to come… to [her] induction into the Intercollegiate Hall of Fame… It was an honor for me, and a chance to get to know both Darlene and Ruth,” noted Coach Lisa.

The former PPWT head coach describes the experience as “a wonderful 48-hour trip into the past, a time for Hard to revisit a memorable chapter of her life, and a time for all of us to acknowledge the continuing significance of her contributions.” On the flight home, Coach Lisa proudly shared a number of Darlene’s accomplishments, including her recent induction, with the captain who immediately congratulated the 21-time Grand Slam champion through an announcement on the overhead speaker. 

A year later, Darlene invited Coach Lisa to join her as well as her mother and Aunt Betty on a ten-day trip to London. Wimbledon’s “Chairman” had invited Darlene to attend the tournament and its related events as a “special guest.” Darlene, a seven-time Wimbledon champion, teased Coach Lisa when she discreetly took some photos of the Williams sisters in the players’ waiting area at the All England Club.

Darlene, Coach Anne Bages, and Coach Lisa Beckett at the Village Grille in Claremont.

Coach Lisa expressed immense gratitude for all the times that she shared with Coach Anne, Ruth, and Darlene, who was “so full of life and good energy.” They would often meet up on Pomona’s campus, in Claremont Village, or in nearby towns. Each gathering was filled with laughter about the very loud horn in Darlene’s old car and other memories of tennis at Pomona. 

Darlene showed Coach Lisa her “top floor room with a view” that she had at Mudd-Blaisdell Residence Hall on South Campus. On another occasion, the two of them hit some balls together on the college courts, and Darlene even told Coach Lisa to “quit being so nervous!”

Both our team and alumni are thankful to Darlene for her countless contributions to women’s tennis. We are truly honored to stand on the shoulders of Darlene, Billie Jean, Coach Anne, and Coach Lisa, among many other PPWT legends. We will continue to celebrate her life and keep her legacy alive in our practices, matches, and gatherings. Thank you, Darlene, for all that you have done for our community and the tennis world.

(Images courtesy of Lisa Beckett, Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images and The New York Times, and Pomona-Pitzer Athletics)

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