May 25, 2022

Darlene Hard, Strong-Willed Tennis Star Before Pro Era, Dies at 85

Darlene Hard, a sturdy and strong-willed Californian with a power game who won 21 Grand Slam tennis championships as one of the last stars of the amateur era, died on Dec. 2 in Los Angeles. She was 85.

Anne Marie McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., which inducted Hard in 1973, confirmed the death but did not give a cause.

Hard flourished in the late 1950s and early ’60s, when tournament tennis was the domain of amateurs. Along with her, the women’s game featured stars such as Althea Gibson and a young Billie Jean King, Maria Bueno of Brazil and Margaret Court of Australia, all future Hall of Famers.

Of the Grand Slam tournaments, Hard won the United States amateur titles in 1960 and ’61 and the French title in 1960. She reached the United States finals in 1958 and 1962 and the Wimbledon finals in 1957 and 1959. She also won 13 Grand Slam championships in women’s doubles with eight different partners, and five in mixed doubles, often paired with Rod Laver.

She was ranked No. 1 in the United States from 1960 through 1963, and No. 2 in the world in 1960 and ’61.

Gibson played with more power than many women before or since, and Bueno was noted for her grace, but Hard’s aggressive game — big serve, strong overhead and punishing volley — made her a winner. At 5 feet 5½ inches tall and 140 pounds, her main success came on grass courts, where three of the four Grand Slam tournaments were played. (The French Open was, and still is, played on a clay surface).

Hard was unusually outspoken at a time when most top players lacked the assertiveness that some display today. She once said of dominating Australian tennis officials: “They treat you not as a player but a puppet. Between tournaments, I was not asked to play in exhibitions — I was ordered to play in them. It was not ‘Miss Hard, would you mind playing?’ It was ‘Miss Hard, you will play.’”

Hard belonged to four victorious teams in the Wightman Cup, the annual competition between British and American tennis players. She showed her independent mindedness then, too, earning the irritation of the American team’s captain, Margaret Osborne duPont.

DuPont called Hard a “disrupting element” in an official 1962 report. “She insisted on practicing her way instead of complying with the captain’s wishes and those of the other team members,” duPont said.

Hard took part in a match that made tennis history on July 6, 1957, losing in the final that made Gibson the first African American woman to win Wimbledon (by a 6-3, 6-2 score). Before the match, as customary, both players curtsied to a young Queen Elizabeth II. Afterward, the queen spoke to them for a few minutes. Then Gibson, following protocol, backed away. An overly enthused Hard, however, in an eyebrow-raising breach of etiquette, turned her back to the queen and skipped toward the locker room.

Darlene Ruth Hard was born on Jan. 6, 1936, in Los Angeles and grew up in nearby Montebello, Calif. Her father introduced her to football, basketball, baseball and softball. Her mother, a good amateur player, taught her tennis on public courts.

After high school, Hard spent four years on the tennis circuit. Then, she later said, “I decided I didn’t want tennis for a life, so I went to college. I wanted to be in pediatrics. I guess I always wanted to be a doctor.”

She went to Pomona College in California and in 1958 won the first intercollegiate tennis championship for women. She graduated in 1961.

While at Pomona, Hard had a hitting session with a 13-year-old player who had demonstrated some promise: Billie Jean King.

“Darlene Hard had a major influence on my career, as an athlete, teammate and friend,” King was quoted as saying on the Hall of Fame website. The two went on to play doubles together in the first Federation Cup, in 1963, the premier international women’s team tennis competition. King — for whom the cup is now named — recalled how they had overcome two match points to win the final, a highlight of both of their careers, she said.

Hard returned to tennis after graduating and worked as a waitress between tournaments. In 1964, with only $400 in the bank, she turned professional and played on a South African tour with Bueno. She soon started giving tennis lessons in the Los Angeles area, leaving behind tournament play.

But in 1969, the year after pros were accepted into major tournaments, she returned briefly to international competition, teaming up with Françoise Dürr to play doubles at the U.S. Open. Down 0-6, 0-2 in the final, they rallied to capture the title, 0–6, 6–3, 6–4.

Hard went back to teaching tennis and owned two tennis shops. One of her tennis students, the director of student publications at the University of Southern California, offered her a job in the office in 1981. Hard remained there for nearly 40 years.

Information on her survivors was not immediately available.

In “We Have Come a Long Way: The Story of Women’s Tennis” (1988), which King wrote with Cynthia Starr, Hard described her dedication to the sport.

“I didn’t do it for money,” she said. “I was the last of the amateurs. I won Forest Hills and I got my airfare from New York to Los Angeles. Whoopee.” She continued: “But we still went for our titles. We went for the glory. I was happy. I loved it. I loved tennis.”

Frank Litsky, a longtime sportswriter for The Times, died in 2018. Daniel J. Wakin and Jordan Allen contributed reporting.

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