Darlene Hard, American tennis star of the 1950s and 1960s who won 21 grand slam titles – obituary

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Darlene Hard in 1960 - Alamy
Darlene Hard in 1960 - Alamy

Darlene Hard, who has died aged 85, was an American tennis star of the 1950s and 1960s who won three Grand Slam singles and 18 doubles titles.

She was a major influence on her younger compatriot Billie-Jean King, whom she partnered to victory in the inaugural Federation Cup women’s international team competition. Regarded as one of the greatest doubles players of her generation, Darlene Hard won 13 women’s doubles championships and five in mixed, with big-name partners including Maria Bueno, and Rod Laver – who claimed that she was a better volleyer than he was.

But her openness about her bisexuality outraged American tennis officials at a time when same-sex relationships were considered taboo.

 Althea Gibson and Darlene Hard come on to Centre Court at Wimbledon for the Ladies Singles final in 1957 - Alamy
Althea Gibson and Darlene Hard come on to Centre Court at Wimbledon for the Ladies Singles final in 1957 - Alamy

Darlene Ruth Hard was born on January 6 1936 in Los Angeles and brought up in Montebello, where her father, who worked in the trucking industry, encouraged her to play football, basketball and baseball. Her mother, an enthusiastic amateur tennis player, coached her on public courts, instilling the big-hitting serve-volley game that was replacing the old-style attritional baseline rallies. Her natural talent rapidly emerged, and aged 13 she regularly travelled two hours by bus to train at the Los Angeles Tennis Club.

After high school, Darlene Hard joined the tennis circuit. A tenacious strategist, she rose rising rapidly through the ranks and reached the first of seven singles finals at Wimbledon in 1957.

Despite gritty retrieving, she was swept aside by the aggressive all-court game of the rangy African-American Althea Gibson. The two then took the doubles title for the loss of just three games.

Darlene Hard also won the US singles at Forest Hills in 1961 and 1962 and in the early 1960s was ranked No 2 in the world.

She won two more Wimbledon doubles crowns, including in 1959, partnering Maria Bueno, with whom she took five majors. The pair became so close that in 1961 Darlene Hard pulled out of Wimbledon in 1961 to nurse Maria Bueno through jaundice.

Darlene Hard won her first major singles title, the 1960 French Open, beating the Mexican Yolanda Ramirez Ochoa 6-3, 6-4. However a contemporary remembered raised eyebrows when Darlene Hard walked around tournaments holding hands with her female physiotherapist, and she was temporarily omitted from the US Wightman Cup squad by officials convinced she would be a bad influence on younger players.

Darlene Hard enrolled at Pomona College in 1957 initially to study paediatrics, though she never practised. The following year she won the first women’s intercollegiate tennis championship. Hitting with the 13-year-old Billie-Jean Moffit (later King) at Pomona, she spotted the youngster’s star quality and mentored the future pioneer of the women’s professional game.

The pair later teamed up in the inaugural Federation Cup in 1963, saving two match points in the deciding doubles against Australia to secure the trophy. Darlene Hard also won three of her mixed doubles majors with the Australian star Rod Laver, who hugely admired her net-play.

Darlene Hard in 1956 at a Wimbledon warm-up tournament in Sutton, Surrey - Keystone Press/Alamy
Darlene Hard in 1956 at a Wimbledon warm-up tournament in Sutton, Surrey - Keystone Press/Alamy

“I’d go out on to the court with her and I’d tell the other team that I wouldn’t have to hit any overheads,” he recalled. “Darlene would hit them all... Pretty soon, the word was out. You better hit the ball at Laver.”

After retiring from the tour in 1964, Darlene Hard became a coach but enjoyed a last hurrah in the 1969 US Open doubles, partnering Françoise Dürr. Astonishingly, they reached the final and against the overwhelming favourites Margaret Court and Virginia Wade, found themselves 0-6, 0-2 down.

“On a break, I told Frankie we had to at least get one ‘1’ up there on the scoreboard,” Darlene Hard said later. They won 12 of the next 17 games to secure what the tennis writer Bud Collins called “one of the most remarkable and crowd-pleasing victories of the year”.

Darlene Hard shunned publicity and rarely mentioned her past triumphs. When she began coaching Mona Cravens, publications director at the University of Southern California in the mid-1970s, it was only when her new pupil trawled through the archives that she discovered her coach’s glittering tennis career.

Mona Cravens became a close friend and offered Darlene Hard a job at the university, where she worked for more than 40 years, maintaining its computer systems and contributing her design skills to its yearbooks and newspapers.

Darlene Hard’s short-lived marriage to Richard Waggoner Jr ended in divorce and she had no children.

Darlene Hard, born January 6 1936, died December 2 2021

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