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Hall of Famer Darlene Hard Has Died at Age 85

Darlene Hard (L) congratulates her friend and doubles partner Althea Gibson on her Wimbledon win. The pair captured the Wimbledon doubles crown together. Photo credit: International Tennis Hall of Fame

By International Tennis Hall of Fame

American tennis great Darlene Hard, a 1973 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee and the winner of 21 major titles, died on December 2 at the age of 85.

Hard was a lifelong Los Angeles area resident, having learned the sport from her mother on the public courts there, and then returning to teach tennis in the area after she retired from competition.

A skilled serve and volleyer, Hard had a precise game and technical aptitude that resulted in a remarkable array of accomplishments. Her 21 major titles were comprised of 13 in women’s doubles, five in mixed doubles, and three in singles, having won the 1960 and 1961 U.S. National Championships and the 1960 French Championships. She was a Wimbledon finalist in 1957 and 1959. Her 13 women’s doubles titles came partnered alongside eight different partners, and in mixed doubles, she frequently played with Hall of Famer Rod Laver, who has credited her for much of the success in their three titles together.

Additionally, Hard was a member of four winning Wightman Cup teams and was a member of the 1963 United States Fed Cup championship team in the competition’s inaugural year.

Between 1954 and 1963, she was ranked in the U.S. top-10 every year, and rose to No. 1 four times from 1960-63. In world rankings, Hard was among the top-10 nine times and No. 2 globally in 1960 and 1961. 

Despite her unassuming nature, Hard’s legacy shines in tennis’ history books and inspired future generations of players at all levels.

Hall of Famer Billie Jean King reflected, “Darlene Hard had a major influence on my career, as an athlete, teammate and friend. I was fortunate to hit with her when I was 13 years old and she was playing at Pomona College. She was the best doubles player of her generation and when she asked me to be her doubles partner at the 1960 US National Clay Courts, when I was 16 years old, she boosted my confidence immensely.”

She continued, “But being her teammate and winning the first Federation Cup for the USA in 1963, with match points against us in the final doubles match, was not only a highlight of both our careers, but it is also a part of the rich tennis history in our nation. I will miss her but never forget her.”

Queen Elizabeth II presents Althea Gibson with Rosewater Dish at Wimbledon while runner-up Darlene Hard (L), Gibson’s doubles partner, looks on. Photo credit: AP/International Tennis Hall of Fame

Upon retirement, Hard gave lessons to amateurs in the Los Angeles area, with most students unaware of her illustrious past on the tennis’ biggest stages. Upon seeing a subtle notation of her national titles on a business card, Hard’s student Mona Cravens did some research and was awed to discover her instructor’s accomplished past. In 1981, when Hard was considering winding down teaching tennis, Cravens offered Hard a position working in the University of Southern California’s publications office. Hard continued to work in the office alongside Cravens for nearly 40 years, up until the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hard was one of the last great competitors of tennis’ amateur era, with the majority of her success coming prior to the dawn of the Open Era in 1969, save for her last major title, which came at the 1969 US Open. Hard traveled to the event intending to compete in doubles with one of her students who she had promised she would play with if the student qualified. Upon arrival, they realized they could not play together because the student was an amateur and Hard was a teaching pro. Hard paired up with fellow future Hall of Famer Francoise Durr instead, advancing to the finals versus Margaret Court and Virginia Wade. Hard and Durr were heavily down in the match, 0-6, 0-2, when Hard commented that they had to at least win one game to avoid embarrassment. The new pairing went on to win 12 of the next 17 games, ultimately winning the title and securing Hard’s 21st and final major title, six years after she had retired from frequent competition.