Darlene Hard, winner of 21 major titles in the 1950s and 60s, has died at the age of 85 in Los Angeles on Thursday at the Northridge Hospital after a brief illness, according to Mona Cravens, Director of Student Publications at the University of Southern California, where Hard worked for 45 years.
She was gruff on the outside, but a real softy on the inside. Mona Cravens, Director of Student Publications, USC
Cravens met Hard when she and her husband took tennis lessons from the retired champion, who kept quiet about her accomplishments.
It was not until Cravens went to the library and did some pre-internet research that she discovered Hard’s impressive career.
“She was gruff on the outside, but a real softy on the inside,” said Cravens, who became a close friend of Hard.
Cravens later offered Hard a job at USC, where she did everything from maintenance on the university’s computer systems to design work on the El Rodeo yearbook and Daily Trojan newspaper.
“She had a very good eye for design,” Cravens said on Friday. “She was very committed to whatever she did.”
Hard was groomed on Southern California public courts by her mother Ruth, who instilled an aggressive serve-and-volley game with her daughter as the women’s game was transitioning from long baseline rallies to an all-court style.
She was mentored by tennis greats like Perry Jones and Alice Marble, and became known for her aggressive style of play.
Darlene Ruth Hard was born on 5 January, 1936, in Los Angeles, and her resume boasts an impressive array of accomplishments, with 21 major titles to her name, 13 in women’s doubles, 5 in mixed doubles and 3 in singles.
Her success in doubles championships was a testament to her precise volleying game and technical aptitude in smacking home a winner at the first chance, which also carried her into 7 major singles finals.
She won the French Championships and US Nationals at Forest Hills in 1960, making her one of the era’s premier players.
Hard’s first singles major at the French Championships in 1960 was on a surface that didn’t especially fit her attacking style, but she pounded Mexican Yola Ramirez Ochoa, 6-3 6-4, in the final having risen there from the No 6 seed spot.
She had a fortuitous draw, though, as 3 of the top 4 seeds, including No 1 Zsuzi Komoczy of Hungary, didn’t last past the second round, but she still had to defeat doubles partner and 2nd seed Brazilian Maria Bueno in the semi-finals, which she did easily, 6-3 6-2, to face Ramirez.
That victory spearheaded a prosperous summer trip to New York where, on her 8th try, and after being a semi-finalist in 1954 and 1957, Hard defeated Bueno again to win her first US National Women’s Singles Championship, 6-4 10-12 6-4.
At age 25, she was starting to be viewed as an elder stateswoman in the game and it was a strong statement to beat Bueno in back-to-back majors, avenging a loss to the Brazilian in the 1959 Wimbledon Ladies’s Championship.
The following year at Forest Hills, she successfully defended her title, defeating Ann Haydon (Jones), 6-3 6-4, but Margaret Smith (Court) thwarted Hard’s run in the championship match of 1962, 9-7 6-4.
Hard made her first final at Wimbledon in 1957, but there was no dodging Althea Gibson, falling, 6-3 6-2.
She became part of history, albeit in a losing effort, as Gibson became the first African American to win a championship at the All England Club while, in a much tougher match at the 1958 US Nationals, Gibson defeated Hard in the final, 3-6 6-1 6-2.
Hard earned her 13 women’s doubles titles with 8 different partners, and a scorecard is needed to keep track of the many changes.
Playing in New York brought out the best in Hard and with 4 different partners, she won 6 times (and 5 straight) at the US event in 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962 and 1969, including finalist appearances in 1957 and 1963.
She won the 1958 and 1959 titles with Jeanne Arth, 1960, 1962, and 1963 with Bueno and partnered with Lesley Turner in 1961.
Four additional major doubles titles were won at Wimbledon, 1957, 1959, 1960 and 1963, the first alongside Gibson following their memorable singles final, one with Arth in 1958 and the last two with Bueno.
Three French Championships were linked to Beverly Baker in 1955, Shirley Bloomer in 1957, and Bueno in 1960, the year the Brazilian won the first Grand Slam in doubles.
In mixed doubles, Hard won twice at the French and 3 times at Wimbledon, partnering with Rod Laver for titles in 1959 and ’60.
One year into the Open Era, in 1969, Hard teamed with Françoise Dürr at the 1969 US Open to win her last title at the age of 33, six years after she had retired from serious competition to teach tennis.
Between 1954 and 1963, Hard was ranked in the US Top 10 every year, and rose to No 1 four times from 1960-63, while in the world rankings, she was among the Top 10 nine times, and No 2 globally in 1960 and 1961.
Hard was a standout on the Wightman Cup team, earning wins for the USA against Great Britain in 1957, 1959, 1962 and 1963, while she also helped the American team claim the inaugural Federation Cup title in 1963, the year she also won a singles Bronze Medal and a doubles Gold Medal at the 1963 Pan American Games held at São Paulo, Brazil.
She played at Pomona College in 1957, competing in the first intercollegiate championship in 1958 and winning the national title, and was inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame in 1974 before going into the Intercollegiate Tennis Hall of Fame in 1997.
She became a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1973.
Hard is survived by her sister, Claire Brundage. She was briefly married and had no children.
Darlene Ruth Hard: 5 January, 1936 – 9 December, 2021