Alice Marble – The Story of a Tennis Heroine

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Every generation owes a debt to those generations preceding it.  In our disposable, consumerist culture marked by short attention spans and in which ten years ago is seen as ancient history, it is important to remind ourselves of that fact.  It is particularly so in the development of tennis.

Looking at the women’s game today, we can see many legacies of the achievements of women in the past. Prize money levels, coaching, tennis development and recognition and status of the women’s game owe a debt to the efforts of such individuals as Billie-Jean King, Chris Evert and Marina Navratilova amongst others. These women themselves, in turn, owe a debt to those of earlier generations. Billie-Jean King, for example, was mentored in her early years by the great Elizabeth Ryan, also a Californian and Grand Slam champion of the 1920’s. King was also coached briefly by Alice Marble, another Californian who reached World No. 1 in the late 1930’s and like Billie-Jean, a player with a fierce competitive spirit and will to win.

Alice Marble was born 100 years ago this year. Her achievements and contribution to the game deserves special commemoration.  From Beckwourth in Northern California, Marble showed an early talent for sport. Initially, she applied her skills to baseball until her brother steered her in the direction of tennis (considered at the time more ‘appropriate’ to a young lady). She soon excelled at the game, winning many tournaments and before long was making a name for herself at national level in the early 1930’s.  California, a state blessed with constant fine weather allowed for almost year-round tennis and was the crucible of great tennis talent then and since.

Marble’s career developed in the wake of such greats as fellow-American Helen Wills-Moody who so dominated the women’s game in the early 1930’s. Marble’s notable feature was her serve/volley game, rare in the women’s game at the time and not that common among the men at the time either. Her desire to dominate the net and her fierce will to win made her a serious competitor. Her natural talent was honed by her fortuitous association with Eleanor ‘Teach’ Tennant who coached several top women players and who helped shape Marble into the champion she eventually became.

As well as for her prodigious talent, Marble also has to be credited for overcoming major challenges early in her career. Not being born with a silver spoon in her mouth, it was a struggle to establish herself in the sport. She also was raped as a young woman and suffered from a serious bout of TB/pleurisy which nearly put an end to her career. Other personal tragedies beset her with the death of her young husband while on active service in Europe during World War Two. Around that time, she suffered a miscarriage resulting in an attempted suicide. It was her doughty, indominatble spirit which enabled her to overcome these tragedies and difficulties, a spirit strongly evident on the tennis court.

In her career, she won the US Championships Singles on 4 occasions (1936, 1938, 1939 and 1940) and Wimbledon on one occasion (1939). The pre-WW2 era was still the pre-jet age when international travel was severely restricted. For this reason, Marble (along with many Americans) did not travel to compete in the French and Australian championships (except on one occasion at the French). It is difficult, therefore, to compare Marble’s achievements with women of the current era who compete in all the Grand Slams on a regular basis. Despite this, Marble won 18 Grand Slam titles (singles, doubles and mixed at Wimbledon and Forest Hills) – impressive by any standards. Had she competed at the Australian and French, who knows what she could have achieved.

Marble was unfortunate in reaching the peak of her career at the outbreak of World War Two. She shared this poor fortune with Don Budge who was Men’s World No. 1 at the outbreak of the war. Who knows what further heights she and Budge would have scaled? Six years was a substantial chunk of one’s career to lose. Both Budge and Marble became professionals which, although lucrative financially, meant that in the pre-Open era, they were forever lost to the premier (amateur) tournaments of the day.

In 1940, Marble turned professional. As if her tennis excellence was not enough of a legacy to leave, she also had a brief interlude as a spy in Switzerland during World War Two. Acting as a US agent, she engaged in a ‘sting’ on a former Swiss lover who was thought to be acting as a conduit for Nazi stolen art – an activity which for most would be seen as ‘above and beyond the call of duty’!

Perhaps, the most admirable example of Marble’s quality as an individual is her support in the 1950’s for black American player, Althea Gibson. Gibson was initially not invited to play in the1950 US National Championships until a stinging attack on the authorities by Marble led to a ‘volte face’ at Forest Hills. This was an era when black sportspersons were just beginning to make their way in integrated sport in the US following the groundbreaking efforts of Jackie Robinson at baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers. Marble’s courage and outspokenness at the time have to be commended when many white people chose the safe option of silence. Althea Gibson was the first black person to compete in a Grand Slam event and later in the decade went on to win the Wimbledon singles title. Marble’s honourable stance during the Gibson saga had shades of the courage and persistence shown later by fellow Californian, Billie-Jean King in the early years of the women’s pro circuit.

Marble’s legacy lives on. She has been inducted into the International Hall of Fame and the Alice Marble Tennis Courts stand in her honour on the hills above San Francisco with a panoramic view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean. She died in 1990 at the age of 77 in her beloved California, that great crucible of tennis talent.

Like a chain letter, she passed on her talent, knowledge and wisdom to the women of the 1950’s, the great Maureen Connolly ‘Little Mo’, Grand Slam winner and also former pupil of Teach Tennant being a case in point. They in turn led to the era of Court, King and Bueno who themselves passed the baton on to Evert, Navratilova and others.

Marble herself was one of the first of the ‘assertive’ female tennis players with a mind of her own and a talent to back it up. She was an example to succeeding generations who, even if not familiar with the details of her career, are clear beneficiaries of her achievements and of the spirit she engendered .

Towards the end of her life, Alice Marble also co-wrote with Dale Leatherman a book about her life and career entitled, ‘Courting Danger’ which admirably highlighted the many challenges, successes, setbacks and intriguing events during her career. While most players over the years (men and women) led fairly uneventful and linear lives, this  could not have been said of the colourful Alice Marble.

 

Paul McElhinney

January 2013  

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