Alice Marble: A Tennis Heroine

Calla Lily ProfileArleen Solomon Rotchin6 Comments
1937 American tennis player Alice Marble signs autographs for young fans

1937 American tennis player Alice Marble signs autographs for young fans

Alice Marble was the tennis player who won the U.S. singles title four times and Wimbledon in 1939.  She was ranked number one in the world, 1939-1940, and was named the AP Female Athlete of the Year.  Marble broke world records to become the first woman to win both Wimbledon and the US Open singles, doubles and mixed doubles in the same year.  She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1964, the winner of 18 Grand Slam Championships, the first woman to adopt the serve-and-volley style of play.

But perhaps, the most admirable example of Marble’s quality as an individual, is her support in the 1950’s for black American tennis player Althea Gibson.  Gibson was initially not invited to play in the 1950 US National Championships and Marble was the first to publicly address the sport’s segregation practises and challenge the establishment.  

She wrote her historic July 1, 1950 editorial in American Tennis Magazine denouncing the all-white U.S. Lawn Association’s policy of excluding African-Americans from competition.  She exhorted,

‘If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites. If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.’

As a result of Alice Marble’s courageous and tenacious editorial and her well-respected position, Gibson, 23, was invited to play in the 1950 US National Championships (now the US Open) and won the championship that year.  In 1957, she became the first African-American to win Wimbledon and the US Nationals and the first to be named the AP Female Athlete of the Year.  

Althea Gibson wins Wimbledon

Althea Gibson wins Wimbledon

Marble looked like a film actress and on the tennis court few struck the ball with such tenacity and aggressive style.

Billie Jean King told the New York Times, ‘She is remembered as one of the greatest women to play the game because of her pioneering style in power tennis.  I admired her tremendously because she always helped others.’

Marble was also a fashion trendsetter.  She dared to wear white shorts on the court in 1932 instead of the customary long skirt and the restrictive, heavy clothing of the times.  Such a fashion statement was considered outrageous, until function and practicality were acceptable in female sports attire and ultimately revolutionized the standards for women’s casual clothing.

But it’s the fascinating life Marble lived off the court that makes her more than just a memorable athlete.  By the time her career got underway, Marble had overcome a great deal of adversity.  In her second autobiography, Courting Danger, she recounted being raped by a stranger when she was 15, a trauma that she hid from her mother out of shame.  Then, as her career was taking off in her early 20s, she fell ill with tuberculosis and needed a year of recuperation. 

World War II brought new adventures, although Marble's began with a double tragedy that led to a failed attempt to take her own life.  Days after she miscarried a pregnancy, her husband Joe Crowley, a fighter pilot, was killed in action.  Inconsolable, she reported in her memoir that she accepted without hesitation when the government approached her about operating as a spy in Switzerland -a mission only revealed after Marble’s death, when her book was published.  

I felt I had nothing left to lose but my life,’ she wrote, ‘and at that time I didn’t care about living.’  

Marble’s mission to obtain Nazi financial information was cut short when she was shot in the back by a Nazi operative.

Following tennis, Alice Marble led a full and active life designing sportswear, travelling, lecturing and teaching tennis.  She served on the Editorial Board of DC Comics, helping to create the Wonder Women of History feature for comics which told the stories of prominent women of history in comic form.

Weakened by pernicious anemia, Alice Marble died at a hospital in Palm Springs, California at 77 years old.  

Alice Marble Tennis Courts, providing a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge from atop Russian Hill in San Francisco, is named in her honour.


*I owe thanks to my dear friend Lauryn Steiner Nehemia for introducing Alice Marble to me as a Calla Lily.