Alice Marble (1913-1990) was the first female tennis player ever to win both the British and U.S. women's singles, doubles, and mixed doubles championships in the same year.
Alice Marble was born in Beckworth, California, on September 28, 1913. Her father died in an automobile accident when she was six years old. After his death, the family moved to San Francisco, where they lived near the tennis courts of Golden Gate Park. Playing there was free, so the sport was attractive to the poor family, especially to Marble's brothers.
"A Pretty Good Arm"
Despite the availability of the tennis court, Marble was more interested in baseball. By the time she was 13 years old she was the mascot and ball girl for the San Francisco Seals, a minor-league team. Her practice of entertaining fans by catching fly balls in the outfield prompted former San Francisco Seals player Joe DiMaggio to later recall to Ralph Hickok in A Who's Who of Sports Champions, "She had a pretty good arm."
Marble's interest in physical activity was fostered by her mother, who often took her five children to the Golden Gate Park and played active sports with them. "Then we'd all walk home and be in bed by eight o'clock," Marble told Charlotte Himber in Famous in Their Twenties. "Even when I was in high school, that routine continued, with the eight o'clock bedtime."
At the urging of her brothers, who thought baseball was too tomboyish for her, Marble began playing tennis on the public courts at the age of 15. She never had the advantage of being formally taught how to play the game. She was not very interested in tennis at first, because she thought it was the kind of easy game only played by sissies. Her enthusiasm for the sport did not even increase when her brothers signed her up for a tournament. The courts were wet, so Marble and the other players dragged blankets across them to soak up the water. Not surprisingly, she was beaten early, but her brief experience of competitive play had intrigued her; she realized that tennis was harder than it looked. Challenged by this experience, Marble was hooked, and devoted much of her free time to working on her game to become a better player.
During her first years in the sport Marble developed a habit of rushing the net because she didn't feel confident about her ground strokes. This habit, which started out of insecurity, later gained her a reputation as one of the sport's most aggressive women players.
Called "Brilliant but Erratic"
Marble's 75 cents-per-week allowance did not go far to pay for the racquets, balls, and shoes she needed. When she won her first tournament, the Pacific Coast Junior and Women's Championship, she was still playing with a borrowed racquet because she could not afford to buy her own. And although the public courts were free, players had to look serious if they wanted to play for longer than the occasional weekend game. Applicants for court time were put on a waiting list; if a player lost the first set, he or she went to the bottom of the list and waited an average of two hours before their name came to the top of the list again. Players who won remained on the court and played the next person on the list.
Marble was often out after her first set, but she spent her two-hour waiting periods watching and learning from other players, or volleying in the dirt in front of the clubhouse. She also attracted the attention of other players, and someone who knew Coach Eleanor Tennant eventually suggested to Tennant that she come to watch Marble play. Tennant was impressed by the teen's obvious, if unschooled, talent and offered to coach her. She remained Marble's coach for the rest of her life. In Courting Danger, Marble wrote that Tennant was an inspiring teacher. "She gave clinics in department stores, schools, public parks. She could make the laziest student run and the clumsiest hit the ball time after time."
According to Himber, Marble was considered a "brilliant but erratic" player. Fortunately, as she gained in personal maturity, Tennant also taught her about attitude, poise, and perseverance as well as about tennis. "She learned that the will to win had to be there," Himber explained, "stronger and more enduring than the power of her fastest stroke."
Illness Proved Integral to Training
In 1933, when Marble was 20 years old, she played in a tournament in Easthampton, Long Island, New York. Because of rain delays, officials decided to make up time by holding the singles and doubles semifinals and finals on the same day. Marble played 108 games during that one day; although she won the singles and doubles semifinals, she lost both finals, eventually passing out due to dehydration from overexertion in the extreme heat.
The following year Marble traveled to France as a member of a U.S. women's team, but collapsed to the ground in a faint during her first match. Eventually she was diagnosed with pleurisy (some sources say tuberculosis) and took some time off from tennis to recover at a sanatorium. Bored and anxious to leave after eight months, she convinced Tennant to get her out. She left the sanatorium against her doctor's orders. "It was a most valuable period for me, although at the time I resented the dreadful waste of time away from my beloved tennis." Marble later recalled to Himber. "I developed an attitude toward life in general that has stood me in good stead since. I became poignantly aware that good health is the most valuable of human possessions. I didn't know it then, but the whole period of my illness was as important for my career as any other preparation I have had."
During Marble's recovery, Tennant had her student eat a special diet and perform special exercises to regain her lost strength. Because she had spent such a long time in bed, the young woman could only slowly begin to walk again, first going only one block, then a little farther, and gradually working up to three miles a day. However, her energy level was still distressingly low, too low for her to play tennis. She visited a different doctor, who told her that she was anemic. After two weeks of treatment for the low level of iron in her blood, Marble regained her energy and began a program of strength training. In addition, she took up singing to improve her lung capacity. She did so well at this that, between tennis seasons, she performed as a singer in a supper club at New York City's Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 1939.
With her mother's permission, Marble moved in with Tennant. Because she had little money, she arranged a barter system with "teach", as she called Tennant; she would work as Tennant's secretary and Tennant would coach her for free. Marble truly loved tennis, describing it as her hobby as well as her full-time sport. According to Himber, she once said, "Sometimes after a day's work I am so tired as I get ready to play that I don't feel much like it, but as soon as I start to play I forget everything and just enjoy it."
Fearing another on-the-court collapse, officials of the National Tennis Association were reluctant to let Marble play again after her recovery. However, Marble proved her strength by inviting them to watch her play two hours a day in hot weather. They eventually agreed to let her play in the national tournament.
Achieved a String of Wins
In 1936 Marble lived up to her potential, winning the national singles championship and the mixed doubles championship. In 1938 she won the Wimbledon women's doubles, repeating that win in 1939, as well as capturing that year's singles title. In fact, 1939 would prove a phenomenal year for Marble as she became the first woman ever to win the British and U.S. women's singles, doubles, and mixed doubles championships all in the same year. She won the Wimbledon mixed doubles title from 1937 to 1939, and in 1939 and 1940 the Associated Press named her Female Athlete of the Year. In Courting Danger, written when she was 77, Marble looked back on her tennis career: "When you've lived as long as I have, the sheer joy of having played the game comes to matter more than the victories, the records, the memories."
In 1940 Marble broke another barrier when she was hired by New York radio station WNEW as a football reporter. She gave two 15-minute broadcasts each week. On her first broadcast, she listed teams she thought would win on the following day, and of 45 games, picked the winners of 31; three other games were ties. Her knowledge of the game, unusual for a woman at that time, rapidly won her a devoted audience.
In 1941 Marble turned professional and toured with fellow tennis player Mary Hardwick. During the 1940s she enrolled at classes at New York University and Columbia University, although she never amassed enough credits to graduate because of her busy schedule. In addition to playing, studying, broadcasting, singing, and designing sports clothes, Marble lectured at women's colleges, clubs, church groups, and other public forums, urging people to get physically fit and make it a habit for life. She urged women who believed they were too tired or too old for fitness to get moving, noting that people who became active and stayed that way were healthier and happier. She also believed, contrary to popular opinion of the time, that women were perfectly able to participate in any activity men participated in, using as an example the fact that women in England during World War II, even those aged 50 and over, took over many men's jobs when the men left to fight the war.
"I Didn't Care about Living"
In 1942, during World War II, Marble met Captain Joseph Norman Crowley, who was in army intelligence. The two were married after a brief courtship. She became pregnant, but lost the baby in a car accident in 1944. Shortly after this, news reached her that Crowley had been killed in action when his plane was shot down over Germany. Distraught, Marble tried to commit suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills, but was saved by Tennant and a friend, who took her to the hospital.
Early in 1945, Marble was recruited as a spy by the Allies. One of her former lovers, a Swiss banker, was providing financial services to high-ranked German Nazi officials, and Allied agents hoped Marble could find out some of his secrets. They sent her to Switzerland to play in well-publicized tournaments, gambling that he would try and see her again. He did, and she managed to discover a great amount of information about his dealings before she was caught and almost killed in the mission. She later wrote in Courting Danger, "When I agreed to use tennis as a cover for an assignment that had little chance of succeeding, I felt I had nothing left to lose but my life, and at the time I didn't care about living. A few months later, on a dark mountain road, I found that I did care. When my life was in danger I did what I've always done: I fought."
Continued to Fight
Throughout her life, Marble remained determined to achieve her goals, fighting social prejudices along the way. Later in her life she was active in encouraging tennis officials as well as the public to accept the presence of African American and homosexual players in the game. She also continued to encourage women to become physically fit and participate in sports. "When the day comes that a woman who is athletic will no longer be regarded as the unusual type, when it will seem as natural for women as it now seems for men to be keenly interested in athletics, we'll start training girls to be active athletes," she commented to Himber. "We'll not discourage them, as we do today, from taking part in tomboy play when they're six, and ten, and twelve." Marble died in Palm Springs, California on December 13, 1990.
Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, edited by David L. Porter, Greenwood Press, 1988.
Hickok, Ralph, A Who's Who of Sports Champions, Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
Himber, Charlotte, Famous in Their Twenties, Books for Libraries Press, 1942.
Marble, Alice, with Dale Leatherman, Courting Danger, St. Martin's Press, 1991.