Hard is fine far from Centre Court

The best forgotten tennis player in the game was at her desk Monday at USC, same as always.

Eight time zones to the east, across a big continent and a bigger pond, the stars of today were playing for large glory and larger paychecks at Wimbledon.

For Darlene Hard, Wimbledon time is pretty much like any other time now. She gets in her car, drives 30 miles from her home in Woodland Hills and goes to work in the student publications department. She answers phones and plans for next year's USC yearbook, El Rodeo, the bulk of which she designs.

"I like this," she says. "I've been doing this since 1981, and I'm happy."

Only a handful of people around USC know that this silver-haired, 71-year-old woman was once, for spans in the early 1960s, the best female player in the world.

At USC, she is known as Darlene in publications, the grandmotherly woman in Room 404 of the Student Union, who hands out yearbooks and makes you feel like you are the big deal, not her.

Hard won 21 major titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. She won the French Open singles title once, the U.S. singles title twice, and spent as much time as all but the likes of Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and Margaret Court holding trophies over her head at Wimbledon.

She lost in the singles finals there in 1957 and '59 but won women's doubles titles in '57, '59, '60 and '63, and mixed titles in '57, 59 and 60. She played in eight doubles finals at Wimbledon and lost only the 1963 mixed.

So, presumably, this week she is glued to the TV set?

"I don't watch," she says. "That was a different time. Things are different."

Her reasons are twofold.

"I'm not impressed with the all the grunting and lurching. I kind of feel a resistance to what they've done to the game," she says. "Outside of maybe Roger Federer, there is little left that is soft, or artistic, or pleasurable.

"I also think they make too much money, get too much publicity. They all have their own clothing lines, things like that. It's too much. I didn't even get free rackets when I played."

Lest she be misinterpreted, Hard is not an old-timer perseverating on the good old days and bitter about not getting some of that big money.

"It was different when we played, and I understand that," she says. "We played because we loved the game. I never worried about my ranking."

She sees her life in phases, all good.

"My life has been a fairy tale," she says.

She grew up in Montebello, where her mother, Ruth, introduced her to tennis. Ruth is 92 now, lives in Fullerton, and stopped playing against her daughter the day 15-year-old Darlene beat her for the first time.

Darlene won enough to eventually get access to the L.A. Tennis Club, where the best played.

"I'd take the bus from Montebello every day," she says. "Two hours to get there, with a stop in downtown, Skid Row."

For a while, 2 1/2 semesters at Pomona College, tennis took a back seat to studies that would make her a pediatrician. But she was already an international star by then -- semifinals of the U.S. Championships at 18 and semifinals of Wimbledon at 19 -- and the lure of the tour was too much.

"I learned pretty fast," she says, "that medical school was harder than playing tennis."

When she decided to leave the tour in 1964, at age 28, it was because she had a job as a teaching pro on the Westside, where she also eventually owned two tennis shops.

And when she decided to stop that in 1981 and take a job with one of her tennis pupils, Mona Cravens of USC publications, she did so at least partly because she had a skin cancer scare. She felt she needed to get off the teaching courts, where she was spending 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

"The cancer turned out not to be a big deal, just a couple of spots they took care of," she says.

Still, she had a new job at USC and never looked back, just as she doesn't now.

This year's women's Wimbledon singles champion will make $1.4 million. That is $1,399,799.80 more than Hard made for her seven titles there, all achieved as an amateur.

"If you won a Wimbledon title, you got 10 pounds, or $28.60 then. They said it was for expenses," Hard says. "I got that seven times," for a total of $200.20.

She did venture into the pro ranks for one payday.

In 1969, out of the game for six years, she promised a student she would go to New York for the U.S. Championships and play doubles with her if the student qualified in a junior event. Her student did, and Hard lived up to her word. But when she tried to enter the doubles, she was told she couldn't because her student was an amateur and she was a pro.

"I hadn't ever thought about that," she says. "I was a teaching pro."

She ran into her friend Pancho Gonzales, who was talking to his friend Francois Durr of France, who had just been jilted by her doubles partner, Ann Haydon Jones. Durr and Hard didn't know each other, but they each needed a partner. It was one of the great odd-couple teams of all-time. Hard, outgoing and aggressive, served big. Durr, tighter and quieter, served floaters, often seeming to beat her own serve to the net.

Somehow, they got to the final, where they trailed Virginia Wade and Margaret Court, 6-0, 2-0.

"On a break, I told Frankie we had to at least get one "1" up there on the scoreboard," Hard says.

They won 12 of the next 17 games, won the title, and got $1,000 each. That makes the total winnings for Darlene Hard's 21 Grand Slam titles and 15 additional appearances in Grand Slam finals exactly $1,200.20.

"I did get the U.S. Tennis Assn. to pay my airfare home after I won my second straight singles title in New York in 1961," she says.

That was $79 and a lifetime ago.

Now, Darlene Hard is an institution at an institution that mostly doesn't know she was one.

Which is fine with her.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 17, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction Tennis: In the July 3 Sports section, a profile of former tennis star Darlene Hard misspelled the first name of her doubles partner, Francoise Durr, as Francois.
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