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Women's Pioneer Alice Marble Dies : Tennis: As a national champion in the '30s, she played a serve-and-volley game.

December 14, 1990|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alice Marble, a winner of four U.S. national women's singles titles and the player who introduced the serve-and-volley style to the women's game, died early Thursday at Desert Hospital in Palm Springs. She was 77.

Marble was admitted to the hospital last Saturday. The cause of death was not immediately available.

Marble, who grew up in San Francisco, won the U.S. national women's singles championship in 1936, 1938, 1939 and 1940 and the Wimbledon singles championship in 1939, when she was voted as the outstanding woman athlete in the United States in an Associated Press poll.

She also won the U.S. national doubles championship from 1937-40, the Wimbledon doubles championship in 1938 and '39 and was the top-ranked women's tennis player in this country from 1936-40.

Marble's adoption of the serve-and-volley to her aggressive attacking game was considered by some to be an unseemly mistake. Tennis commentators of the time made sneering reference to her "playing like a man."

The criticism never bothered Marble, though, and it was her example that spawned a new style of tennis for women, moving the sport away from the genteel and toward the athletic.

Tall, lithe and blond, Marble was glamorous as well as a natural athlete. She played seven sports at Polytechnic High School in San Francisco, each her favorite when it was in season. Marble turned to tennis as a compromise. Her family beseeched her to abandon the game she loved, baseball. At 13 Marble was the mascot for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League.

Marble's success in tennis was all the more amazing, considering that she was hospitalized for two years with tuberculosis. In 1934, she was told she would never play again. With the help of her coach, Eleanor (Teach) Tennant, Marble fought back and returned to the tour.

When she turned professional in 1940, Marble helped break ground for the pro game by lending her prestige to an aspect of the sport that the public viewed with skepticism. Before 1968, professionals were not allowed to play in such tournaments as the U.S. nationals, now known as the U.S. Open, or Wimbledon.

In her first year as a pro, Marble embarked on a barnstorming tour of the United States and earned a guaranteed $25,000 and a percentage of the gate. Although she never made even a small percentage of the money professionals make today, Marble told The Times in 1983 that she cleared $100,000 on the tour.

"I have a lovely trust fund and I don't have to work," she said.

Although she spent her later years alone, Marble hobnobbed with the glamorous in Hollywood in the '30s and '40s, teaching tennis to Carole Lombard, her best friend, as well as to Marlene Dietrich and Charlie Chaplin. She often spent weekends as a guest of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst at his castle at San Simeon.

At the height of her popularity, Marble would receive as many as 500 letters a week. But not all were fan letters.

"They were crank letters, mostly either mash notes or abusive ones," Marble said.

Possessing a "pleasant contralto," Marble became a professional singer, working at New York supper clubs and on radio. This led to a job at WNEW radio, where Marble became a sports announcer. Her area of expertise? Predicting the winners in college football games.

Marble was married for three years to an Army intelligence officer who was shot down and killed.

Marble also served as both role model and champion for a young black woman who wanted to play tennis.

"She was my idol," Althea Gibson, the women's singles champion in the U.S. nationals and Wimbledon in 1957-58, told the Associated Press Thursday. "She will always be unforgettable to me and to all tennis players. She was one of the greatest ever, definitely.

"I came up in the streets and I was taken to the elite black tennis club in New York. Alice Marble was playing an exhibition. It was there I first saw her play. I was mesmerized. She was beautiful. I was a young girl, about 15 or 16. She left an indelible impression upon me."

Gibson recalled that Marble wrote a letter to the United States Lawn Tennis Assn. that helped break the color barrier in tennis. Marble also wrote an impassioned essay in American Lawn Tennis magazine, concluding that if Gibson were prevented from playing tennis because of her color, Marble would be "bitterly ashamed."

Marble was born Sept. 28, 1913, in rural Northern California. When she was 3, her family moved to San Francisco, and she learned to play tennis in Golden Gate Park.

About her sport, she said, "It has a special kind of therapy. Everybody has their little problems, but you play two or three sets and the problems are gone."

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