06/06/2015

Legends of the game # 8 - Doris Hart

American player Doris Hart won a total of 35 Grand Slam titles during her career between 1947 and 1955. There were 6 singles, 14 women’s doubles and 15 mixed doubles Grand Slam titles among the 325 titles she amassed during a remarkable career. She was also runner-up in no fewer than 11 Grand Slam singles finals during her time on tour.

Doris Jane Hart was born on June 20, 1925, in St. Louis and grew up in Coral Gables, Florida.  At 15 months, her parents noticed she was walking with a limp. An infection from a fall was spreading rapidly up her right leg and specialists recommended amputation, but her parents refused. The family doctor diagnosed osteomyelitis – a bone infection – and there was an imminent danger that the infection could spread to her heart, so he performed an emergency operation on the family’s kitchen table. It was while she was recuperating from yet another operation at the age of 10 that she sat gazing out of the window, watching people play tennis in a park. Years later, she said, “I decided after my knee got well I would start playing tennis and become the best player possible.”

At age 10, she started playing and practiced with her older brother, Bud. At high school she won the national girls’ championships and by 16, was ranked in the US top 10. In 1946, she was ranked in the world’s top 10, where she remained for the next decade. She was ranked world No. 1 in 1951.

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Wightman Cup

Hart was still a student at the University of Miami when she was selected, along with Louise Brough, Margaret Osborne and Pauline Betz, to join one of the most powerful Wightman Cup teams of all time to play Britain in London in 1946. For Hart, it was the beginning of a remarkable Wightman Cup career that saw her lose only one match in the 10 years that she competed in the now defunct annual match between the US and Britain. She won 14 of 14 matches in singles and 8 of 9 in doubles.

Grand Slams

In 1947, Hart kicked off a magnificent career in women’s doubles by winning the Wimbledon title with Patricia Todd. The following year, they won the French Championships. Her only Australian women’s doubles title came in 1950 partnering Louise Brough. But it was in partnership with another leading American of the time, Shirley Fry(pictured with Hart), that Hart became virtually invincible in doubles between 1950 and 1954, partnering Fry to 4 consecutive  4 French (1950-1953), 4 US titles (1951-1954) and 3 at Wimbledon (1951-1954). Hart won 9 consecutive Grand Slam women’s doubles titles that she played in from 1951 through 1953, with her streak of 43 consecutive match wins in Grand Slam women’s doubles tournaments finally ending in the 1954 Wimbledon final.

Hart’s 15 Grand Slam mixed titles (second only to Margaret Court’s 21 for all-time) were achievded with 2 partners. She first had success with Australia’s Frank Sedgman winning 8 titles (2 Australian, 2 French, 2 Wimbledon, 2 U.S.) until Sedgman turned professional in 1953. She went on to win a further 7 mixed Grand Slams ( 1 French, 3 Wimbledon, 3 U.S.) with American Vic Seixas.

Her talent and determination resulted in 6 Grand Slam singles titles, beginning in Australia in 1949, when she defeated local champion Nancye Wynne Bolton 6-3, 6-4. The French championship followed in 1950 and 1952, and in 1951 she left an emphatic mark on Wimbledon.

Wimbledon Championships, Saturday 7 July 1951

Rain had forced fixture congestion on the 1951 Wimbledon scheduling committee, something that has never happened since, partially as a result of there now being play on the final Sunday, which was not the case in the 1950s.

Completing what has been described as one of the” great feats in the history of women’s tennis”, Hart beat Shirley Fry 6-1, 6-0 in the singles final. She then teamed with her opponent to win the women’s doubles defeating Louise Brough and Margaret Osborne DuPont 6-3, 13-11; and finally, partnered by Frank Sedgman defeated Australian pair Nancy Wynne Bolton and Mervyn Rose, 7-5, 6-2 to win the mixed doubles. The “triple crown” – all in one day.

It is highly likely that Hart’s achievement will never be repeated. Hart made light of it at the time, saying: “I guess I was in a daze out there. I came to, and it was all over.” Fatigue wasn’t a problem for Hart: “I wasn’t tired – I was on cloud nine.” She also won the “triple crown” at the French Championships in 1952 and the U.S.Championships in 1954.

In 1954, after losing 5 previous singles finals on home turf, she finally added the U.S.Championships Grand Slam singles title to the ones she had claimed overseas by beating the formidable Louise Brough 6-8, 6-1, 8-6. Recalling her nerves on match point several years later, Hart said: “I missed my first serve and sort of poofed in the second serve to her backhand. Louise had a terrific backhand and I thought, ‘Oh God, I’m in trouble’, but she hit it right into the bottom of the net.” Hart retained her US title in 1955 and shortly after retired from the tour to become a tennis teaching professional. Doris Hart was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1969.

One of the greats

In the post-war era of American women’s domination of the game, with such outstanding female players as Maureen Connolly, Pauline Betz, Margaret Osborne duPont, Louise Brough and Shirley Fry, all amateurs, Hart was a standout despite physical limitations. Leg and knee problems had left her bowlegged and limited her speed and mobility, but she compensated with finesse, tactical mastery, a solid all-court game, a strong serve and a fine drop shot.

Hart was the first player in history to complete a Boxed Set of Grand Slam titles; this is comprised of the singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles at each of the four majors. And only two others – Margaret Court and Martina Navratilova – have done so since.

She died on May 29, 2015 at her home in Coral Gables, Florida, aged 89. In a 1955 autobiography, “Tennis with Hart,” she wrote: “Never feel sorry for yourself. The only antidote for the poison of self-pity is faith, courage and patience.”

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Sources: New York Times, 31 May 2015; The Guardian, 1 June 2015; Telegraph, London; wimbledon.com; Wikipedia.

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