The Tennis 128: No. 23, Alice Marble

I’m counting down the 128 best players of the last century. Beware of GOATs. * * * Alice Marble [USA] Born: 28 September 1913 Died: 13 December 1990 Career: 1930-41 Played: Right-handed (one-handed backhand) Peak rank: 1 (1939) Peak Elo rating: 2,385 (1st place, 1941) Major singles titles: 5 Total singles titles: 45   * … Continue reading The Tennis 128: No. 23, Alice Marble

The Tennis 128: No. 23, Alice Marble
Alice Marble in 1937
Colorization credit: Women’s Tennis Colorizations

I’m counting down the 128 best players of the last century. Beware of GOATs.

* * *

Alice Marble [USA]
Born: 28 September 1913
Died: 13 December 1990
Career: 1930-41
Played: Right-handed (one-handed backhand)
Peak rank: 1 (1939)
Peak Elo rating: 2,385 (1st place, 1941)
Major singles titles: 5
Total singles titles: 45

* * *

Leave it to Pauline Betz to capture Alice Marble’s 1939 and 1940 seasons in one pithy line. Just 20 years old, Betz took a set from Marble at the 1940 Maryland State Championships before losing, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0. They met again at the Essex County Championships in Massachusetts a month later.

I had another chance against Marble, and I thought that perhaps this time I could win–I did but only four games in two sets.

The rematch went to Alice, 6-2, 6-2. There was no shame in that. Betz was a rising star, but in those two years, no one beat Marble. Literally.

Marble lost to Helen Jacobs in the 1938 Wimbledon semi-finals. She missed one smash after another, put her frustration on public display, and got herself dressed down by not one but two prominent coaches. Jacobs herself had long admired the Marble game but doubted her “temperament”–a catchall term for focus, equanimity, and killer instinct.

A lesser woman would’ve fallen into a slump. A younger Alice had done just that. There had been any number of wake-up calls over the years, like when Marble overheard Clark Gable saying, “She’s a real nice person, but she doesn’t have it.”

Marble would never lack for “it” again. She won her remaining 20 matches of the 1938 season. She went undefeated in 1939, collecting two narrow victories against Jacobs. She was unbeaten again in 1940, now conceding only six games in four sets to her aging rival. At the same time, she and partner Sarah Palfrey Cooke were just as good on the doubles court. They didn’t lose for four years. At the last Wimbledon before World War II, in 1939, Alice won the triple, coasting to a mixed doubles title with Bobby Riggs along with her singles and women’s doubles crowns.

After the 1940 campaign, with nothing else to prove on the amateur circuit, Marble went pro. She toured alongside Don Budge and Bill Tilden, playing a series of matches with English star Mary Hardwick. She beat Hardwick 58 out of 61 times.

Her dominance killed any interest in the one-on-one tour, but it capped a run for the ages. Counting both amateur and professional competition, Marble won 128 consecutive singles matches. All told, in the four seasons from 1938 to 1941, she tallied 193 wins against just 5 losses.

Alice’s victim in the 1939 Wimbledon final was Kay Stammers, a left-hander who often represented Britain in the Wightman Cup competition. Stammers had played the great Helen Wills Moody three times, even beating her when Helen was rounding into form in 1935.

How good was Marble at her peak? Stammers lost that championship match 6-2, 6-0. She said she would have preferred to play Wills Moody.

* * *

Alice made those victories look effortless. She served as big as anyone else on the circuit, forehands exploded off her racket, and she covered the court “like a man”–back when it was a compliment for sportswriters to say such things.

Staying on top was easy in 1939 and 1940. Getting there had been the tricky part.

Women’s tennis history is full of prodigies, each one seemingly younger than the last. Suzanne Lenglen won the World Hard Court Championships when she was 15. Helen Wills was a national champion at 17, an Olympic gold medalist at 18. Even Jacobs, who played so much of her career in the shadow of the other Helen, reached her first Forest Hills final when she was 20.

At those tender ages, Marble was full of little more than promise. When she made her first trip to Europe at age 20, in 1934, journalist Al Laney was struck by her “potentiality, which may been the greatest ever seen.” Her game was raw, very much a work in progress.

Alice in 1937
Credit: National Portrait Gallery

Jacobs first faced her on the doubles court in 1932:

[R]obust and attractive as Alice’s game was, it was too easy to counter. Her service looked far better than it was. She put too much topspin on the ball. Instead of skidding away from the receiver, it took a high bound and the forward spin of the ball, easily nullified, enabled the opponent to return the shot with safe margin. Her forehand drive, upon which she relied for the most forcing placements, carried the same top-spin, giving the opponent plenty of time to get to the ball.

Pure athleticism had gotten her this far. Her first love was baseball, and she was good enough to work out with the minor league San Francisco Seals. Joe DiMaggio said, “She had a pretty good arm.”

Top-level tennis was more demanding. Her strokes came from watching other players at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, plus the occasional lesson with local pros such as former Davis Cupper Howard Kinsey. Her family never would have dreamed of paying country-club dues, so she improvised. She picked up the game relatively late, and her big-swinging forehand was more Babe Ruth than Bill Tilden.

Few native talents had greater need of a coach. Fortunately, fate–along with local boosters who couldn’t help but notice Alice’s gifts–pushed her into the path of Eleanor Tennant. Few coaches have ever had greater confidence in an unproven athlete.

* * *

The Alice Marble story is, in large part, the Eleanor Tennant story. Tennant was a promising Bay Area player during World War I. In 1920, her one full season on the national circuit, she won 43 of 51 matches against top-flight competition. Her last three East Coast tournaments ended only when she collided with the country’s then-top player, Molla Mallory.

By then, Tennant was 25 years old, and she had long fended for herself. After a spell as a traveling saleswoman, she landed a job as a teaching pro in Beverly Hills. When US tennis tightened up its rules regarding professionalism, she found herself banned from amateur tournaments. Unfair as it was, it was hardly a tragedy. There were more than enough outlets for her substantial energy. When she wasn’t giving lessons to her growing movie-star clientele, she kept a lookout for future stars in need of her help.

“Teach” Tennant was aware of Marble soon after Alice’s debut on the state junior circuit in the late 1920s. They joined forces after the 1932 season, one in which the young woman won three tournaments but lost in the second round at Forest Hills.

Alice in 1933

The coach, influential as she was, had a knack for embellishing her own contributions. Later, she said Marble was “fat and heavy” and that she had “little to commend her game but bad temper.” That is hardly fair. One sportswriter described her serve at the time as “the most severe in the business.” Another compared her to Ellsworth Vines, though it was not an unalloyed compliment: “Easy shots she flubbed and tough ones she tucked away.”

Former champion Bill Johnston, who arranged Marble’s out-of-state trip in 1930, considered her “a better prospect than Miss Moody was at her age… with seeming greater natural ability.”

However we divvy up the credit, Tennant was close at hand–very close at hand–for the rocky road of the next half-decade. The pair lived together, and the coach found her a new wardrobe. For years, Marble didn’t even have a bank account; what little money came her way went through Tennant first.

More importantly for Alice’s fortunes on court, Tennant also helped her develop a new forehand. Another advisor, Harwood “Beese” White, showed Marble how to switch from the inefficient, uppercutting Western grip to a more conventional, flat-hitting Eastern grip.

When the Californian took her revitalized game back East in 1933, she looked ready to achieve the heights that Johnston, Tennant, and the rest envisioned for her. But like I said, it wasn’t going to be easy.

* * *

Starting in May of 1933, Alice won 23 matches in a row. She bulldozed the field at the California State Championships, then won a pair of titles on grass courts in Massachusetts. She was clearly one of the top players in the nation. Still, she was expected to do even more to earn a place representing her country in the Wightman Cup, the annual competition between the United States and Great Britain.

American tennis was an insular, snobby world. Some of the players–and even a few of the officials–sought to open things up, or at least to reward the outsiders who developed into stars. But the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) was run by well-heeled men from the East who preferred to mingle among their own kind. Most of the major regional associations had the same flaws, even if their leaders weren’t quite as stuffy as the federation functionaries in New York and Boston.

Some youngsters from California navigated that world just fine. The Southern and Northern California associations were sizable, and they produced one future champion after another. But once Alice threw in her lot with Tennant, she became a bit of a wild card. Teach was well-known and well-respected but not necessarily well-liked.

Marble in Wightman Cup action in 1939

All of this is just background; it’s hard to know exactly why Marble was treated the way she was. In July 1933, she went to the Maidstone tournament on Long Island, where she was expected to play both singles and doubles–singles as a final audition for Wightman Cup, doubles as a gate attraction with Helen Wills Moody. Weather backed up the schedule, and Alice ended up playing four matches–108 games of tennis–on a single day. She lost 12 pounds grappling in 100-degree heat, and back at her hotel that night, she fainted.

The final insult: A doctor ruled her out for Wightman Cup. She ended up playing, but only in the final match, a dead doubles rubber.

Two weeks later, Marble returned to action at Forest Hills. She wasn’t entirely recovered, and she lost to Betty Nuthall in the quarters. It wasn’t a bad showing, but it paled next to the hopes she had brought from California just a couple of months before.

* * *

1934 was even worse. Alice went to Europe as part of that year’s Wightman Cup group. Shortly after arriving in Paris, she felt ill. She went on court to play a team match at Roland Garros anyway, possibly under excessive pressure from Jacobs. Stories differ. Either way, she fainted during the match. The initial diagnosis was anemia, the same ailment that triggered her collapse the previous summer.

It turned out to be tuberculosis. The doctor who came to that conclusion said that her tennis-playing days were over. He was wrong about that, but it would take two years before she’d be a factor again on the international scene.

Back at home, Tennant proved her devotion to her young charge. The coach paid for Alice’s stay at a sanitarium and visited daily–at least until the pair decided she would be better off on the outside. With a semblance of a normal life and support from a few of Tennant’s movie-star friends, Marble steadily improved to the point that there was no longer any sign of tuberculosis in her lungs.

A year after her collapse in Paris, Alice entered the California State Championships. She won ten straight sets and the title, sealing the crown with an easy defeat of the young Margaret Osborne.

But her outsider status struck again. No invitation to play in the East was forthcoming. The USLTA fathers were, at least nominally, concerned about her health. They wanted assurance from their own doctor that she was fit to play. Marble stayed home instead.

Marble kicking off her pro tour against Mary Hardwick in 1941

Player and coach forced the issue in 1936. Alice continued to cruise against California competition; Eastern authorities kept insisting on elaborate proofs of her health. Finally, Marble demonstrated her readiness by playing a series of practice matches against second-tier men. One of them quit after seven games. He told Julian Myrick, Alice’s chief adversary among the mandarins, “If she’s sick, I’m at death’s door.”

Marble didn’t play Wightman Cup that year, but she did enter five tournaments on the Eastern circuit. She reached four finals and won three. At Forest Hills, she met top seed Helen Jacobs for the championship. Jacobs was playing with a strapped right thumb, the result of an injury incurred earlier in the tournament. Marble nearly gave away the match away, dropping the first set in a flurry of errors. But in the second and third, she beat the veteran tactician at her own game. Alice opened up the court with her forehand, drew her opponent to the net, and waited for Jacobs to make mistakes. She won her first national championship, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.

* * *

The 22-year-old champion was an instant hit. Typically, an injured player, especially one as well-liked as Jacobs, would be the crowd favorite. But on the day, the gallery at Forest Hills cheered Alice to victory. Her story–the comeback kid, the scrapper rose up from nothing–was something that Tennant’s Hollywood pals might have put on the big screen.

That wasn’t all Marble had going for her. Later, the New York Daily News wrote, “If they paid off on curves instead of points, the beauteous Alice Marble woulda won Wimbledon.”

Despite everything she’d been through, Alice wasn’t yet a complete player. After all the time she missed, 1936 was something of a rookie season. 1937 turned out to be a sophomore slump.

Jadwiga Jędrzejowska said of Marble that season, “She plays so beautiful tennis–like the artist’s picture.” The cheerful slugger from Poland could afford to be magnanimous. She had already beaten Marble three times that year–including at Wimbledon in the semi-finals, and she would do so again in the States. Jaja posed a problem Alice had never encountered before: an opponent who could hit even harder than she could.

Alice and Sarah Palfrey on the doubles court

Marble limped out of the US National Championships in yet another quarter-final, this time to Dorothy Bundy. Bundy was described by a contemporary as “not a great tennis player,” and the roller-coaster upset at Forest Hills is a good representation of Alice’s season. She entered eight tournaments and won only two. The consensus was that a woman with her talent should’ve done more. Neither Marble nor Tennant could disagree.

In 1938, Alice got her revenge on Jędrzejowska, straight-setting her at a Wimbledon warm-up. But as we’ve seen, Marble dropped out in the semi-finals of the main event, losing her focus after missing one too many smashes against Jacobs. The correspondent for the New Yorker felt that an in-form Marble could’ve beaten either of the finalists. But that was little consolation to the player who had let yet another laurel slip away.

* * *

And that was it. Something finally clicked. Maybe it was Hazel Wightman’s harangue after Alice gave away the Wimbledon semi-final. Maybe Eleanor Tennant’s belief that it was Marble’s birthright to become a champion finally infiltrated the younger woman’s psyche.

Alice never lost another match as an amateur.

The Streak ran to 128 straight. Marble settled all the scores and made sure that a new generation–Betz, Osborne, Louise Brough, Doris Hart–didn’t get any ideas, either. The only notion the youngsters seized on was to play like Alice. Betz, one of the few holdouts, thought that the pendulum swung too far in the direction of Marble-worship. The Californian was the first woman to play an aggressive brand of all-court tennis, and her acolytes practiced volleys at the expense of their baseline games.

Among all those wins, there were a few close calls. At Forest Hills in 1938, Sarah Palfrey held match points, and the two women each tallied exactly 122 points in their three-set semi-final contest. A year later, Jacobs won a 10-8 second frame to force a third set for the American championship. But it was more common that the extremes went in the other direction. Before Marble clobbered Kay Stammers in the 1939 Wimbledon final, she wholly shut out Hilde Sperling. She allowed the German only 14 points en route to a 6-0, 6-0 semi-final victory.

Just halfway into The Streak, Alice’s invincibility was already a cultural reference point. The New Yorker announced in 1939 that she had finally lost a match–of ping-pong.

The 1939 US National Doubles final

Two years after the Jacobs debacle, the discussion was no longer about whether Marble had what it took. Now the pundits debated whether she was the greatest of all time. Al Laney, a leading voice who rarely deigned to cover women’s tennis, made an exception for Alice. He spent several pages of his book, Covering the Court, measuring Marble’s case against the most towering of her predecessors, Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills Moody.

The Marble serve was the best of the bunch; Laney called it “hard as a man’s [with a] kick that many men would envy.” Marble’s volleys and smashes were better as well. Laney rated Alice’s forehand the equal of Lenglen’s.

Alice “made too many loose shots after working up a rally to a climax,” but:

If Miss Marble’s development had been normal and uninterrupted from girlhood onward, I do not doubt that we all would be forced to acknowledge her as the greatest.

Alice’s five major titles seem like a light haul for a player of her stature. But she was not only stripped of opportunities by illness and 1930s tennis politics, she also missed chances when World War II wiped out the game in Europe. She was able to enter Wimbledon only three times.

We could ponder the what-ifs, or we could do as her contemporaries did and simply admire “Alice Marvel.” She should never have made it as a tennis player. She wasn’t supposed to recover from tuberculosis. Her own national federation worked against her.

Then, at age 24, she simply stopped losing. Tennis hasn’t seen anything like it since.