During her playing career Leslie Allen rose as high as No.17 in the rankings and reached the mixed doubles final at Roland Garros in 1983. She is best remembered, though, for winning the Avon Championships of Detroit in 1981 - the first significant tournament win by an African American woman since Althea Gibson's glory days. Later, Allen became a board member of the WTA and devoted herself to teaching tennis and promoting the sport's life-affirming qualities. Recently, she was named as the 2011 recipient of the International Tennis Hall of Fame's Tennis Educational Merit Award, for her contributions to the game.
"Thirty years ago I won the Avon Championships of Detroit. Actually it is more remarkable that I was a WTA pro at all, let alone that I won a major WTA event! As a kid I was indifferent at best on the court. Tennis was what my mother played, not me. But in high school in 1973 I heard about Title IX (thanks Peachy Kellmeyer) and thought "You mean girls can play on college sports teams!" and World Team Tennis (thanks Billie Jean King) made me think, "You mean tennis players can play on a pro team too!" and Virginia Slims (thanks Gladys Heldman) showed me that women can get a check instead of a trophy for tennis. Tennis suddenly made sense.
"Compared to the path most take to the pros, my odyssey to the WTA was quite unconventional. I did not hit a tennis ball between the ages of 11 to 14, nor earn a ranking in Ohio juniors, yet as a high school senior I suddenly wanted to see if I could become good enough to play for a college, WTT, and ultimately on tour - on the WTA.
"Somehow this seemed quite plausible to me, despite naysayers who told me: I'd started too late, was never nationally ranked, and even pointed out that I was black. Trying to ignore all, I set out on the journey to see just how far I could go and college was next. By chance in 1975, I walked on to the University of Southern California campus, the August before my junior year. Implausibly I was given an impromptu tryout and played well enough to earn the bottom spot on the tennis team. I had a baseline game, no serve, no volley, was truly afraid of the net. My teammates confidently talked about turning pro so I secretly thought maybe I could be a WTA pro too!
"Fortunately, after college a major transformation took place in my game as I toiled through the Pre-Qualies, Qualies and Futures events. More importantly I learned what it took to be a WTA professional.
"Billie Jean set the bar high in her locker-room version of Pro U - telling me, and anyone around, that each WTA athlete had a responsibility to the women's game, the sponsors, the media, and the fans. At first, based on my journey it was hard to comprehend that I was in the same space as BJK, no less under her tutelage. So I took Billie's edict to heart and got involved.
"In the early 1980s our daily routine as players was often filled with situations that would be simply ludicrous today. Yet somehow, like my counterparts, I managed to circumnavigate the globe and the WTA without a cell phone, call waiting, iPod, Internet, laptop, ATM, Euros, Facebook, Twitter or Skype. And we had to use paper airline tickets, which you did not want to lose. I endured and overcame each challenge with a sense of pride, knowing that I was helping grow women's tennis. After all, BJK said that was my responsibility!
"Unseeded in Detroit, I swept through the field beating Top 10 players and Grand Slam champions. Toppling Hana Mandlikova in the final, I served and volleyed my way to the title and into the Top 20. My victory was a shocker and big news all across the globe. The next day everyone woke up to the headlines: Allen Wins Avon Championships of Detroit, first black woman to win a major tournament since Althea Gibson in 1957.
"In Detroit, it had been a challenge just to get news of my win to my family. There were no instant tweets, emails, text messages, or calls to a cell phone. In 1981, you planned your phone calls by setting up a pre-determined time to call a pre-determined number, based on schedules and whereabouts. So I had to wait hours after my victory, until it was time to call home. From the WTA office phone Lee Jackson dialed a number to a backstage payphone, as it was the opening night for my mother's Broadway show and the call was timed for right after her curtain call. Even though we did not have a speaker phone, several of us gathered in the WTA office so we could wish my mom Happy Birthday and tell her the news.
"When she came to the pay phone, Lee said: 'Sarah she won! She won!' There was no response, the line was silent. Then we all burst into raucous laughter at the sight of Lee standing there with the phone receiver in her hand and the disconnected curly phone cord just swinging back and forth in the air.
"The experiences on the WTA give me much food for thought as I continue to live up to the responsibility and influence a new generation in my Foundation's Win4Life program. A smile always appears on my face when I fondly remember how a simple victory phone call on the WTA was a challenge."
- Leslie Allen