Leslie in her own words
30 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) and thought "You mean girls
can play on college sports teams!" and World Team Tennis (thanks
Billie) made me think, "You mean tennis players can play on a pro
team too!" and Virginia Slims (Thanks Gladys) showed me that
women can get a check instead of a trophy for tennis. Tennis suddenly
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 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 '80's 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 at the 1981 Avon Championships of Detroit, I swept
through the field beating top ten 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.