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A shot of adrenaline

March 02, 1981
March 02, 1981

Table of Contents
March 2, 1981

San Diego Track
J.R. Richard
The Brothers Bibby
Mickey Thompson
College Basketball
Tennis
Carstensz Pyramid
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

A shot of adrenaline

That's just what the classy Leslie Allen has given to the lifeless women's tour

Boomerang, Australia (UPI)—Gina Hopalong beat Chris Evert Lloyd 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 in the finals of the $150,000 Outback Open Sunday to become the first Italian aborigine ever to win a major women's tennis tournament.

This is an article from the March 2, 1981 issue Original Layout

Hasn't this ethnic stuff gone far enough? Why, back in 1975, when he became the first black man to win Wimbledon, Arthur Ashe declared the subject of racial firsts passè. But when a 23-year-old New Yorker named Leslie Allen defeated Hana Mandlikova, the world's No. 5 woman player, 6-4, 6-4 at the $125,000 Avon Championships of Detroit three weeks ago, the media once again jumped all over the easy angle: here was the first black woman to win a tennis tournament of any significance since Althea Gibson doubled at Forest Hills and Wimbledon in 1958.

In fact, though, Allen didn't just win a tennis tournament; she gave the women's game the shot of adrenaline it sorely needed. After all, Evert Lloyd hasn't competed all year; Tracy Austin is out of shape after recovering from an inflamed nerve in her lower back; Martina Navratilova is performing inconsistently; Evonne Goolagong is pregnant again; and Andrea Jaeger, whose feet are ailing, recently lost a first-round match to Peanut Louie, who has a much better name than game. So the women's tour is casting about for new draws.

Allen is much more than that. A fashion designer and a magna cum laude graduate in speech communications from USC, she's worldly, intelligent and regal. Her mother is an accomplished actress. Bill Cosby is a friend. What the Women's Tennis Association got itself was not an ethnic trivia question but a touch of class.

When Allen flew from Detroit to Oakland for her next tour stop, she found she had indeed arrived. After getting only five hours of sleep, she rose at 6 a.m. for a TV interview, spoke with the Los Angeles Times, the Oakland Tribune and a local radio station, addressed the students at Berkeley's Martin Luther King Junior High and, finally, had dinner with a magazine writer.

The next day Allen disposed of Candy Reynolds in straight sets. In the second round she faced Mima Jausovec, whom she'd beaten in Detroit. This time Allen, who at 5'10" has a powerful, high-kicking serve, had trouble with her first delivery, and Jausovec climbed all over her second. But by fighting off three match points and extending the world's 16th-ranked player to 7-5 in the third set, Allen demonstrated that she can play competitive tennis on a bad night. The fans at the Oakland Coliseum stood and cheered her in defeat.

From Oakland it was home to Manhattan, where the New York media confirmed her status as a celebrity: an appearance on Good Morning America, breakfast with the Times, a press luncheon for her at a swank midtown restaurant, the works. Through it all, Allen was poised, patient and reserved, but she left no doubt as to how she wants to be known. "Comparisons to Althea and references to my color are fine—as long as people think of me as a tennis player first and a black person second," she said over and over in one form or another.

If casual tennis followers are surprised by her recent success, Allen's peers aren't. At last year's U.S. Open she went three sets with Navratilova. A week later she beat Mandlikova. In Detroit she upset fourth-seeded Virginia Ruzici and the sixth-seeded Jausovec before again defeating top-seeded Mandlikova. In that match her aggressive serve-and-volley tactics worked to perfection. "She's quick getting to net," said Mandlikova, "and once she's there, she's tough to pass because her height gives her such range."

In the past two weeks Allen has jumped from 45 to 26 on the WTA computer. She's currently fourth in the winter-tour point standings, which means she has an excellent chance to be one of the eight qualifiers for the Avon Championships that start March 25 in New York. "She's always had talent," says tour veteran Sharon Walsh. "It was just a question of confidence."

As recently as two months ago, Allen's confidence was perilously low. A slumping satellite player, she had lost nine of her 10 most recent first-round matches and had a bad case of the flu. "In my weakened condition, I found I couldn't do things I had taken for granted," she says. "I had to concentrate more and become more analytical about my game."

Allen started playing more aggressively, capitalizing on her serve and intimidating opponents by crowding the net with her oversized Prince racket in hand. In early January she qualified for the main tour. With an 11-4 record for the year, it looks as if she's there to stay.

"It's said that your style of tennis is a reflection of your personality," says Allen. "At this point I would describe myself as calm and confident." So is her tennis. In matches she shows little emotion, merely nodding at her errors and grimacing only when her back is to the net. "When the players hear of a new hotshot, they look for a breaking point," says Avon Operations Coordinator Laura Knoop, who played doubles with Allen at USC. "There's none with Leslie, and that kills them."

Allen got her cool court demeanor from her mother, Sarah, who currently is appearing as a featured player in the Negro Ensemble Company's production of Weep Not for Me in New York City. The two have much in common, including a 75-year-old Harlem brownstone that they bought and renovated.

"I had played tennis myself," says Sarah, "and I knew it to be a mental as well as physical game, one that affects your grace and well-being. I used to carry Leslie around to local tournaments I entered. She was a gawky kid and played only off and on growing up. I think it was smart of me not to push her."

A teacher, science consultant and food-product marketer at various stages of her career, Sarah stopped 16 hours short of her Ph.D. in science education to go into acting. "My mother and grandmother had been in education," she says. "Middle-class kids, especially middle-class black kids, are always pushed into 'safe' careers. They aren't allowed what I call the luxury of failure in offbeat vocations like acting and playing tennis."

Leslie caught the tennis bug for good as a high school senior in Cleveland, where she was living at the time with her father, Howard. "I was too tall to be a cheerleader; I couldn't sing and couldn't twirl a baton," she says. "There was nothing for me to do, and I didn't want to sit around and watch TV." But it wasn't until the end of her freshman year at Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon Institute that she settled on the game as a career. "She glibly announced, 'I want to play professionally,' without having shown she had the slightest bit of talent," says her mother. "So we decided to take it step by step, on a five-year plan."

Because there was little competition for her in Pittsburgh, Allen transferred to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. No go. "I'd get out of school at 5 p.m. with an assignment to construct a three-dimensional study of a triangle, square and rectangle in three colors," she says. "The only time to play was from 9 to 11 p.m. on Saturday nights." From there it was on to Texas Southern University, where a promised women's team never materialized, and finally to USC, where Allen never moved higher than No. 5 on the squad.

After graduating—despite switching schools and majors frequently, she earned her degree in the standard four years—she returned to New York and began practicing with Bob Ryland, a former national black champion. An engaging man with a bag-full-of-tricks game, Ryland is an est trainer who specializes in the mental aspects of tennis. "I told Leslie to think about nothing but hitting the ball," Ryland says, "to get into concentration, acknowledge her mistakes and go on."

With financial backing from Cosby and others, Allen went to Australia, Nigeria, Europe and anywhere else she could play. "I was well prepared for life on the road," she says, "because I'd already had the full spectrum of experience. I'd gone to private school, public school, parochial school, a school where I was the only black and a school that was all-black." Still, the international road was rocky. "At least three times she considered quitting," says Sarah. "I told her she'd always wonder what she could have done."

As it happened, her big win in Detroit came the same night Sarah celebrated a birthday and opened in Weep Not for Me. "I didn't find out the result until after the final curtain call," says her mother. "The entire cast was waiting. You wouldn't have believed the din in the theater."

Althea Gibson was making coffee at her home in East Orange, N.J. when word of Allen's victory came over the TV the next morning. "I was overwhelmed," says Gibson, 53, now her town's recreation manager. "My heart pounded with love and pride and concern. I said to myself, 'Winning the first tournament is the biggest obstacle.' Now Leslie may go on to become a champion."

Allen is the same height and nearly the same weight (140 pounds) as Gibson was in her playing days, and the two have practiced together, though not recently. There end the similarities between the two women. Before winning at Wimbledon and Forest Hills in 1957 and 1958, Gibson was unwelcome at most major tournaments. She was the only, lonely black in high-level amateur tennis, and there was no pro tour for women then. By contrast, Allen is one of six black women on the main and satellite tours.

What racial problems she encounters are considerably more subtle than those Gibson faced. "I get asked all kinds of stereotyped questions, like what it was like playing stickball and tennis on the streets," Allen says. "Is that all people think about when they hear of a black player from New York? They don't ask players from Communist countries if their food was rationed. Some people can't accept that blacks play tennis."

Or tell them apart. "How did you finish your match so quickly?" Allen was asked recently at a party that was being held at a tournament site. She pointed to the main court, where Diane Morrison, another black, was competing. "I'm still playing," she said.

And how.

PHOTOHaving beaten the best in Detroit, Allen was tough on a bad night in Oakland.PHOTOLeslie and Sarah share a Harlem brownstone.