Monday, July 21, 2008

The Great Judy Alvarez, 7/18/63

In the spring of 1963, American Darlene Hard captured the women’s singles title at the Dixie International Tournament held on Davis Islands. The top-ranked tennis player in the U.S. – and second in the world only to Margaret Court – Hard captured the title in the backyard of one of Tampa’s own up-and-coming court stars: Judy Alvarez.

On July 18, 1963, the 20-year-old Alvarez geared up to face Hard in the quarterfinals of the National Clay Court Tennis Championship in River Forest, Ill. The match represented a chance for the eighth-ranked Alvarez to atone for the 6-0, 6-0 beating Hard administered to her earlier in the year at the Dixie, and a 1-6, 6-2, 6-3 loss a week later in Miami.

By the summer of 1963, Hard boasted one of the strongest resumes of anyone on the women’s circuit. As a singles player, Hard won three Grand Slam events -- back-to-back U.S. championships in 1960-61 and a French championship in 1960. Even more impressive, Hard won 12 Grand Slam doubles events. Hard was the standard of excellence to be measured against, and if Alvarez wanted to be the best, she would have to beat the best.

While comedian Jerry Lewis had summer movie audiences in stitches at his performance in “The Nutty Professor,” Darlene Hard certainly found nothing funny about playing the crafty Alvarez. Buoyed by some success on an early-summer swing through Europe with appearances at Wimbledon and the Italian championships, Alvarez felt prepared for her third shot at Hard.

“I’d just gotten back from Europe, and it sure made a difference in my level of play and in my confidence,” Alvarez recalls. “I think I was better prepared because of the tournaments I played on clay and just wanted the chance to show I could beat her on that surface. It was my best surface.”

Their playing styles on the court could not have been more different. Appropriately, Hard thrived on hard court and grass surfaces, which suited her aggressive serve-and-volley style. Alvarez, reared on the clay surface of the Davis Islands Tennis Club, played the quintessential soft court style of consistent, baseline tennis designed to force an opponent into making mistakes. Alvarez wound grind out rallies using a mix of top spin, slice, and flat shots to keep her opponents off balance.

Right out of the gate against Hard, Alvarez played her style to perfection. Using her patented mix of slices and lobs, she quickly raced to a 5-2 lead. With a chance to close out the opening set, Alvarez fell victim to a comeback that featured four unanswered games in a row by Hard. Having once been in a position to close out the set, Alvarez now found herself one game away from blowing a golden opportunity against Hard.

Then, through a combination of self-confidence and stamina, Alvarez rallied to win the next three games and capture the opening set, 8-6.
On a steamy day when temperatures on the court reached the high 90s, Alvarez found herself unfazed by the conditions while her opponent seemed to wilt by the point.

“Heat was my cup of tea,” Alvarez says. “When it’s hot up north, it’s not hot enough for me because I’m used to it. I had a darker complexion, too, so I could take it a lot better than a blonde like her.”

As Alvarez recalls, the first set could have gone either way. There was never any doubt, however, about the outcome of the second set. Alvarez’s mix of shots denied Hard easy passage to the net and threw her game out of whack. Alvarez tossed in a few service aces to punctuate the 6-2 second-set triumph.

“If she stayed back, I could rally with her,” Alvarez says. “If I gave her pace, she liked it so I moved her side-to-side. I used lobs, I used slice. Basically, I sliced and diced her.”

Beating the top-ranked American player at the time was the greatest victory of Alvarez’s career. An emotional post-match call to her mother highlighted the significance of the moment. Prior to leaving for the tournament, Alvarez’s mother asked her daughter to call her immediately if she happened to defeat either Maria Bueno or Darlene Hard, saying “those are the two fishes I want.”

“Well, right after the match I told the reporters that I can’t stop to talk to them because I had to call my mother,” Alvarez recalls. “So, one of the reporters overheard me talking to my mother on the phone when I happened to say, ‘Mom, I caught the fish.’ We were both crying because it was such a proud moment.”

The following day in the semifinals, an emotionally spent Alvarez ran into the worst possible opponent in Nancy Richey, who six years later would rise to as high as No. 2 in the world. Richey controlled the match by keeping Alvarez on the run and forcing her into defensive, rather than aggressive, shots.

“She completely out-steadied me,” Alvarez says. “She didn’t allow me to bring her in or pass her. I probably didn’t realize at the time how good Nancy was, even though I knew she had a game that could match mine.”

Despite the 6-2, 6-1 loss, Alvarez left Illinois with the confidence that she could hang with anyone on the tour on any given day. The list of foes vanquished by Alvarez during her career features several Grand Slam event winners and future Hall of Famers, such as Hard, Maria Bueno, Virginia Wade, and Billy Jean King. Still, Alvarez’s victory over Hard remains to this day one of the most meaningful of all.

“That win put me over the top,” Alvarez says, “and told me that I could beat any of those girls in the top five.”

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