Alice Marble: Athlete, Spy, Civil Rights Advocate

She won 5 Grand Slam Tennis tournaments. She helped the Allies infiltrate the Nazi finances. And she helped desegregate tennis so that people of color could compete on a world stage. With all of these accomplishments, you would think we would know her name. But Alice Marble is a name that few know today.

She was born in California in 1913 when there was little encouragement for women to compete in sports. Undeterred, she completed in seven sports. Baseball was her favorite sport, and she would regularly participate in pregame practice with San Francisco’s minor league baseball team.

Her brother convinced her to try out tennis. She quickly proved that she could compete at the highest level. When she was just 15, she had already won a number of tournaments for juniors in California.

At the age of 23, Alice began to win national championships. She was 26 when she won at Wimbledon. Her doubles partner was Donald Budge, one of the tennis greats. Later she would partner with Bobby Riggs, who is better known for his match against Billie Jean King. She was the Associated Press Athlete of the Year in 1939 and 1940. But yet we don’t recognize her name today.

During World War II, she was recruited to spy for the Allies. She had been in a past relationship with a Swiss banker who was aware of Nazi finances. Much of the spying mission remains unknown, but we do know that she was shot in her effort to complete the mission. She recovered and returned to the U.S.

When Althea Gibson, an African-American tennis star, upset those who wanted to keep tennis a game for “gentle people”, she became her advocate. She wrote a forceful editorial in the American Lawn Tennis Magazine shaming those who wanted to preserve tennis as a whites-only sport. Althea Gibson was allowed to compete and became the first African-American allowed to compete in a Grand Slam event.

Alice returned to California to teach tennis. One of her students was Billie Jean King, one of the all-time great tennis professionals. Alice died at the age of 77.

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“If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentle-people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites.” – Allie Marble (from her editorial)

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