During her playing career, Leslie Allen rose as high as No.17 in the rankings, reached the round of 16 at Roland Garros on three occasions and made the mixed doubles final in Paris in 1983. She is best remembered, though, for her headline-making title run at the Avon Championships of Detroit in February 1981, posting wins over Grand Slam champions Virginia Ruzici, Mima Jausovec and Hana Mandlikova along the way. The unseeded Allen became the first African American woman to win a significant tournament since the legendary Althea Gibson in 1958.

After hanging up her racquets, Allen stayed in the game in myriad ways, and in 2011 she received the International Tennis Hall of Fame’s Tennis Educational Merit Award for her contributions. Forty years after her most famous triumph, she continues to give back to the game.

How did you get started in tennis? 

Allen: Tennis was always a part of my life. I spent summers watching my mother play in amateur ATA (American Tennis Association) tournaments. She was the tennis player in the family and desperately wanted me to play “the sport of a lifetime.” Reluctantly, I took the occasional tennis lesson, and even attended Dr. Walter Johnson’s tennis camp, but I never competed in a USTA junior tournament or held a junior ranking in my home state of Ohio. In fact, between the ages of 11 and 14, I didn’t hit a ball! Tennis just was not my thing at that time.

Leslie Allen pictured as a 20-year-old tour rookie in Sydney in 1977.

Photo by Getty Images

What led you back to the sport?

Allen: Truthfully, if my high school had had girls’ teams, I would have played any other sport! But the convergence of various factors – the passing of Title IX in 1972, the founding of the WTA in 1973 and opportunities like World Team Tennis – brought me back to tennis. In the 1970s, tennis was booming in the U.S., and by the time I was a high school senior, my dream was to play for a college team and become good enough to play pro tennis. Prize money, rather than just a trophy, appealed to me. Suddenly tennis made sense.

In what way did the college tennis system contribute to your development as a player? Why was it important for you to take that route?

Allen: Despite the naysayers who said I’d started too late and even pointed out that I was Black, my mother and I hatched a five-year plan for me to become a world-class player. That odyssey included playing No.1 at Carnegie Mellon University & Fashion Institute of Technology and training at Texas Southern University before landing the bottom spot on the University of Southern California’s team.

At USC, I trained and competed with the best players in the nation and was on the NCAA national championship team in 1977. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in speech communications, like my teammates I headed to the pros. It’s fair to say that college tennis was my only pathway to the tour.

How did your connection with Althea Gibson develop? What was she like on a personal level, and what were the key lessons you learned from her? 

Allen: Even though an autographed picture of Althea Gibson sat in our living room as a kid, I did not realize the greatness of her achievements. As a WTA rookie, I was part of a training cohort with Althea at the Sportsmen’s Tennis club in Boston. Althea asked each of us – Zina Garrison, Andrea Buchanan, Kim Sands and me – about our individual tennis goals and I said: “To be in the main draw of WTA Tour events.” Althea, a two-time US Open and Wimbledon Champion, and a Roland Garros champion as well, glared and said, “With your wingspan, you need to think about winning WTA Tournaments.” That one sentence was life changing. 

I didn’t see Althea as my hero – she was before my time – but I knew whatever adversity I faced, she had it 10 times worse.

Zina Garrison, the late Andrea Buchanan, Althea Gibson, Leslie Allen and Kim Sands pictured at the Sportsmen’s Tennis Club in Dorchester, Massachusetts in the late 1970s. The facility was the only Black-owned tennis club at that time.

Photo by Sportsmen's Tennis Club

What were your strengths as a player?

Allen: Ironically, my serve and volley were my strengths, and I did neither well until I joined the pros because in college I was a baseliner and afraid of the net. Fortunately, after college a major transformation took place in my game as I toiled through the pre-qualifying, qualifying and Futures events. More importantly, I learned what it took to be a WTA professional. 

Who was your toughest opponent, and why?

Allen: Besides beating myself with too many unforced errors, anyone who was a “pusher” drove me nuts because they never missed, and I had to create all the offense. 

Did you appreciate at the time the wider significance of your title run at Detroit?

Allen: By the time I reached the final in Detroit, the media had begun asking about the potential historical significance, so I was keenly aware of my win’s importance. Standing on court waiting for the awards ceremony, the thought going through my head was, “It is about time!”  Meaning, I had been working at this for years – and I had finally achieved a goal, which provided validation and a sense of relief. I knew it was a significant victory for the Black community, showing we belonged. 

What was the reaction like? 

Allen:  When I won Detroit, it was akin to going viral today. Every news outlet reported about it. In 1981, the tour had to find ways to penetrate the male-dominated sports media; my victory was just what the WTA needed to increase visibility. It was a story that transcended sport. 

How do you look back on the achievement now? 

Allen: People today still tell me how much it meant to them when I won Detroit. As I look back on that tournament win and breaking into the Top 20 as a result, I think of my tennis journey, my slow start, how hard I worked, how much I achieved, and marvel at how the heck I did it! Detroit will always have a special place in my heart – my victory represented so much to tennis, and the community. 

Leslie Allen’s win at the Avon Championships of Detroit in 1981 made news around the world.

Photo by Getty Images

Do you wish social media existed during your playing days, as a way to connect with fans but also to convey messages that mattered to you?

Allen: There were no cell phones or internet when I played the tour; we were on our own and isolated. We didn’t travel with a team; at best, one person (my mom) traveled sometimes with me. I was away from my family, friends and surrounded by a virtually white world. Among fellow black players, we’d play the game, “How many other black people will we see this week?” Sadly, we could usually count them on one or two hands, which added to the feeling of isolation.

Social media would have been an invaluable way to connect with family and friends and fans. However, I would not have had the freedom to use it for social justice. I was aware that being outspoken, especially as a Black woman, could upend sponsor relationships, impact the opportunity for other players of color, or reflect “negatively” on female athletes. Often my generation of players endured or existed in silence so the next generation could have more. 

In 1981, I could only dream that Black women would dominate tennis and never imagined we’d have the freedom to use our voice to highlight racial injustice.

Tennis has come a long way since you experienced racism in both overt and subtle ways – can you see ways the sport can still do better?

Allen: In my various roles in WTA Tour leadership – as a player on the WTA Board, a WTA Tournament Director, an event and PR manager for a Tour sponsor and a Top 20 Player Board representative – too often I was the only person of color in the room. In 2021 all aspects of tennis need to reflect the diversity of our champions. Tennis must acknowledge and not be defensive, deflect, or deny that systematic racism still exists. 

Over the past year or so we’ve seen stars like Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys step up and use their platforms to a degree we haven’t really seen among active players for quite a while, for Black Lives Matter and other important issues like anti-bullying. What do you make of the new generation of athlete-advocates?

Allen: When I joined the WTA Tour we were still building the brand, fighting for media and TV coverage, prize money and sponsors. In 2021 the WTA Tour is an established leader in sport, and women athletes are viable brands. I truly appreciate today’s athlete activism. They are stepping up to make their voices heard. People are listening and social media is their ally. The more athletes get involved, the more change happens, and the less likely it is they’ll be blackballed for speaking out like Colin Kaepernick. 

Serena Williams presented a cheque to Leslie Allen and her Win4Life program while participating in a tennis clinic in Charleston in 2002.

Photo by Getty Images

Since leaving the tour you’ve enjoyed a diverse professional life while staying connected to tennis – what motivates you today?

Allen: It is my passion to empower athletes and other individuals through my company’s Win4Life training program and to inspire audiences through motivational keynote speeches. Too often I've seen that athletes do not develop their life skills. Win4Life fills that void and helps athletes develop the tools to be successful off the court. When I share my story with WTA players, I always remind them, “You are not your ranking.”   

Who was your inspiration?

Allen: It took a village to get me to the WTA Tour – many people contributed to my success. Looking back, my biggest hero would be my mom, Sarah. She believed in my improbable dream. It was fitting that I won Detroit on her birthday, which was also opening night of her Broadway show – we called her from the WTA office on site, timed for right after her curtain call!

Billie Jean King was also an importance influence – 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. But I took Billie’s edict to heart and got involved. 

Who is your favorite player to watch nowadays?

Allen: Naomi Osaka. She is a champion on and off the field. I’'ve enjoyed watching her ascent as she has harnessed her power into precision. She knows how to Win4Life!

Interview conducted by Adam Lincoln