When Leslie Allen could not find an open door into the tennis world, she paved her own path and never looked back. She started her collegiate career as a junior walk-on at the University of Southern California, and eventually won a NCAA championship with the team. She played 10 years in the Women’s Tennis Association tour and earned a career-high No. 17 world ranking.
Allen was the first black player to win a major tournament in 1981 since Althea Gibson’s 1957 U.S. Open championship. But like the path of any trailblazer, the journey wasn’t easy.
Before becoming a member of USC’s NCAA championship team, Allen was solely concerned with getting on the court. During her senior year of high school, she earned a spot on the boy’s team since her school had no girl’s sports. At the state level, she was forbidden to play because of her gender.
“We threatened to take them to court, the Ohio Athletic Association, and then the rule was changed,” she told the New York Times in 1981. ”I was matched against one of the best players, a boy. They threw me to the dogs, but it backfired. That player couldn’t make it, and the boy I played was not so good and I beat him.”
Allen’s mother played in the American Tennis Association, but she wasn’t interested in joining the junior professional ranks.
“While I avoided USTA junior tennis, my black contemporaries shared their horror stories of having their results overlooked for selection to key national teams or rankings. If there were two black players at a tournament, they were often forced to play each other in the first round (that’s long been an issue at all levels of amateur tennis),” she told The Undefeated.
That unfriendly introduction to tennis in high school stayed with Allen long after she graduated high school and college, but her gender was not the only barrier preventing her from enjoying an equal and fair experience on the court.
Allen experienced racial slurs on court and a constant underlying feeling that she didn’t belong, aggravated by encounters with security guards who would question her presence while letting her white counterparts into tournaments without a second glance. Even once Allen became an executive for the United States Tennis Association after her retirement, she continued to face discrimination and disrespect because of her skin color.
Rather than turn her back on these experiences, Allen decided to use her knowledge to help rising Black American tennis stars. With the Leslie Allen Foundation and Allen’s Win4Life program, Allen has developed workshops, lectures, and coaching strategies to help athletes navigate the sometimes exclusive atmosphere of professional and collegiate sports. Using Win4Life’s 4D’s: Desire, Dedication, Discipline, and Determination, Morristowngreen.com reports participants in Allen’s training camps and workshops have gone onto careers in professional tennis, the NBA, and the Special Olympics, among other professional athletic organizations.
Win4Life’s training program has adapted with the times to provide both in-person and virtual training. To achieve its mission “to prepare professionals, athletes, and students with the essential skills to be a well-rounded successful individual,” Allen hopes to help young people develop valuable skills off the court. This includes interpersonal communication strategies that extend beyond the screen and the ability to deal with adversity and discrimination in the professional sports world.
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