Doris Hart, a Tennis Star Who Deftly Overcame Leg Ailments, Dies at 89

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Doris Hart, who overcame a life-threatening leg infection as a child and became one of the world’s best tennis players in the decade after World War II, died on Friday at her home in Coral Gables, Fla. She was 89.

Her death was announced by the International Tennis Hall of Fame, which did not specify the cause.

In an era with such outstanding female players as Maureen Connolly, Althea Gibson, Margaret Osborne duPont, Louise Brough and Shirley Fry, all amateurs, Hart was a standout despite physical limitations. Leg and knee problems had left her bowlegged and limited her speed, but she compensated with finesse, a solid all-court game, a strong serve and a fine drop shot.

Fry, her doubles partner, told The Associated Press in 2004: “For her to do what she did was special because she couldn’t run as well as other people. And yet she had the smarts.”

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Hart is one of only three women (Margaret Court and Martina Navratilova are the others) to have won singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles in each of the four Grand Slam tournaments. The feat is referred to as a career boxed set.

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Doris Hart at Wimbledon in 1953. Leg and knee problems in her youth limited her speed, but she compensated with finesse. Credit Leslie Priest/Associated Press
In 1951, because of rain delays, she played three Wimbledon finals in one day and won them all. Gardnar Mulloy, a leading American player of that era, called it “the greatest feat, I think, in women’s tennis.”

Hart made light of it, saying: “I guess I was in a daze out there. I came to, and it was all over.”

From 1947, when she was a University of Miami student, to 1955, she won 35 Grand Slam titles. Six were in singles: She won in Australia in 1949, in France in 1950 and 1952, at Wimbledon in 1951 and in the United States in 1954 and 1955. She won 14 titles in women’s doubles and 15 in mixed doubles.

She lost five United States singles finals before winning her first.

In 10 Wightman Cup competitions against Britain from 1946 to 1955, she won 14 of 14 matches in singles and eight of nine in doubles. In 1969, she was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Doris Jane Hart was born on June 20, 1925, in St. Louis and grew up in Coral Gables. At 15 months, she was found to have osteomyelitis — a bone infection — in her right knee.

Later in her childhood, after an infection in that leg, a specialist recommended amputation. Her parents rejected that, and she spent much of her youth bedridden.

Hart, right, at Wimbledon in 1951. Credit John Rider-Rider/Associated Press
From her bedroom window, she could watch youngsters in a nearby park learning to play tennis. Years later, she said, “I decided after my knee got well I would start playing tennis and become the best player possible.”

At age 10, she started playing and practiced with her older brother, Bud. By 16, she was ranked in the top 10 nationally. In 1946, she was ranked in the world’s top 10. She was America’s top-ranked player in 1954 and 1955.

She retired from competition at 30 to become a teaching professional and consultant, which cut her travel to 45 minutes a day, from 50,000 miles a year. She told The New York Times, “Thirty might not seem old, but it is old for tennis.”

In a 1955 autobiography, “Tennis With Hart,” she wrote: “Never feel sorry for yourself. The only antidote for the poison of self-pity is faith, courage and patience.”

She told The New York World-Telegram and Sun that year: “I think it is all right for a girl to play a good deal of tennis because when she quits competitively, she can think of marriage. And while she is traveling, she meets interesting people. But men players, unless they are tops and have professional careers in mind, make a mistake if they continue on the circuit until they are 30.”

She never married, although she said she “came close,” and in later years she lived alone in Coral Gables. She had no immediate survivors, the Tennis Hall of Fame said.

In 2004, Hart said she did not like the modern women’s game.

“There’s really not much strategy involved,” she said. “It’s not that appealing to watch, I don’t think.”