When the ancient
nobles of tennis gathered in Seattle two weeks ago for the third playing of the
National USLTA Senior Men's (60 years old and over) indoor tennis
championships, it was instantly noted that something special had been added. It
was not just that the USLTA had recently approved the addition of a senior
mixed doubles (women over 40 and men over 60) to the event. This was good news
enough to the Seattle Tennis Club, where local housewives almost dominate the
six luxurious indoor courts on the shores of Lake Washington. No, the something
special was the entry of a diminutive bundle of good cheer named Sarah Palfrey
Danzig—playing in her first amateur tournament since she won the national
singles in 1945.
In all, there were
32 men over 60 and 14 over 65, and 25 mixed doubles teams. "Rather
amazing," quipped a tournament official, "that we could find any women
who will admit they are over 40." Somebody figured out that among them the
entrants had won 93 national tournaments in years gone by. An impressive
number, except for the fact that Sarah herself had won 37 of the total. Sarah's
titles, added to the 20 won by her doubles partner, C. Alphonso Smith of
Alexandria, Va., added up to 57 tournament victories, and they were, of course,
the stars of the show.
Alphonso," Sarah was heard to caution her 60-year-old partner, "we must
be cruel. When we are playing inferior opponents, we must be cruel and play as
well as we can. There is a great temptation, you know, to be overly kind to an
inferior opponent, and that can destroy our game. We must be cruel and play
hard at all times." This admonition was delivered in a Back Bay accent,
mixed with a touch of New York, which somehow comes out rather British.
"Yes, my dear," agreed C. Alphonso Smith.
At 57, Sarah
Palfrey Danzig weighs only a few pounds more than the 110 she carried as the
Little Miss Doubles of the 1920s and '30s. Her eyes sparkled with enjoyment,
and she was everywhere among the competitors, crying encouragement, remembering
old friends, obviously feeling the excitement of a tournament again. Her
mini-dress and dark hair, tied in the back, gave her a little-girl look, and
though her serve, never robust in its prime, had now become soft and friendly,
her reactions at the net were quick and sure.
Sarah and Alphonso
described their entry in the senior mixed doubles as "sort of a sentimental
journey." Sarah was only 14 when she was paired with Smith, then 17, to win
the Massachusetts State Junior Mixed Doubles at the Long-wood Cricket Club at
Brookline in 1927. Sarah still keeps a weathered clipping from The Boston
Globe, dated July 3, 1927, which recorded their victory.
seemed like such an old, old boy then," Sarah said. "It was a blind
date, so to speak. He was an absolute delight to play with. Never missed a
thing. He had a muscular forehand and a Western grip. It was a long day, and I
remember they fed us raisins for energy. When it was finished, Alphonso came up
and said, 'I hope it won't be too long before we can play together again.'
It turned out to
be 42 years. After her victory with Smith, Sarah went on to win the U.S.
national doubles title nine times, with the likes of Betty Nut-hall, Helen
Jacobs, Alice Marble and Margaret Osborne. She twice won the national singles,
in 1941 and 1945, and four times won the national mixed doubles title, with
Fred Perry, Enrique Maier, Don Budge and Jack Kramer. Teaming with Alice
Marble, she won the Wimbledon doubles twice and was named on every Wightman Cup
team from 1930 through 1939. Six years ago Sarah was voted into the National
Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame.
C. Alphonso Smith,
meanwhile, went on winning some titles of his own, including six national
singles and 14 national doubles championships, although his most memorable
victory came in 1963, when he was playing a tournament in Lynchburg, Va., and
was called out of the locker room to learn that he'd won $142,800 in the Irish
Sweepstakes. "After that I did a lot of things on the spur of the
moment," he says, "and maybe that's one reason I asked Sarah to come to
Seattle to renew our acquaintance in the mixed doubles."
As Sarah recalls
it, the telephone rang in her Park Avenue apartment early last month and the
unfamiliar voice said, "This is your old doubles partner, C. Alphonso
Smith. Now don't say no to what I am about to suggest until you think about
it." Sarah burst into laughter when he suggested the tournament in Seattle.
"But I'm not as good as you think I am," she protested, and Smith
replied, "Yes, you are. You have always loved the net, and we are going to
go out there and win."
"I had only
three weeks to train," she says. "So the first thing I did was give up
my cigars. I quit cigarettes a while ago, and now I smoke cigars, but I gave
them up for this tournament. I was only playing once a week, so the first week
I played three times, then increased it to every day. I began calling up better
players to help me get sharp again, and then the most terrible thing happened.
I was fixing the fire in our summer place at Lost Lake and the andiron fell
over and landed on my little toe. It doesn't hurt, really. I've got this hole
cut in my shoe and it really doesn't bother me at all."