By: Baker Leyman
Special For The SEC Digital Network
Tuscaloosa, Ala. -- On December 13, 1943, the Southeastern Conference had its first major face of the movement towards female varsity athletics.
Roberta Alison Baumgardner, born in Alexander City, Ala., attended the University of Alabama as a tennis player in 1963. She faced an obstacle - Alabama did not have a varsity women’s tennis team. Nor did any other SEC school.
Alison was discovered by then-Alabama tennis coach Jason Morton, as she was preparing for the U.S. Open on local grass courts in Tuscaloosa. He encouraged her to join as the first woman to compete on a varsity men's team at Alabama after a 1963 decision by the Southeastern Conference that allowed women to compete on men's varsity teams. This was the first step toward opening the door for women's varsity athletics by the SEC member schools.
Current Alabama women’s head coach Jenny Mainz describes her legacy as a player and pioneer.
“She was a pioneer," Mainz said. "She wasn’t just on the men's team, she was a front-runner and a very polished player. In my opinion, she’s legendary. She afforded all of us the opportunities because of what she did back in the 60s.”
While being the first woman to play a varsity sport in the SEC is an accomplishment in itself, the fact that Baumgardner was pursued to join a men’s team speaks of her immense talent. She played at Alabama for three years, during that time playing first, second, and fourth singles positions.
She won the women’s collegiate tennis title in 1962 and 1963 and joined up with Justina Bricka of Missouri for the 1963 doubles national title. Few universities had women’s tennis teams at all during this era, with most women playing on the amateur circuit.
Despite all her success and numerous wins a collegiate tennis player, her career was marred with “default wins” because many male players would rather forfeit than risk losing to a girl, or simply did not believe playing a woman was worth their time.
Alison went on to have a successful career on the Women’s Amateur Tennis Circuit as well. She starred at the American Tennis Circuit’s in Cincinnati, a smaller warm up to the bigger grand slam tournaments. She was a finalist for the event in Cincinnati Singles bracket in 1962 and 1965 and won the Doubles championship in 1962 (partnered with Mary Habicht of Brazil), 1963 (Linda Lou Crosby) and in 1965 (Stephanie DeFina).
Baumgardner was elected to the Southern Tennis Hall of Fame in 1989. She has also been enshrined in the National Tennis Women’s Hall of Fame, in Newport, R.I., and is also a member of the University of Alabama Tennis Hall of Fame. She was a four time Blue-Gray champion and a three-time Southern Tennis champion.
After she retired from tennis, she returned home to Alexander City, Ala., where she spent her remaining days until her death in 2009. In 2012, the University of Alabama opened its new indoor tennis building, named in her honor, called the Roberta Alison Baumgardner Tennis Facility. An annual tennis tournament bears her name as well.
The Roberta Alison Fall Tennis Classic has been held every October for the last 24 years and invites every women’s tennis team from the institutions from around the south. It is now a lasting reminder of Alison’s substantial meaning to college athletics.
“People may not have realized the kind of impact it would have,” Mainz reflected. “I don’t think I’d have this job today, nor would the student athletes would have the scholarships today or the dedication or the life skills without Roberta Alison. “