Back to Wimbledon - 50 years later
THE Last Eight Club at Wimbledon is an exclusive group. It admits as members only those players who reach the quarterfinals (and, in the case of doubles, only semifinalists) of what is correctly called The Championships, Wimbledon.
Next week the club will make an exception for someone who was knocked out of the tournament's first round 50 years ago.
In 1962, Marlene Bethlehem (then Gerson) - unlike her previous three appearances at Wimbledon - needed to qualify because there were six other South African women in the draw.
The Joburger did so at Roehampton, a grass-court tournament like Wimbledon, and in Wimbledon's first round she came up against one of the most prodigiously talented Aussies of the time, Kaye Dening, a junior champion at the Australian, French, US and Italian opens, who had also reached the final of Junior Wimbledon.
Gerson lost 7-5 6-3, but she did not leave Wimbledon empty-handed that year.
First-round losers go on to compete in the plate and that is when the then 22-year-old Gerson had a week, she says, "that I will never have again, even if I live to be 100".
In the semifinals of the plate, Gerson faced Christiane Mercelis of Belgium.
Mercelis, nine years older, had played at Wimbledon every year between 1951 and 1968 and had reached the quarterfinals of the French Open in 1957. She is still the oldest player to represent Belgium, being 37 and 231 days when she played her final Fed Cup match - a doubles victory against South Africa in 1969 with Michele Kahn.
Mercelis was no ordinary opponent, yet Gerson won comfortably 6-3 6-1.
The final brought Gerson up against a friend, Margaret Hellyer of Australia, who that year had taken South African star Sandra Reynolds to three sets in the first round.
Like Mercelis, Hellyer was no rookie, having played against some of the top names at Wimbledon during the '50s and '60s, including Maria Bueno (a three-time Wimbledon champion) and Althea Gibson (twice champion). In the Wimbledon of '62 she took Reynolds, who was ranked in the world top 10 from 1959 through 1962, to three sets, with the South African winning 6-2 1-6 8-6.
In her time, Reynolds (later Reynolds-Price) won four grand slam women's doubles championships with fellow South African Renee Schuurman, and one grand slam mixed doubles championship with Bob Mark at the Australian Open, when they beat Rod Laver and Schuurman (later Haygarth).
That bit of 1960s tennis history is mentioned to put Gerson's achievement into perspective. Winning the plate at Wimbledon was no token title.
The plate final of '62, however, proved one-sided, Gerson winning 6-2 6-1.
And next week, along with husband Brian, she will get free entry to Wimbledon through the Last Eight Club, which has granted her membership on the 50th anniversary of her once-in-a-lifetime week at the famous venue.
Marlene, 72, goes to Wimbledon as one half of the reigning Parkview Tennis Club's women's doubles champions, a title she won recently with her daughter Lael, 44. It was Lael's second title at the championships, having won the women's singles too. In some ways, 2012 will be a bit like 1962.