Re: Little Mo if she were around today......
The Natural On 50th anniversary of Connolly's Grand Slam, film honors her
The San Diego Union-Tribune
Tuesday, May 20, 2003
Watching "Unforgettable," a documentary dealing with the life of Maureen Connolly Brinker, is like going back in time to when movies didn't have sound and there would be a guy tinkling the piano in a theater's pit.
The filmmaker, Jennifer Spell of New York, has chosen to tell her story in part in the manner of silent movies. A message will be framed on the screen, like this one:
"I was a strange little girl armed with hate, fear and a tennis racket."
The film then segues into still pictures and clips of the beginning phase of the late tennis champion's career.
Spell's approach is just right. It gets across that what she is chronicling through film didn't happen yesterday but 50 and more years ago. You aren't going to be seeing what Spell is portraying on the 6 o'clock news. This is history. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Maureen's Grand Slam in 1953.
How appealing she was, this woman who died of ovarian cancer on June 21, 1969, and how deadly on a tennis court. Spell's film, made up of still pictures, film clips and interviews with persons whose lives Brinker touched, is a portrait of a woman who was saintly off the court and a demon competitor on it. It is more than that. As many clips as there are of her playing, seeing it is like attending a clinic on tennis technique. And by its conclusion, the film is enormously touching.
The film had a premiere showing at the Natural History Museum in Balboa Park as a benefit for Wipe Out Kids Cancer, a non-profit institution that intends to share the proceeds with the Children's Medical Center of Dallas and the Children's Hospital and Health Center in San Diego. Kyle W. Crews of The Harrell Group, a Dallas firm, said the event raised about $30,000 for the charity.
One day, Crews said, the film is to be made available to the public. "A lot of it depends on who buys the film," said Crews.
Spell said she is hopeful of being able to sell her work to ESPN Classic or HBO Sports. She said she had to borrow money to make it, but she so much wanted to do something concerning Brinker that she went into debt in order to do it.
What one can wish would happen: for the Hall of Champions in Balboa Park to acquire the film. The hall celebrates San Diego's champions and Maureen, though Dallas was her last home, always valued the community in which she grew up and in which her game was shaped.
"Those of you who knew mom knew her heart was always in San Diego," said Cindy Brinker Simmons, one of Maureen's two daughters. Said her other daughter, Brenda Brinker Bottum: "Mom was a remarkable woman who just happened to be a tennis player. Mom so loved San Diego. This was her home."
The two women attended the premiere along with their father, Norman Brinker.
Spell said her inspiration for making the film was seeing the motion picture, "Little Mo," on Sept. 5, 1978, one day before her 5th birthday. Maureen completed her Grand Slam on Sept. 7, 1953.
In the motion picture, Glynnis O'Connor, an actress strongly resembling Maureen, is cast as the tennis star. O'Connor remarks in Spell's documentary on what it was like to portray a person who on the court could make what Ted Schroeder terms in an interview "a metamorphosis the like of which you wouldn't believe."
Schroeder was remarking on how Maureen could go from the gentle person she was off a tennis court to the fiery competitor she was on one.
"She was inspirational and she was modest and she was good," says longtime San Diego professional Ben Press in another of the documentary's sequences. Growing up with Maureen in North Park, Press hit with her frequently.
It's all in the documentary. How Maureen's parents were divorced when she was 3. How she took up tennis with a $1.50 racket. A natural left-hander, she learned to play right-handed. And how, as Press says, "She got so she could hit the ball in a hurry."
Her career concluded too soon when at 19, already having won three Wimbledon championships, she suffered a severe leg injury when her horse, Colonel Merryboy, shied when a cement truck approached while she was riding in Mission Valley and threw her into a ditch.
One thing is not broached in the documentary: how she would fare with a graphite racket in her hand -- she played with a wood racket -- against the Williams sisters and the other figures of the current women's game.
"She was very adaptable," remembered Elizabeth Peck, a cousin of the late champion. "She would love those girls," Peck said of Serena and Venus Williams. "She was always into the up-and-coming players."
After viewing the documentary, La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club professional Bill Bond said he was taken with how graceful Maureen was and how quick-footed.
"Her footwork was just unbelievable," said Bond. "If you want to get in perfect position to hit a tennis ball, use short steps. If you use bigger steps, you are more likely to overstride or understride and have to reach to strike the ball."
Bond noted that when Maureen launched her strokes, the most severe of her time, her upper body was very still and she had a long finish. "Lots of power, with not very much effort, and lots of ball control," said Bond. "That's what she had; she had great feel for the ball."
Another question: How good might Maureen have been had she been permitted to play left-handed?
"Maybe better," said Bond. "They did the same thing with Ken Rosewall. You know, he was a lefty, too, and his coach said, 'You can't do that. You've got to play right-handed.' In those days, for some crazy reason, they thought if you were a left-hander, there was something wrong."
It wasn't in the documentary, but Press said that after Maureen had undergone surgery for the injuries she suffered from being thrown from the horse, she contacted him. She wanted to see if she still could play.
They went to a court at the Balboa Tennis Club, then located off Park Boulevard, and hit.
"After about 15 minutes, we had to stop and I had to rub her foot," Press said. "It had turned blue."
Some time later, there was an exhibition match at the Community Concourse downtown featuring Maureen, the late Nancy Chaffee Kiner, Pancho Segura and the late Pancho Gonzales. Gonzales once had possessed arguably the biggest serve in the men's game, but even playing on a swift board court, Maureen was able to handle it when the players offered a set of mixed doubles, Press said.
"She was so good," said Press.
Heart of the matter
In his age group for tennis players 60 and over, Dr. Leland Housman of San Diego is establishing himself as arguably the country's leading singles player of his vintage.
Housman is preparing for the National 60s Indoor Championships in Seattle in August after capturing the National 60s Hardcourt Championships at Rancho Mirage. He has won seven or eight national titles, by his accounting, and had four runner-up finishes in national events.
Said Housman: "Pretty good for a guy who has a day job."
Housman is a heart surgeon.