Lili de Alvarez - Spain's first great tennis star
Most of this piece is taken from various Spanish sources available on the internet.
If there is one image which sums up the best of Spain and which shows the twentieth century with its capacity for all things good and new, it is the image of Lili de Alvarez contesting the Wimbledon singles final in 1926, 1927 and 1928, none of which she won.
She was a combination of elegance, beauty and distinction which had not been seen before on the tennis courts. And that image corresponded perfectly with one of the most interesting personalities of our time, a woman whose death in Madrid, on 8 July 1998, at 93 years of age, struck like a sensational half-volley, which had always been her best shot, a life which had always been viewed like a tennis match in which it was not worth staying at the baseline.
Elia María González-Alvarez y López-Chicheri was born quite by chance in the Hotel Flora in Rome, on 9 May 1905. She was baptised in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, which is the cathedral of the Church of Rome in the same city, no less, and the first part of her life unfolded under this sign of elegant cosmopolitanism.
Due to the delicate condition of her mother’s health, Lili spent her childhood years in Switzerland, and there became adept at all sports on all surfaces, from Alpine skiing to ice skating, from tennis and horse riding to billiards, which she started playing at four years of age supported on a chair.
She had an amazing constitution, both svelte and firm, sinuous and wafer-thin. Her delicate features and a figure painted by Rafael de Penagos for the illustrations in Blanco y Negro contained a steely and adventurous personality, a determination and a will to try anything and to undertake any sport. At age 11 she won her first trophy for ice skating and at 14, her first tennis tournament. At age 16 she won the gold medal for skating in Saint Moritz. And because she always liked to enjoy herself while at the same time competing, she also won the tango championships in Germany.
However, the sport for which she was best suited was tennis. She progressed at a dizzying rate and, initially, on an international scale. When, at the age of 18, she moved with her family to live on the French Riviera, she was the most sought-after partner by all of the celebrities from the aristocratic and political worlds who used to spend the endless summers there, in particular King Gustav the Fifth of Sweden, with whom she often played tennis in Cannes.
Lili sought strong sensations and motor racing gave her them. Racing and competing were one and the same thing for her, which is why she won the motor racing championships in Cataluña at the age of 19. Seeing that she had no rival, she concentrated on tennis and after only two years of practice reached the singles final at Wimbledon which, then as now, was the most important championship in the world. This was the moment when Spaniards, and especially young Spaniards, were dazzled by her beautiful figure dressed in a linen shirt and a long skirt, all in white, with a very broad belt, turbanned, with short black hair in the “garçon” style.
Sometimes she wore the belt and a red cardigan, always over the obligatory white clothing, including the stockings and low shoes. This made her look even more beautiful. And the way she concentrated was unbearably attractive, as devastating as her drives.
When, in 1926, she contested her first singles final at Wimbledon, against Britain’s Kathleen McKane, she had the winning of the match in her racket. She had lost the first set 6-2, but, cheered on by the spectators, which included King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain, she reversed the score in her favour by winning the second set and by leading 3-1 and 40-15 in the third set. Then, she said later, “I completely forgot where I was,” and she lost the title she had almost had in her bag.
Lili always remembered that match as the nicest one in her whole life, perhaps because, despite the result, she had proven that she was the better player. In contrast, in the following two years she had to play the best tennis player of the time in the final, the American Helen Wills, who was clearly better than the “senorita”, as the British press always called Lili. During her meetings with other top players of that era Lili was not afraid to show where she was from and exhibited a very Spanish character in her matches.
A famous anecdote of the time featured Lili as one protagonist and, as the other, the victorious French marshal Ferdinand Foch, who, with affected gallantry, is supposed to have said, “I would not dare to propose a game of tennis with that lady.”
Lili is supposed to have witheringly replied: “Don’t worry, marshal. I wouldn’t declare war on you either!”
She said that because the senorita, who won the ladies doubles at Roland Garros in 1929 with the Dutch player Kornelia (“Kea”) Bouman, was a convinced feminist who had no time for macho condescension although, as a particularly cultured and cultivated person, she appreciated talent and inventiveness. Of course, this led to several setbacks for Lili de Alvarez, but she overcame them easily with the “passing shot” of her personality. This is not to say that she became conceited in the face of adversity; she liked to provoke it so that she could overcome it.
Having become a celebrity, she was tempted by journalism and began to write for the London “Daily Mail”. After the proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931, she began to send parliamentary and political reports, placing a special emphasis on changes being experienced by Spanish women.
In 1934, she experienced a change herself when she fell in love and married the Count of Valdene, a French diplomat and aristocrat, but her marriage had the same tragic fate as her country. In 1939, after losing the child she was expecting, she separated from her husband for good. It will never be known how splitting from her husband affected a person as religious as Lili, but it must have affected her seriously and deeply, just like what had happened in Spain and was about to happen in the rest of the world. She always refused to write her memoirs so the secret remained where it surely had to remain – in her heart.
In 1941, she decided to live in Spain and continued her involvement in sport and winning championships. She did so in motor racing and in skiing, where she was Spanish champion. However, she had an altercation in Candanchú, with the other members of the federation there, whose nastiness is easy to imagine. They had the brilliant idea of making the women wait while the men skied first, and she showed them who was boss. They accused her of “offending Spain”. Not long after expelling her from the federation they wanted to readmit her, but she no longer wanted to compete and dedicated herself to sport privately. She did this until she reached her old age.
She then began a career as a writer of religious and feminist works, a troublesome mixture. In 1946, she published “Plentitude”. In 1951, she gave a lively speech at the Fifth Latin American Feminist Congress, entitled “The Battle of Femininity”.
In 1956, “Foreign Land” was published with a great deal of repercussion in unofficial Catholic circles; this was the first in her series of books on spirituality and her commitment to the disadvantaged. She relied on her special friendship with Guillermo Rovisora, a labour leader of the time, and Tomás Malagón, a priest who worked with the Catholic Action Workers’ Brotherhood based in Madrid.
The titles of some of her other works are “Feminism and Spirituality”, “Male Religiosity and Its Unhappiness”, “The Myth of Amateurism”, “My Spiritual Testament” and “The Great Explanation Concerning Life and Sport”. In the intellectual world Lili de Alvarez was what she had been in the sporting world – an exception. Or, more precisely, someone exceptional.
When Spanish tennis reached new peaks during the Davis Cup final against Australia in 1965, Lili travelled to Sydney and wrote the following for ABC: “In the White City stadium, when the military band played our national anthem, tears came into my eyes and I thought, ‘As I report on this match, what brings more glory, more pride to Spain nowadays, openly, manifestly, multitudinously, than this fair game which everyone plays?’”
In the last years of her life Lili followed the news only sporadically. She had to live many years to see Conchita Martínez triumph at Wimbledon, seven decades after her own success. In relation to Conchita Martínez and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, she said: “Conchita has the talent necessary to be the best, but lacks the will; Arantxa has the will, but lacks the talent.’”
Lili appeared in public for the last time on 11 May 1998 to present her book “The Great Explanation Concerning Life and Sport” and passed away without receiving the Golden Medal for Merit which the Higher Sports Council in Madrid was due to award her on 25 July 1998. She died in Madrid on 11 July 1998 at the age of 93.