ELIA MARIA GONZALEZ-ALVAREZ: Lilí Alvarez
If there is an image that sums up what Spain looked like starting the XX century with a look forward for everything new, that was Lilí Alvarez playing in the final of the Wimbledon Championships in 1926, 1927 or 1928, since she played the three of them, even if she was not to win any of them.
She was a mix of elegance, beauty and distinction. And that image had a perfect mirror in her personality, one of the most interestings of the time. She was a woman with a sensational half-volley (her best shot), that always understood life as a tennis match, where staying in the baseline was not really a worthy thing.
Elia María González-Alvarez and López-Chicheri, duchess of la Valdene (and you guys complain about the names of Spanish tennis players today!
), was born in the Flora Hotel in Rome, the 9th of May of 1905. She was baptised in San Juan de Letrán, and under that sign of posh elegance she lived the first part of her life.
The delicate health of her mother made Lilí spend part of her younger years in Switzerland, and that's where she became interested in all kinds of sports and surfaces, from ski to ice skating, from tennis to riding or snooker, that she played from the age of 4, climbing up on a chair to do so.
She had amazing physical attitudes, being tall and strong, and very slim. Her delicate appearance in the "Blanco y Negro" illustrations from the 20s give a glimpse of an adventurous and strong young woman with abilities to play any sport. When she was 11 she won her first ice skating trophy. At 14, her first tennis tournament. At 16, she was Gold medalist in skating in Saint-Moritz. And as she was such a competitor, she even won the German tango championships once.
But her sport was, without a doubt, tennis. Her progression was amazing. When she was 18 she went to live to "Costa Azul" (south of France) with her family, and she became the most sought after tennis competitor by the celebrities, politicians and aristocracy that used to spend their interminable holidays there, specially king Gustav V of Sweden, who she used to play against in Cannes.
Lilí enjoyed strong emotions and she also tried car racing. Running and competing was one and the same thing for her. At 19, she won the Catalonian Racing championships. But seeing that she had no rival there, she decided to concentrate on tennis, and with only two years of serious practice, she was playing the final of Wimbledon that was, then, as it is today, the biggest championships in this sport. That was the moment when spanish people and, specially the women, became interested in tennis, seeing her long skirt and shirt all white, and her headband, like a turbant, with the black hair cut like garçon style. At times, she wore the headband in red, always with the white uniform.
In 1924 she was the first spanish woman to participate in the Olympic games, in Paris 1924, where she reached the QF.
When in 1926 she played her first Wimbledon final, against english player Kathleen Kitty Mac Kane, she had the match in her hands. She had lost the first set 6-2, but encouraged by the crowd, and the Kings of Spain Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenia, she turned the match around, won the second set and was leading 3-1 40-15 before "se le fue el santo al cielo" (she lost her concentration) as she used to say, and lost a title that almost had her name written on it.
Lilí always thought of that match, despite the ending, as the best of her career. Maybe because, even if she lost, she thought she proved she was as good as any that day. The following two times, she had to play the best tennis player of the time Hellen Wills, who was clearly superior to The Senorita
, as the press of the time used to call her. That name came to be because the young woman had a very spanish personality and used to be very proud of her origins in those years after the WWI.
An anecdote of her and the victorious french mariscal Foch became world famous, Foch said to her:
- I wouldn't dare to ask this señorita to play a tennis match with me...
To what Lilí answered, straight away
- Do not fear, mariscal. I wouldn't declare you the war either.
The senorita, who won the Roland Garros doubles crown in 1929 with Kea Bouman, was a convinced feminist, who didn't tolerate any male chauvinism. She became a true celebrity, and she started writing for the Daily Mail in London. From the proclamation of the II Spanish Republic in 1931 she used to write parlamentary and political articles, paying special attention to the changes that had to do with the rights of women in Spain.
In 1931 (June 24) she shocked social propriety by appearing at center court at Wimbledon in shorts instead of the longish, hampering dresses that were the de rigueur tennis dress - the first woman in history to do so at Wimbledon, a baggy, calf-length pair she designed. She used to describe her game as "happy and fast".
Later on, when she quit tennis and came back to spain, she was spanish champion in ski, before a fight with the spanish federation over women's rights made her quit the sport forever.
She lived long enough to witness Conchita's Wimbledon win, seven decades after her sucessful run. She said once that to be better players, Conchita would need some talante (spirit) while Arantxa would need some talento (talent), a very witty thing to say. She died in 1998.