The early May Sutton-Hazel Hotchkiss head-to-head (1908-11)
By Mark Ryan
According to an old saying coined in the United States, probably in California, it took a Sutton to beat a Sutton. The Suttons in question were the tennis-playing sisters Violet, Ethel, Florence and the youngest and best of them all, May. For a number of years each of them was well-nigh invincible in singles play unless, of course, one sister happened to be playing another and even then, at least in May’s case, this near-invincibility remained intact for more than a decade.
During the years 1900-12, May Sutton in all probability lost no more than half a dozen singles matches. This is certainly the case in the years 1903-12. Record-keeping was relatively poor at the turn of the nineteenth century and it has been possible to find only one defeat in singles for May Sutton before 1901, to her sister Ethel in an early round of the 1899 Southern California Championships tournament (the score was 6-8, 6-3, 6-1 in Ethel’s favour). It is worth remembering that May Sutton was only thirteen years of age at that point in time and already making headlines.
May’s next verifiable loss in singles occurred seven years later, in 1906, in the final of the Northern England Championships in Liverpool, when Dorothea Douglass beat her 7-5, 6-2. By that time May was the reigning Wimbledon singles champion and had returned to Great Britain with the main goal of retaining her title. But it was not to be because Dorothea Douglass once again beat May, in the Challenge Round at Wimbledon. This time the score was 6-3, 9-7.
One year later, in 1907, May turned the tables during her third visit to Great Britain, winning the Wimbledon singles title over her final round opponent of the previous two years, Dorothea Lambert Chambers, as she now was. This time the score was 6-1, 6-4. However, May did not go undefeated in singles during this third and final visit to Great Britain. In early June, a few weeks before her second Wimbledon triumph she had lost, 7-5, 6-0, in the final of the Northern England Championships to the veteran English player Charlotte Sterry.
Those three losses - two to Dorothea Douglass/Lambert Chambers and one to Charlotte Sterry - are the only verifiable losses May Sutton suffered in singles in the years 1900-09. She did not lose another singles match until Hazel Hotchkiss beat her in April 1910, in the final match of the Ojai Valley Championships tournament held in south-west California. The score was 2-6, 6-4, 6-0.
By this time - April 1910 - May and Hazel had played each other at least half a dozen times in singles, and May had won all six matches, five of them in straight sets. The talk was of a rivalry between May and Hazel, but if a rivalry is at least partly based on an equal, or almost equal, number of victories for each of the two players involved, then this was no rivalry because, of the verifiable number of singles matches they played against each other in the years 1908-11 - a total of eleven matches - May Sutton won nine of them.
They played each other again four more times in singles between the aforementioned Ojai Valley match of April 1910 and their respective marriages in 1912 (Hazel married in February of that year, May in December). Hazel Hotchkiss had her second victory over May in the interim, in what appears to have been their final meeting before Hazel’s marriage. This took place in early September 1911, in the final match of the Niagara-on-the-Lake International tournament, held in Ontario, Canada. In what was their strangest match in terms of the scoreline, Hazel won 0-6, 7-5, 6-0, but not before May had led 6-0, 5-1. (The defeat at Niagara-on-the-Lake was the fifth and last verifiable loss May suffered in singles during the period 1900-12.)
If marriage had not intervened, could Hazel’s victory in Niagara-on-the-Lake have signalled a change in her fortunes where May Sutton was concerned? Could it have heralded a string of victories, or at least more than one victory against May every few years? Probably not. After all, both players were almost exactly the same age, May having been born in September 1886 and Hazel in December of the same year. In this respect, age would not have been a factor - a younger player would not, as often happens, have caught up on an older, ageing one.
Also, there is no evidence that May Sutton’s powers decreased greatly in the first few years after her marriage to Thomas Bundy, in December 1912. When she did return to competitive play, she was still capable of holding her own with the other top players. The same was true of Hazel Hotchkiss. Neither marriage nor motherhood had a major impact on their basic tennis abilities. Their passion for the game and will to win appear to have remained undiminished, too.
It is clear that both of them had always been passionate about the game, although this was perhaps more evident in May’s case than in Hazel’s. May was the fiery, feisty one, while Hazel appears to have had the cooler head, or at least a less excitable temperament. If their head-to-head was rather lopsided, it was surely the contrast in personalities which made their encounters so absorbing.
Their playing styles were rather different, too, with May being essentially a baseliner, while Hazel, who had first learnt to play tennis by hitting a ball against a wall of the Hotchkiss family home in Berkeley, California, had more of an attacking, serve-and-volley type game (as a child she would often hit the ball before of just after it had bounced, unknowingly developing her volleying skills). However, it is clear that May Sutton was capable of volleying, too. Like Hazel Hotchkiss, she won many doubles and mixed doubles titles throughout her long career.
Like two other great Californian players, who would also have a rather lopsided “rivalry”, Helen Wills and Helen Jacobs, May and Hazel had enough in common and enough in contrast to make each of their matches intriguing encounters. They met first in singles in the All-Comers’ Final of the 1908 Pacific Coast Championships, held in Del Monte, California, during the first half of September. Like all of their early meetings except the one at Niagara-on-the-Lake, this one took place in California and on the hard courts so common there (the Niagara-on-the-Lake tournament was played on grass).
May won this first encounter 6-3, 6-2 before going on to beat her sister Florence, the defending champion, 6-1, 6-3 in the Challenge Round of the Pacific Coast Championships tournament (being the holder, Florence did not have to play through the tournament). At this point in time, and for many years, the Pacific Coast Championships was the main tournament on the west coast of the United States. Indeed, because it attracted players like Marion Jones, the Sutton sisters, Hazel Hotchkiss, Elizabeth Ryan and Mary K. Browne, in other words players who did not often travel to play in the United States Championships, held in those days in Philadelphia, it could be argued that for a number of years the Pacific Coast Championships was the top tournament in the United States.
May Sutton would win the singles event at the Pacific Coast Championships eight times in all during the years 1901-12; during the same period, she played in the United States Championships tournament in Philadelphia only once, in 1904, when she won the singles title. The fact that many of the top American players - not to mention players from other countries, especially Great Britain - were absent from the United States Championships before the First World War affected this tournament’s status in a negative way.
May Sutton and Hazel Hotchkiss played each other in singles for the second time in the Challenge Round of the Coronado Hotel tournament, held in San Diego in February 1909. Once again the score was 6-3, 6-2, a clear indication of the superiority at this point in time of May, who was the titleholder. In the All-Comers’ Final, Hazel Hotchkiss had scored another victory in singles over a Sutton sister by beating Florence, arguably the next best Sutton, 6-4, 6-4. (Hazel’s first victory over a Sutton was in September 1906, when she beat Ethel, now Mrs Bruce, 9-7, 6-1 in the semi-finals of the Pacific Coast Championships. This was probably the first time anyone other than a Sutton had beaten a Sutton in singles play.)
May and Hazel met twice more in singles play in 1909, first of all in the Challenge Round of the California State Championships, held at San Rafael in early summer. Once again Hazel Hotchkiss, who was the titleholder, could only manage to win five games, the final score being 6-4, 6-1. Perhaps Hazel was somewhat tired, having just travelled back from Philadelphia where, on her debut, she had won the United States Championships, and not just the singles title, but also the doubles title (with Edith Rotch) and the mixed title (with Harold Johnson).
It is worth noting that, in the All-Comers’ Final of the 1909 California State Championships, May had beaten - annihilated - her sister Florence 6-0, 6-0. The fact that Hazel Hotchkiss was able to take five games from May Sutton in each of their first three encounters is also noteworthy because May Sutton tended to thrash most of her opponents, winning many matches by a score of 6-0, 6-0 or 6-1, 6-1. She did so not just against players a class or more below her, but also against her sisters and players such as Marion Jones, of Nevada, and players from other parts of the United States such as Elisabeth Moore, Myrtle McAteer, Helen Homans, Carrie Neely, Martha Kinsey and Marjorie Dodd. May also had a number of very one-sided victories over British players when she played in Great Britain in the years 1905-07.
The third and final meeting in singles in 1909 between May Sutton and Hazel Hotchkiss took place on October 23, when they played an exhibition match in Portola, San Francisco. Yet again Hazel won five games, the final score being 6-1, 6-4.
The first meeting of 1910 between May and Hazel took place in early February, at the Coronado Hotel tournament in San Diego. This time Hazel managed to improve significantly on her result of the previous year in the same round, the Challenge Round, of the same tournament and, for the first time, took a set from May, the titleholder. The final score was 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 in May’s favour and the middle set was more than likely the first set May had dropped in singles since her aforementioned loss to Charlotte Sterry in the final of the Northern England Championships in June 1907.
After playing in San Diego, May and Hazel then moved on to Long Beach, where they met in the final of the tournament held there in the second half of February. May’s victory by a score of 6-2, 6-2 was her most one-sided yet over Hazel in terms of games won. However, as already mentioned, two months later Hazel was able to put this disappointment, and her five other losses against May, behind her when she beat May 2-6, 6-4, 6-0 in the final of the Ojai Valley Championships tournament. The score indicates that May had the upper hand early on, but that Hazel bided her time and, certainly by the middle of the third set, was clearly playing the better tennis. According to some reports, the loser refused to shake the winner’s hand at the end of this match until Hazel Hotchkiss went around the net and made this gesture more or less unavoidable. (To be fair to May Sutton, she said afterwards that she had simply met her match at last.) This first win for Hazel over May meant that their head-to-head in singles was now 6-1 in May Sutton’s favour.
A few weeks later May and Hazel met for the eighth time to play another exhibition match as part of the Mount Washington Invitational in Los Angeles. Once again Hazel was able to take a set from May before fading somewhat in the third set, the final score being 6-3, 4-6, 6-2. According to the “San Francisco Call” newspaper of May 31, 1910, “ Nervousness lost the first set for Miss Hotchkiss, superior play won her the second and lack of confidence lost her the third. The northern player has a style of play all her own yet she delights in the angle shot which Miss Sutton used when right in her prime. She outshone the local player at all stages of the game, save endurance. Her placing was perfect and she quite outranked Miss Sutton in the number of clean aces [winners]. [...] If she could begin to play with the assurance that has so long stood Miss Sutton in good stead, there would be no doubt of the outcome. Miss Hotchkiss would have no equal in the feminine tennis world today.”
May and Hazel met twice more in singles in 1910. At the beginning of July, May thrashed Hazel 6-2, 6-0 in an exhibition tournament held in Long Beach, California. It should be pointed out that Hazel had only recently returned from Philadelphia, where she had retained all three of her titles at the United States Championships. There is no doubt that she was in need of a rest at this point in time.
Later on in the 1910 season, May and Hazel met in the All-Comers’ Final at the Pacific Coast Championships, held at the beginning of September. Although May won again, the score - 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 - indicates just how close this match was. After winning the second set many spectators felt that Hazel now had the upper hand and would to go on to win the match. However, before the third and final set could begin May “sauntered off the court without a word, announced regally to the umpire that she felt like a cup of tea, deposited herself in a wicker chair, and sat in silence until a waiter appeared from the hotel carrying her tea on a tray” (from “The Story of Hazel Wightman”, by Herbert Warren Wind). Such behaviour by May is another indication of the difference in the two players’ characters. Hazel Hotchkiss would not have been capable of such an unsporting action, one which probably checked her momentum and, ultimately, lost her the match.
As previously mentioned, the only other verifiable meeting in singles between May Sutton and Hazel Hotchkiss before the First World War took place in August 1911, at Niagara-on-the-Lake, in Ontario, Canada. On what some sources described as a damp grass court, Hazel won 0-6, 7-5, 6-0, taking the last eleven games and bringing their head-to-head to 9-2 in May’s favour, leaving no doubt as to who was the better player.
Even though May Sutton played at the United States Championships only once in the early years of her career (she returned in 1921 and subsequently) and at Wimbledon only three times (this in itself was significant at a time when travel abroad for sporting events was uncommon and means of transport limited), there is little doubt that, had she played at those two tournaments more, she would have won them several times over. Her only real rival in Great Britain was Dorothea Lambert Chambers, and probably no one except Hazel Hotchkiss was able to beat her in North America in the period 1900-12. Indeed, no one besides Hazel Hotchkiss appears to have even taken a set off May Sutton in North America during those years, when May played relatively regularly.
Although she took part in the United States Championships in Philadelphia only once during the early part of her career, May travelled the length and breadth of the United States to play in tournaments like the Tri-State Championships, held in Cincinnati, Ohio; the Pacific Northwest Championships, held in Tacoma, Washington; the Western Championships, held in Illinois; and the United States Clay Championships, held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (May Sutton won the inaugural women’s singles event at this tournament in 1912; she was equally formidable regardless of the surface on which she played).
May Sutton also won the inaugural Mexican Championships, or at least the forerunner of that tournament, held in Mexico City in 1909. Her one United States singles Championship and two Wimbledon singles titles - relatively few compared to players like Helen Wills Moody or Martina Navratilova - do not make May Sutton any less of a great player. After all, at her best May Sutton dominated her opponents, including the best of them, like Hazel Hotchkiss, as much as did other great players from other eras.
Last edited by newmark401; Jun 23rd, 2011 at 03:54 PM.