Re: Four Great Early German Female Lawn Tennis Players
Ilse Friedleben – A Champion Driven From Her Homeland
By Christian Eichler
“She was a bit like the Steffi Graf of the inflationary years. Six victories at the International German Championships – that was an achievement only Hilde Sperling-Krahwinkel in the 1930s and Steffi Graf half a century later were able to surpass. ‘Frau Dr Friedleben’, as she was called in contemporary sports reports, which left out first names, had been born in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1893 as Ilse Weihermann. Before World War One both she and her sister Toni were ranked among the best German tennis players and, as the ‘Official Annual’ of the German Tennis Association for 1927 states, Ilse Friedleben was ‘the principal representative of post-war German tennis whose players were excluded from international competition until 1927’.
“During her best years as a tennis player she was not able to measure her talents against those of the top international players, against Suzanne Lenglen or Helen Wills, first because of the war and then because of Germany’s isolation and also because of the poverty of the inflationary years. Only in 1930, at the age of 37, did she play at Wimbledon for the first and last time, and had no chance on the unfamiliar grass courts. The following year, both of her successors at the top of German tennis, Cilly Aussem and Hilde Krahwinkel, contested the women’s singles final at Wimbledon, favoured by the absence of the invincible Helen Wills Moody, and Cilly Aussem became the first German to win a Wimbledon singles title, something Isle Friedleben never really had a chance at.
“The Weihermanns were a Jewish tennis-playing family. In 1926, Ilse Friedleben was ranked number one in Germany, as she had been every year since the end of the war; her sister, Toni Weihermann, with whom Ilse became doubles champion, was ranked number four; and another sister, Anna, now Frau Hemp, was ranked number seven (two years later Anna became a professional). At the SC 1880 Club in Frankfurt-am-Main, all three sisters were also successful hockey players. Ilse Friedleben played tennis at another club in Frankfurt-am-Main, the TC Palmengarten.
“The best German tennis player of the 1920s conquered her German opponents as she wished by means of her tenacity and her old-fashioned forehand, which she swung in a broad, circular manner. However, she was not the sort of person to whom everything came easily. Reporters again and again praised her willpower and energy, with which she turned many matches around, such as the final of the German Championships at the Hamburger Rothenbaum in 1926, where she won her sixth German singles title against her eternal opponent, Nelly Neppach, after being 6-8, 0-2 behind.
“Not only Ilse Friedleben’s outer reserve and inner tenacity, but some other characteristics also remind one of Steffi Graf, such as her tactical inclination to stay at the baseline, from where she dominated her opponents with her forehand. In the anniversary Tennis Annual, published to mark twenty-five years since the founding of the German Tennis Association, the following description of Ilse Friedleben’s game was included, along with perceptible amazement at her many successes despite the ‘one-sided technical nature of the Frankfurter’s game’; her game ‘is strong because she avoids (or lacks?) any volleying skills and simply as a result of her forehand with its broad swing, which is hit quickly and accurately, and obviously because of talents of a different and more than technical nature. Willpower, concentration, self-confidence – and, resulting from this, the ability to increase the power of her game when in an unfavourable or even hopeless position – all of this gives Ilse Friedleben the strength of a champion and her game its energy’.
“From 1920 to 1924, and again in 1926, she won the International German Championships in Hamburg six times. Maybe, with her total of nine titles overall [?], she would be the record-holder at the most of important of German tournaments if it had not been cancelled for six consecutive years during Ilse Friedleben’s youth, from her twenty-first to her twenty-sixth year. She won a total of fifteen German championships in the years 1920-32, including four indoors, as well as the championships of Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and Hungary.
“In 1926, Ilse Friedleben beat the new star in the constellation of German tennis, Cilly Aussem, in the final of the German Covered Court Championships in Bremen. The score was 6-3, 6-4. The following year, 1927, Cilly Aussem, who was sixteen years younger than Ilse Friedleben, ended the reigning champion’s dominance at the German Championships when she beat her in the final in Hamburg in front of 2,500 spectators.
“The official organ, ‘Tennis und Golf’, reported on this changing of the guard as follows: ‘By the score of 6-3, 6-3, Frl Aussem won her first German Championship against the one player who has been in a class of her own in German tennis, and whose successes in German tennis have until now been unprecedented. The spectators’ applause, which lasted several minutes, was therefore meant not just for the new, but was also meant in a heartfelt manner for the old champion, who has gained so many victories on the tennis court.’
“The safe game of the young, hard-running challenger, who made her opponent’s weapons her own, and in the whole final only came to the net once, wore down the 34-year-old defending champion. And maybe also the spectators – during one rally the ball passed over the net 68 times.
“However, Cilly Aussem embodied something new in women’s tennis in Germany, with her over-arm serve and her good volleys. The sport of tennis was changing, a fact that becomes obvious when old and new styles of play meet at the intersection of two careers. The contemporary writer in ‘Tennis und Golf’ saw a ‘masculinisation’ of women’s tennis in this change. In that year, 1927, Ilse Friedleben lost the top year-end ranking in German tennis for the first time since the end of the war. Cilly Aussem had overtaken her.
“However, Ilse Friedleben did not give up without a fight. In 1929, she was again ranked number one, and in 1932, when she won the women’s singles title at the Closed German Championships for the last time, she was ranked number three in Germany. As late as 1933, when she was almost forty, she was ranked number five in Germany. However, by then the politicians had come to power who believed that someone like her had no right to be ranked as a player in Germany. German tennis became ‘free of Jews’.
“It appears as if the Nazis almost succeeded not only in destroying the lives of millions of people, but also in wiping out any traces of those lives. Isle Friedleben escaped the annihilation of the Jews, as did both of her sisters. However, she left no trail. There are hardly any sources, hardly anything remains of her, scarcely even a photograph, at least not one in which she is smiling. In ‘Tennis und Golf’ one can find a rare photograph of her in profile, unsuitable for a sports magazine, rather like the photograph of a sad singer of torch songs displayed in front of a review theatre. Beneath the boyish haircut of the Charleston years she turns her slightly shaded face away with an expression of deep melancholy. As if she sensed what was coming.
“Unlike Nelly Neppach, she did not take her own life in 1933, but instead began a new life abroad. Ilse Friedleben ended up in Switzerland, where she is said to have worked as a teacher after World War Two. She died in London in December 1963.”