Mort recalls first playing Maureen Connolly
I shall never forget the first time I played Maureen Connolly.
It was 1952. There was great excitement when the young American arrived in England that year. The previous autumn, aged only 16, she had won the US Championships at the first attempt by beating her experienced compatriot Shirley Fry in three tight sets. Everyone said she was even better than the other great Americans of that era - players like Pauline Betz, Louise Brough, Margaret Osborne and Doris Hart - who had all won Wimbledon.
Before Wimbledon that year Maureen had swept through the two warm-up tournaments at Surbiton and Manchester and had been undefeated in her Wightman Cup matches against the British team. On the eve of Wimbledon she had developed a sore shoulder and was advised by her coach ‘Teach’ Tennant to withdraw from the tournament. Her response was to sack Tennant. She then called a press conference to announce her participation, despite the injury. This precocious action caused something of a sensation at the time.
The draw that year had thrown me in Maureen’s path in the third round. We had both had a bye and then Maureen, seeded No. 2, had disposed of Evelyn Moeller 6-2 6-0 and I had beaten Rita Anderson (who would later become the wife of the 1954 champion Jaroslav Drobny) by a similar margin, 6-2 6-2.
It was time to face the prodigy. Maureen’s game was based on complete control from the back of the court. She possessed a forehand which she could take very early to give her opponent little time to make a reply and a backhand of great penetration and accuracy. Her concentration, too, and her speed about the court were exceptional so she always seemed to be dictating the rallies. You never felt she would break down and give you a cheap point. Her serve, though not a fast as Brough’s or Hart’s, was always well placed and too deep to make it easy to hit an attacking return. Although I felt I had played well I came off court having been beaten 6-4 6-3. I had noticed that as soon as Maureen knew she had the match under control she had started striding confidently about the court between points with her head bobbing.
In the next round Maureen came as close to defeat as she ever would at Wimbledon. She was playing my friend in the British team, Susan Partridge. Sue had seen how Maureen had thrived on pace and angle so had played her by hitting the ball quietly and deep down the middle of the court. The tactic seemed to be working when Sue took the second set. In trying to force the pace Maureen had started to make errors. However, towards the end of the final set the head started bobbing and the drives were finding the lines again. Maureen emerged victorious 6-3 5-7 7-5.
Australia’s Thelma Long, her quarter-final opponent, had watched that match and decided to employ the same tactics. It won her the first set 7-5. The setback merely stoked the fires of Maureen’s determination. Early in the second set the head started bobbing again. The match was as good as over. Maureen raced through the next two sets 6-2 6-0. In beating Fry and Brough in the next two rounds for the title Maureen was never threatened.
This was the start of arguably the most amazing career the game has ever seen. In the next two years Maureen captured two more Wimbledon and US titles, two in France and one in Australia on her only visit down under in 1953. That year she collected all four major titles to become the first woman to win the Grand Slam. In those three years she was beaten only four times, twice by Hart, once by Fry and once by Beverly Fleitz, and all in minor events.
Tragedy struck in 1954. After her third Wimbledon win she returned home to San Diego to prepare for a fourth attack on the US title. While riding her beloved ‘Colonel Merryboy’ down a narrow road she was hit by a passing lorry. The accident left her with a broken leg. She never competed again. Even more tragically a few years later she developed cancer and died on the eve of Wimbledon in 1969, aged 34.
All her friends and indeed sports lovers everywhere were heartbroken. I had got to know Maureen well in the 1960's when, as captain of our Wightman Cup team, I had asked her if she would be prepared to coach our British team. To my delight she said yes. Maureen was so good at motivating our girls to produce their best tennis. Her work ethic had been legendary and although she was not fully fit herself she got the best out of our team.
I have always felt that I owed my own Wimbledon success in 1961 to Maureen. That first meeting in 1952 had taught me so much. I realised the importance of developing my own baseline game so that I could dominate opponents as she had done. It was a lesson I never forgot.