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Gold Standard


Maureen Connolly By Steve Flink
05/02/2003

Fifty years ago, a young dynamo became the first female ever to record a Grand Slam, sweeping the Australian, French, Wimbledon, and U.S. Championships in an exhilarating journey, conceding only a single set in 22 matches, overwhelming her adversaries with a crackling brand of backcourt tennis. Maureen Connolly was only 18 when she realized that remarkable feat.

Less than a year later, her tennis career abruptly ended in a horse riding accident. She got married, had two daughters and then lost her life to cancer at 34. To be sure, Connolly tasted unimaginable triumph and tragedy; in many ways, she is the most compelling champion in the history of the women’s game. Across her short yet astonishing American life, Connolly achieved prodigiously.

"Little Mo" (the nickname was a reference to "Big Mo," the U.S. battleship Missouri) grew up in San Diego. Her father — a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy — divorced her mother when Maureen was almost 4. An alcoholic, Martin Connolly was absent for the rest of Maureen’s childhood, but reemerged when she was an adult and they became close. Maureen’s mother and a great aunt raised her.

When Maureen was 9, she was walking by the tennis courts near her home when she noticed two men playing a first-rate match. "Never had I seen anything like this!”"she wrote in her 1957 autobiography, "Forehand Drive." "Their rallies were long, hard; their serves blistering, the net play dashing. I stood entranced. Time passed, but I did not move. The tennis virus raced through my blood. I made up my mind to become a tennis player."

A natural left-hander, Connolly started playing the game with that hand, but persuaded by local coach Wilbur Folsom that very few accomplished players were lefty, she soon switched to the right hand. From the outset, tennis was an all-consuming passion for Connolly. At 14, she became the youngest champion of the Girls’ 18 Nationals. In September 1951, still 16, she secured her first major at Forest Hills, becoming the youngest U.S. singles champion (a record Tracy Austin broke 28 years later). Victorious against veterans Doris Hart and Shirley Fry on that auspicious occasion, the precocious Connolly was off and running, and with her impeccably groomed ground stokes and steely resolve to win, no one could keep up with her. As Fry jovially recalls, "Maureen was so determined. She could play five games missing the baseline by one inch, but keep going for the lines and eventually find her range again."

In 1952, Connolly won Wimbledon for the first time and a second straight Forest Hills crown, setting the stage for her spectacular 1953 Grand Slam campaign.

"Little Mo" conceded a mere 11 games in five matches at the Australian Championships, dropped her only set at a major that year to Susan Partridge Chatrier at Roland Garros before halting Doris Hart 6-2, 6-4 in the final, won Wimbledon with a sparkling 8-6, 7-5 triumph over Hart, then surpassed Hart once more, 6-2, 6-4, to claim the U.S. crown. But her masterpiece was indisputably the Wimbledon final.

"It doesn’t happen very often that you come off the court after losing a major final feeling like you have won," Hart says, reflecting on the match half a century later. "But I really felt like I had won, because I knew deep down that match was the pinnacle of my tennis. We both peaked at the same time."

Says Gladys M. Heldman, who founded World Tennis magazine in 1953 and lost to Connolly the previous year at Forest Hills, "Maureen was so great it was almost expected she would win the Grand Slam. She had outstanding footwork and fearless forehand and backhand drives. Maureen was hopping all the time and was called ‘Twinkle Toes.’ She hit very hard for those days and would do anything to win."

Connolly’s unwavering drive was her trademark. She always competed within the boundaries of fairness. Yet she wrote candidly in Forehand Drive, "I hated my opponents. This was no passing dislike, but a powerful and consuming hate. I believed I could not win without hatred. And win I must, because I was afraid to lose. The fear I knew was the clutching kind you can almost taste and smell. This hate, this fear became the fuel of my obsession to win."

But was Connolly the sole architect of that mindset? The renowned Eleanor "Teach" Tennant began coaching Connolly when "Little Mo" was 12, and in many ways turned her spirited pupil into a champion. A proud, overbearing, brilliant and complicated character, Tennant had previously guided Alice Marble to world championship status. Tennant would go to any means to achieve her desired end. Once, before Connolly met Hart in a big match, Tennant concocted a story, riling Maureen by telling her that Hart had said she was a "spoiled brat" who was about to get a "tennis lesson." Connolly crushed Hart.

"All of that so-called hatred stemmed from Teach, who instilled it in Maureen at a very young age," Hart says now.

Says Ben Press, who grew up across the street from "Little Mo," was a pallbearer at her funeral and knew Connolly better than anyone, "Maureen was all business on the court. That was just her way."

In any case, not long before Wimbledon in 1952, Connolly hurt her shoulder. She visited a chiropractor, who told her she had torn a muscle. Teach firmly believed Connolly should pull out of Wimbledon, but "Little Mo" would not be swayed. She eventually sought out another doctor, who diagnosed the injury as fibrositis, or congestion of the shoulder muscle.

Connolly was treated by an osteopath twice a day during the Wimbledon fortnight. With Teach absent, she won the tournament. The relationship was over; they permanently parted ways. But decades later in 1985, Cindy Connolly Brinker — "Little Mo’s" older daughter — was on a business trip to Costa Mesa, Calif. Fate took Brinker to Tennant’s hometown. "Mom had told me her greatest regret was not reconciling with Teach," Brinker says. "Teach was in the twilight of her life. I called Teach on the telephone and told her I was Maureen Connolly’s daughter. Silence. I said ‘Teach, I want you to know my mom credited you with the success of her career.’ More silence. Finally, I mentioned that my mother had died, and then Teach started crying. She said that her greatest heartache was not reconciling with Mom. That was so important to me because Mom had agonized over what happened with Teach."

After Tennant left the scene, Connolly was coached by Australia’s master motivator and fitness expert Harry Hopman, who was in the middle of a magnificent run as the Davis Cup captain in his country. His wife was also very close to Connolly, and it was Nell Hopman who had a soul-searching discussion with "Little Mo" about the hate/fear component. She convinced Connolly that those dark feelings could be defeated, and thereafter Connolly’s attitude changed. But her winning ways did not, as evidenced by the 1953 Grand Slam. In 1954, Connolly skipped the Australian Championships but did win her second French Championship and a third consecutive Wimbledon title.

"Little Mo" was unmistakably on top of the world. She had won her last nine major championships after losing in her first two. But a few weeks after Wimbledon, she was horseback riding with two other girls when she came around a blind curve. A cement-mixer truck was coming around that corner rapidly, and Connolly was toppled off the horse, her right leg badly gashed. She was bleeding profusely when a nurse drove by and took her to the hospital. All of her right leg and calf muscles had been severed. Her competitive playing days were over.

Connolly had been talking with promoter Jack Kramer about turning professional. "We were in serious negotiations about it," recalls Kramer, one of the game’s all-time finest players. "The target was Pauline Betz, who had been such a great champion herself in the 1940s. Maureen would have been a very big help in having a strong pro tour continue. It was disappointing for everybody, but mostly for Mo herself because she was out of the game at 19."

As her husband Norman Brinker — a member of the 1952 U.S. Olympic equestrian team — mused not long ago, "That injury was very serious for her time. She could have bled to death. But nowadays they would sew her up. That accident today would be nothing. Back then, she could only play friendly tennis, but there was no way then she could put that extra pressure on the leg in serious competition."

Connolly refused to look back, moving into a new phase of her life with characteristic vigor. She had been seriously involved with Norman Brinker during the last few years of her career. They married in 1955. The Brinkers started their family two years later. Cindy was born in 1957; her sister Brenda two years later. Norman Brinker went into the restaurant business, at one time owning 20 percent of Jack in the Box, then starting the Steak and Ale chain. A brilliant businessman, he became a billionaire. Brinker, 71, has remarried three times since Connolly died, most recently in March.

Maureen raised her two daughters and did clinics for Wilson Sporting Goods. She also wrote penetrating columns for tennis publications. Meanwhile, the family moved from California to Phoenix and on to Dallas. "Maureen was a whirlwind for Wilson," Norman Brinker remembers. "She was making about $5,000 a year, which was quite good for the time. But she also did some fine work as a television commentator on tennis for American networks and the BBC at Wimbledon. She was amazing."

In turn, "Little Mo" worked with promising players from both sides of the Atlantic, most notably Great Britain’s crafty left-hander Ann Haydon Jones. They became great friends as well over the years. Jones won Wimbledon in 1969, only two weeks after Connolly died. "Billie Jean [King] once spent some time with Alice Marble," Haydon Jones reflects. "She went to see literally how Alice lived her life. She learned an awful lot from that time, as I did from being around Maureen. I was married and didn’t like being away from my husband, Pip. Maureen told me, ‘If you want to play tennis, play tennis. If you want to go home and have kids, do that. But make up your mind and do one or the other and put your heart into it.’ "

As Heldman recalls, "Maureen was strong-minded as a coach, just as she had been as a player. Barbara Breit Gordon (who reached No. 6 in the U.S. in 1954) worked with Maureen, but Maureen wanted Barbara to train five hours a day on her tennis. It was too much for Barbara."

Another player who came under Connolly’s influence briefly was Chris Evert. When Evert was 11, Connolly came to Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale — where Jimmy Evert taught his daughter — for a clinic. As Chris remembers, "I was thrilled hitting with her. I look back on that fondly because later they always compared me to Maureen. She had impressed my dad so much as a player that maybe in the back of his mind, almost subconsciously, he patterned my game after her’s."

In that same period, Connolly was taking courses at SMU, going for her degree as she embarked on her early 30s. But then she was diagnosed with cancer in 1966. "My mom was so quietly humble, it would take your breath away," says Cindy Brinker Simmons. "In late 1968, my father took my mother to Sloane Kettering for a battery of tests. At the end of that week, Mom and Dad met with the main doctor and two others for an assessment. The head doctor looked crestfallen, telling my mother, ‘You need to get your life in order and go back to Dallas because we believe you have six months to live.’ That doctor started weeping. My mother simply looked up at the clock and said, ‘It is 10 minutes to six. I met a woman here this week who is having surgery, and I promised to cheer her up. Gentlemen, I have an appointment."

On June 21, 1969, "Little Mo" lost her brave battle and passed away. Her two daughters were 12 and 10, but they responded to the tragedy like a pair of grown-ups.

Today, Brenda Brinker Bottum, 44, is married with two children. Her son, Connor, is 10; her daughter, Connolly, 8. "After my mother died," Brenda says, "I played tennis for a couple of years. I just stabbed at it, but then I went back to my real passion and competed on a junior international equestrian team. I remember my mother discouraging Cindy and I from playing [competitive] tennis because she didn’t want us to be compared to her."

Cindy, who will be 46 in late May, has similar recollections. The author of a heartfelt book on her mother entitled, "Little Mo’s Legacy: A Mother’s Lessons, a Daughter’s Story," she says, "Mom never wanted us to feel the pressures of following in the footsteps of a famous parent. I had just turned 12 when Mom died, but I loved the sport. The following week after she passed away, I went to the 12-and-under Nationals. I was so pumped I beat the No. 8 seed, even though I was only the No. 4-ranked player in that division in Texas. I went on to be ranked in the Top 10 in the country in the 14s and the Top 20 in the older age divisions. What I cherished about playing tennis was keeping the memory of my mother alive."

Cindy was the No. 1 player on the University of Virginia women’s tennis team, graduated in 1979 and pursued her dream of playing on the pro tour. She played tournaments that summer, but realized she was destined for some other arena. Now she runs a public relations firm, Brinker Communications, in Dallas. Her son, William, 7, a first-grader, bellows, "Grandma Mo played tennis. Grandma Mo was a champion," every time his mother and father drive by a court. In 1980, Cindy started a non-profit organization called "Wipe Out Kids Cancer," she says, "to do something to crusade against the disease that claimed my mother’s life."

Brenda graduated from SMU, went into advertising, then married. She does volunteer work, focussing on children’s issues and cancer. She serves on the International Tennis Hall of Fame board of directors. "I am amazed," she asserts, "that people still have such affection for my mother 50 years after her Grand Slam. People always tell me stories about their interaction with her. I am proud she affected people that way."

A year before her death, "Little Mo" established the Maureen Connolly Brinker Foundation along with her close friend Nancy Jeffett. Under that banner, a wide range of impressive programs and events have been established, primarily for juniors. Jeffett says, "Maureen was very ill when we incorporated, but never complained. She had a blood transfusion one morning and then went out and made a speech. She almost collapsed that day and died two weeks later. I can’t tell you what an inspiration she was for me. There is no telling what we could have accomplished together. She was so enthusiastic.
"In October at the Hall of Fame, we are having our 30th anniversary Maureen Connolly Challenge Trophy (U.S. vs. Great Britain, 19-and-under ladies event), and that is my mission on Maureen’s behalf: to keep these events flourishing."

Joining forces with Jeffett at the MCB Foundation is Carol Weyman, who created the Little Mo National Circuit in 1998. "What is unique about this circuit," she explains, "is we have 8-year-old kids playing against others who are 8, 9s against 9s, 10s versus 10s and 11s against 11s. We feel there should not be any ranking values or points, so these kids play like they did in the old days — just for fun. Maureen’s nickname lends itself so well to this concept. Our ultimate goal is to keep her name and her goals alive. Maureen was not well-off financially as she grew up. She was helped by the San Diego Tennis Association with her travel to national tournaments and the Grand Slams. She always said if she got to a place where she could give back to the game and help young girls with travel grants like she was once helped, she would do so. That is why she formed the Maureen Connolly Brinker Tennis Foundation."

Jennifer Spell, a 29-year-old independent film producer, was 5 when she saw the made-for-television movie, Little Mo, which did not drift far from Connolly’s true-life story. That film left an indelible emotional impression on Spell, who directed the 2003 documentary, Unforgettable: The Little Mo Connolly Story. The film premiered in Dallas on April 25 at the USA Film Festival and will be shown at the San Diego National History Museum on May 8. Spell hopes a television network will broadcast her documentary nationally.

"I want to make sure," says Spell, "that Maureen is remembered not just for her tennis, but for how she led her life. I want this to touch a generation of young people who did not get to know who she was."

To her family, "Little Mo" was a champion of the human spirit, "an incredible person who just happened to be a great tennis player," as Norman Brinker puts it. To tennis fans, she will always be recognized for her gusto, for her command of the ground game and for residing in the exclusive "Grand Slam Club" with Don Budge (1938), Rod Laver (1962 and 1969), Margaret Court (1970) and Steffi Graf (1988). As Doris Hart says, "I put Maureen in the top four of all time with Martina Navratilova, Graf and Court. Her determination would have pulled her through in any era."

Kramer asserts, "Maureen’s record for those years (1951-54), is as perfect as it could have been. Without the accident, and if she had not turned pro, she would have won a whole lot more majors. She is among the best of all time, but the Williams sisters play better than anybody. They are the closest thing to male athletes we have ever had in women’s tennis."

Ben Press still believes Connolly is the best. "Her only weakness was she didn’t serve as well as the women do today," he says. "But her ground strokes were the greatest. It is hard to fault Serena Williams. But I put on an exhibition once in the 1950s between Maureen and Pancho Segura and Nancy Kiner and Pancho Gonzales. They played on fast wood. Gonzalez had the best and biggest serve in men’s tennis, and Maureen handled it routinely. She could have measured up against Serena or Venus or anyone else in the history of women’s tennis."
 

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Wonderful article... thanks for sharing it with us. Also thankful that we still have some video footage of the remarkeable woman in action so I could see for myself what they were talking about when writers discussed her wonderful groundstrokes. The footage of her shotmaking with Doris Hart in the 53 Wimbledon final is astonishing!
 

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Great article.

Wish I could have seen her play live rather than just the few replays that I have seen. Hopefully, the All Tennis Channel will come to my area soon and it'll show lots of old matches!!!
 

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Thanx for the great article. Unfortunately never seen any footage of Maureen and first took any noitce of her achivements many years ago when i saw a tele movie of her life.... which I watched over and over again
 

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Great article! She was truly amazing! :)
 
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