January 1, 2014       

Remembering "Mo" — First Woman's Grand Slam Champion

Paul McElhinney

The coach at my local tennis club recently relayed to me a revealing anecdote that says everything about the priorities of youth and the short time horizons of modern life.  Chatting with a number of pre-teens after a tennis work-out, he brought up the name of Andre Agassi (not exactly an ancient hero) to which he received a completely blank response. They had never heard of Agassi.  To a wrinkly quintenagerian like me, this lack of appreciation of a major figure in the recent history of the game was the height of sacrilege — I simply put it down to the vagaries of youth.  But it also tells us a lot about our modern, disposable culture.

It is horrifying to think what those kids would have made of the woman who sixty years ago last year recorded one of the greatest achievements in tennis by winning the coveted Grand Slam.  I can only hope that reminding people of Maureen Connolly’s intriguing story will go some way toward bridging the knowledge gap and providing some background context to where the sport is today.

Maureen Connolly stood 5 feet 3 inches in tall, but on the court she towered over her opponents.

When Maureen Connolly or ‘Little Mo’ won her 1953 Grand Slam, only one other person had ever done so, Don Budge in 1938.  For Connolly at the relatively young age of 18 to have done it was a monumental achievement.

To place the scale of Connolly’s achievement in perspective, none of the female superstars up until then — not Suzanne Lenglen, Helen Wills-Moody or Alice Marble had ever managed it.  Since Connolly’s 1953 singles Grand Slam, only two women and one man have been able to equal it.  Rod Laver won his two Grand Slams in 1962 and 1969.  In 1970, the Australian, Margaret Court won hers’ and in 1988, the great Steffi Graf went even one better by securing the ‘Golden Slam’ (the Grand Slam and the Olympic Gold all in one year).   It is clear we are talking about hallowed company here. 

A variety of metrics have been used to determine excellence at the top of the tennis game (career wins, career titles etc.), but still the key benchmark, winning a Grand Slam remains paramount.  Being able to bring your game to the boil on four occasions in the four most pressurized environments speaks volumes about a player who is able to do so.  Many of the great players of the game have never even won a career Grand Slam — and that list includes Sampras, Djokovic, Connors, Borg, and McEnroe.  Maureen Connolly, however, won them all in the same year.

Connolly was born in San Diego in 1934 and displayed an obvious talent for the game from a young age.  Living in the tennis crucible of Southern California which had already produced so many top players, also gave the young Connolly an advantage.  Her first big step was to come under the tutelage of the famous coach, Eleanor ‘Teach’ Tennant, the coach and mentor for such illustrious players as Alice Marble, Bobby Riggs and more latterly, Billie-Jean King.  Under Tennant, Connolly blossomed, developing a fierce competitive spirit and well-drilled game.

At the tender age of 14, she had managed to win the US junior national championships and at only 16, the US National Championships, the youngest ever to have done so.  When one marvels at the achievements of the youthful Williams sisters or of Martina Hingis in more recent generations, it is worth remembering that this had all done been done before by ‘Little Mo’.

Another win for Little Mo, before one tragedy shortened her career and another took her life.

Her stellar year is worth recounting.  Entering 1953, Connolly already had three ‘majors’ under her belt, having won the US Nationals in 1951 and 1952 and Wimbledon in 1952. It was an era when the best players did not always have the facility to play in all four Grand Slams, yet recognizing her skills and determination, Connolly planned her assault.  In the Australian, she beat Julie Samson Haywood in the final and the great American, Doris Hart in the finals of the French, Wimbledon, and Forest Hills.  Even more astonishing, in all four tournaments, she dropped only one set.  She was indisputably, the world’s best player and was set to consolidate her position in years to come until tragedy struck.

She chose not to defend her Australian title in 1954, but went on to win both the French and Wimbledon titles that year.  A few weeks after her Wimbledon win and in the preparatory period before the US Nationals, she was in a serious horse riding accident which eventually put an end to her career.   She was only 19 years of age.  Her reaction at the time to her misfortune was philosophical, expressing gratitude for all she had been able to achieve.  Deep down, however, she must have been devastated.   Dedicating herself thereafter to teaching and coaching aspiring players, she eventually set up her Maureen Connolly-Brinker Tennis Foundation to promote youth tennis in her new home of Texas.  Diagnosed with cancer in 1966, she died three years later in June 1969 at the age of 34.

Little Mo's short career was truly outstanding.  By the age of 19, she had won 18 Grand Slam titles: 9 Grand Slam singles titles, 6 women’s doubles and three mixed doubles.  One can only muse on what might have been.

Click photo: Maureen Connolly on the court, all those years ago.

Making comparisons between players of different eras is fraught with all sorts of complexity and it is in the realm of speculation how ‘Little Mo’ would have coped with the pressures and contingencies of the modern game.  That said, her personal qualities of courage, determination and character are the stuff of champions whatever the era.  Her ability to accept her fate at a very young age and to divert her energies into service to others is another one of her endearing traits.  Young players can learn much from how Connolly accepted the hand she was dealt and how she played it for the rest of her life.

Sixty years ago last year, Maureen Connolly-Brinker scaled the heights to record one of the outstanding achievements in tennis — a proud achievement for this illustrious daughter of California and of the United States.


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