- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

“Whenever a great [womens tennis] player comes along, you have to ask, ‘Could she have beaten Maureen?’ In every case, the answer is, ‘I think not.’

Lance Tingay,

legraph

Billie Jean King. Margaret Smith Court. Chris Evert. Martina Navratilova. Steffi Graf. Martina Hingis. Venus and Serena Williams. Maria Sharapova.

Maureen Connolly might have been better than any of them.

And definitely unluckier.

More than half a century after her meteoric career ended abruptly at age 19, “Little Mo” is remembered today mostly by tennis historians and ‘50s trivia buffs. Though it is difficult and often pointless to compare sports stars of different eras, there is evidence that she might have been the greatest tennis player ever to curtsy at Wimbledon and leap the net in triumph at Forest Hills and other Grand Slam venues. Connolly set the stage for all the other teenage prodigies in a sport where most players are considered over the hill before their 30th birthdays.

Fifty-four years ago this month, the 16-year-old native of San Diego entered the nation’s sporting consciousness by whipping Shirley Fry of Akron, Ohio, 6-3, 1-6, 6-4 to win the women’s national championship at Forest Hills. After Fry returned a shot out on match point, Connolly’s celebratory exclamation was just what you might expect from a kid: “Yeeow!” Maureen was the youngest U.S. women’s champion since 1904 and nearly the youngest ever.

Chunkily built at 5-feet-4 and 130 pounds, Connolly displayed surprising power. Time magazine described her style this way: “Nimbly toe-dancing on the baseline, she suddenly stops bouncing and drives the ball — forehand or backhand — deep into enemy territory.”

Her victim was suitably impressed. Said Fry, a talented veteran of the then-strictly amateur tennis scene at 29: “No one can duel with her at the baseline.”

So how about approaching the net and trying to handle Connolly at close range?

“Ridiculous!” Fry snapped.

Connolly’s talent was obvious from age 11, and two accomplished mentors helped bring it out: San Diego pro Wilbur Folsom and famed instructor Eleanor “Teach” Tennant, who had worked with the likes of Helen Wills, Alice Marble and a young Bobby Riggs.

By 1949, Connolly was the youngest U.S. girls’ champion ever at 14. The following year, she retained that title and ranked 10th among the nation’s women. Clearly, it was time for bigger things, and she certainly delivered at Forest Hills.

A year later, as she played in the women’s singles at hallowed Wimbledon, tennis experts marveled at the change in Connolly. At Forest Hills in 1951, she had relied mostly on precise shotmaking. Now, under Tennant’s continuing tutelage, she had become such an aggressive slugger that she was dubbed “Killer” Connolly — sort of like a devastating boxer or a scowling pro wrestler.

So determined and grim was Connolly’s manner that many proper English fans were rooting against her. Said the Daily Telegraph: “The big thrill the center court crowd so eagerly awaits — the defeat of the 17-year-old, much vaunted American champion — is still to come.”

Asked about Connolly’s demeanor, the 57-year-old Tennant replied, “She’s out to kill [opponents]. You have to be mean to be a champion. How can you lick someone if you feel friendly toward them?”

So much for niceties.

In the 1952 Wimbledon final, Connolly faced another respected U.S. veteran, Louise Brough. Though Brough sought to interrupt Connolly’s rhythm by hitting lobs and changing the pace, Maureen scampered around the court returning seemingly irretrievable balls. She won in straight sets, 7-5, 6-3, and then allowed herself one more exuberant exclamation: “Whoopee!”

Opponents never found a way to deal with Little Mo. She won all nine Grand Slam tournaments she entered from 1951 to 1954 (Australian Open once, French Open twice, Wimbledon and U.S. Open three times each). In ‘53 under famed Australian coach Harry Hopman, she became one of only five players to author a Grand Slam. The Associated Press named her Female Athlete of the Year three times (1951-53).

Just when it appeared Connolly might never lose, ugly fate intervened. On July 20, 1954, just 17 days after her third triumph at Wimbledon, she was riding a horse called Colonel Merry Boy that had been given her by fans in San Diego. As a cement truck approached, her mount shied away and was struck by the vehicle. Maureen’s right leg was crushed against the truck and broken. Just like that, her tennis career was over.

At the time, a San Diego doctor insisted she would recover fully. But, Connolly said later, “I knew immediately I’d never play again.”

In 1955, Connolly married Norman Brinker, a member of the U.S. equestrian team at the Helsinki Olympics three years earlier. The couple had two children and eventually moved to Dallas, where Maureen kept a hand in the sport by becoming a correspondent for U.S. and British newspapers at major tournaments. She and her husband also established a foundation to promote youth tennis. And she helped coach many prominent players — perhaps getting a painful reminder of what additional court feats she never had a chance to achieve.

Connolly was voted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame, but she didn’t have long to enjoy the plaudits. In 1966, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. When she lost her battle with the disease on June 21, 1969, she was only 34.

For anyone who cares to check her record, Maureen Connolly’s ability seems to dwarf that of more recent superstars. For too short a time, “Little Mo” was very big indeed.


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