I'm all about preserving tennis history. Unfortunately, very few young tennis players have ever heard of Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, or going even further back in time, Helen Wills, Suzanne Lenglen, and Bill Tilden.
Long before there was Chrissie, Steffi, Monica, or Serena, there was Mo. Whoops, make that “Little Mo.”
By Bill Simons
A bright beam—fresh and lustrous—Maureen Connolly effortlessly emanated an unmistakable zeal when she swept across the then-dreary, often crusty, tennis horizon.
Tired old ways and ho-hum wannabes beware. Here—with a certain Federerian grace and a Connors-like will—was the perfect athlete at the perfect time.
For America in the ‘50s was eagerly distancing itself from the ravages of depression and war. Welcome to a brave new world of full fridges, fast Chevys, and heady suburban swagger—patios and plastics and pools. Success was…well, success was everything.
And Mo had it.
A little-known urchin who began with a $1.50 racket on San Diego’s humble public courts, she emerged with a glint in her eye and a bounce in her considerable step. She was nothing less than a fresh injection of wonder, willing her way to nine Slam championships in the nine majors she entered between 1951 and 1954. Her joyous ways, zealous desire, and fine shots shouted, “Here comes a new age!”
In the early ‘50s, tennis had a compact wonder: California’s “Little Mo.”
She was petite. She was cute. She was a charmer.
“It is touching and reassuring,” wrote the London author and editor Alison Adburgham, “that this teenage girl, already at the pinnacle of world fame, should find delight in little things, in little cats with smiles, in furry poodles with sequin eyes, in dainty birds with fly away wings which quiver as she runs.”
But don’t be fooled.
Mo was steel. When she was just two points away from suffering a horrendous Wimbledon defeat, some fan—an Air Force flyer up in the stands—yelled out, “Give ‘em hell, Mo!” She turned to the kid, whispered “thank you,” and promptly morphed herself into a juggernaut who went on to claim her first title at the All England Club.
When a Time magazine headline announced, “Tennis Has a New Queen,” Mo duly struck a pose. When she wanted to counter her Catholic ways and eat meat on Friday, the Pope relented: Here’s your special dispensation, Mo. When she played in Rome, riot police were deployed to prevent mayhem. Her pre-Wimbledon airport arrivals became media theater.
Mo attracted flashbulbs and inspired newsreels and headlines. Seventeen photographers showed up for her first English practice. One hundred media members came to a press event.
She’d call her own press conferences, or ask reporters, “Hey boys, are you getting what you need?” Tennis historian Ted Tinling noted, “Many post-war journalists had never met a tennis star, and this was the beginning of the public’s involvement in the real personality of sports performers … the forerunner of today’s accepted media routine.” All the while, fans from West London to East Hampton got what they wanted. Little Mo was the ticket.
by Rich Neher
My email blasts o
Glenn Gilliam and Shelia Curry
For all of their stunning success, many a women’s tennis star has been haunted by cruel acts, accidents, or disease. Helen Wills Moody’s career ended when a German Shepherd bit off her finger. A leg injury and a car accident devastated Tracy Austin. Psychological demons shadowed Jennifer Capriati. Monica Seles was stabbed. Venus Williams suffers from Sjögren’s Syndrome. Serena stepped on a glass and then was nearly killed by a pulmonary embolism.
In contrast, Connolly’s fate seemed dreamy. A gifted athlete, the San Diegan—who rode the bus to Beverly Hills every weekend to take lessons—became the No. 1 junior in Southern California when she was just 13. Victories and trophies piled up, and by 1951, the “killer in pigtails” was the youngest player ever to win the US National Championships (aka the US Open). In 1952, she took Wimbledon and defended her US title. Then, in 1953, she became the first woman to capture the Grand Slam: all four majors in one year. Amazing. Never, before or since, has sports seen such a teen phenom.
But Mo’s triumphs were built on a tangled base of heartbreak, angst, anger, and military intent. Her father, a Navy Commander, jumped the family ship when Mo was just four. Her mother, a failed concert pianist who lived her life through her daughter, was long a problematic parent. Her stepfather wanted Connolly to quit tennis, while Mo herself feared that if she lost a match no one would love her.
What a mess.
Yet the result of it all was a fiery drive based on what Mo herself dubbed a “hate complex.” She recalled losing a match to an older foe, Ann Bissell, at the age of 10. “I was no ordinary little girl,” she wrote. “And tennis to me … was much more than just a game. Defeat was unendurable; it could not be talked away by the sympathy of an understanding parent. It must be avenged! Beating Ann Bissell became my single goal in life.”
Connolly went on to beat her nemesis and soon sought out the storied Beverly Hills coach Teach Tennant, who had worked with such greats as Alice Marble and Bobby Riggs, as well as snazzy stars like Carole Lombard. Teach was an unflinching disciplinarian and superb architect who brilliantly crafted careers. Mo wrote that to Tennant tennis “was never a game, it was a battle, and no field marshal mapped strategy more carefully … She was the field office, I the troops, and we went into action with deadly purpose … Her confidence was a living, glowing thing … and she had the magic power of being able to transfer it. Lose was not a word in her tennis vocabulary. Teach believed everything in my life should be sublimated to tennis.”
Whimsical jaunts to the bullfights in Tijuana were a cause for crisis. Any thought of Mo actually getting that pet horse she so craved was, of course, out of the question. And God forbid if Mo has the temerity to hang out with her fellow players. After all, Tennant only fueled Mo’s ferocity by demonizing her foes. As Mo wrote later, “Tennant contributed to my hate complex, but there was fertile soil for the seed. She believed one should not make friends with opponents … I translated this into hating my foes. Miss Tennant … had no idea a seed of hatred would flower in my breast with such a dark bloom.”
The most infamous example of these motivational shenanigans came before the 1951 US National final, when Tennant concocted the notion that Doris Hart felt Little Mo “was a spoiled brat” and was gunning for her in the final. Mo fell for the ploy, later confessing, “I never hated anyone more in my life! I turned on her like a tiger.” (By the way, Jimmy Connors’ mother always insisted her son “Get those tiger juices flowing” on court.)
But eventually, Mo would turn on Teach too, making a high-profile announcement at the 1953 Wimbledon that Tennant was now history. Gone was the supposed wicked witch of the west, the inspired, yet oppressive taskmaster with all her rules. Joy and freedom now held sway. Connolly teamed up with Aussies Nell and Harry Hopman, traveled the world, fell for a seaman, played for the love of the game, and at last could indulge her longstanding passion for horses.
After winning her first Wimbledon victory in 1951, the Junior Chamber of Commerce and other San Diegans had given Mo a horse. When Mo won her third straight Wimbledon in ’54, all she wanted to do was to get back to see her two loves: her man, Norman Brinker, and the horse, Colonel Merryboy.
On July 20th, 1954, 19-year-old Mo went out for a ride on Friars Road in Mission Valley that was jolly and benign until a speeding concrete truck came careening around a curve. Colonel Merryboy got spooked, swerving into the truck’s path, and in one horrific moment, a storied career was shattered. One of Mo’s legs was broken and all the muscles in her 19-year old calf were severed. She tried to recover. But it never happened. A dominant force in her teens—winning six Slams in a row and all nine Slam events she entered—would never hit another ball on the circuit.
Instead, Mo married Brinker, moved to Dallas, went to Southern Methodist University, had two wonderful daughters, coached, wrote, became a restaurateur, and launched a superb tennis charity, the Maureen Connolly Brinker Foundation.
It was cruel enough that a magical career—brimming with historic promise – was destroyed in a flash. But only 15 years later, Maureen “Little Mo” Connolly succumbed to cancer. She was just 34 years old.
Our collective memory is filled with the inspired figures that left far too early: Mozart, Gershwin, Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, and Steve Jobs come to mind. As for tennis, no other meteor had flashed so brilliantly, only to vanish so suddenly.
Swoosh, that was it. Much like when Bjorn Borg retired at 26, when Seles was stabbed, or when Arthur Ashe passed away, fans were left grasping at straws and coping with questions.
How come the young star, with so much to lose, even risked mounting a horse?
What went wrong with her recovery? These days, wouldn’t she have been able to go back on court after a while? Or was there far more involved in her never returning, including a Kim Clijsters-like desire to start a family? If Mo had gone on playing, wouldn’t she probably have turned pro, perhaps nudging tennis into becoming an Open sport far sooner than 1968? And Mo was a lefty. So what would have happened if Tennant hadn’t insisted she play right-handed?
With her clean, deep groundies, her laser will, her uncanny ability to raise the level of her game and her ongoing sense of serenity, Mo collected most all of her nine Slams with devastating ease. (Only her 1953 Wimbledon final against Darlene Hard was a classic battle.) She pulverized virtually all her foes. But if her career was longer, would the African American Althea Gibson (whose right to play in previously all-white tournaments Mo fiercely defended) or the Brazilian Maria Bueno have threatened Mo’s dominance?
Billie Jean King noted, “It was sad Maureen had to retire so early, because we don’t know how many more major titles she could have won. It would have been great to see her compete against Tracy Austin or Chris Evert, or even at the other end of the spectrum against Martina Navratilova.”
Mo still remains a part of the debate about the top ten players of all time. But now, on the 60th anniversary of her Grand Slam, we are left to wonder: If Colonel Merryboy hadn’t been freaked out by that cement truck, would Mo be front and center in the biggest conversation of women’s tennis? Along with Steffi Graf, Navratilova and Serena, would she be in consideration as the greatest of all time?
Instead, all we can do is look back at the most glittering 1000-day career in sports history: a long ago, but still sublime, window of wonder when charm, charisma, athleticism, and beauty joined together to offer a promise that knew no horizons. Still, beyond all those inspired memories, was something else. After all, Mo’s ultimate legacy was to leave us pondering that most perplexing of all questions: What if?