Maureen Connolly: A name, a legend, a tennis playing institution

Author : Roh
Maureen Connolly, USA, playing in the Northern Championships in Manchester, Maureen Connolly, known as "Little Mo" won the Ladies Singles Championships at Wimbledon 3 years running, 1952, 1953, 1954

Maureen Connolly, USA, playing in the Northern Championships in Manchester, Maureen Connolly, known as “Little Mo” won the Ladies Singles Championships at Wimbledon 3 years running, 1952, 1953, 1954

“I have always believed greatness on a tennis court was my destiny, a dark destiny, at times, where the court became my secret jungle and I a lonely, fear-stricken hunter. I was a strange little girl armed with hate, fear, and a Golden Racquet.” – Maureen Connolly reminiscing about her success on the tennis courts and the abrupt, volatile end of her career. 

Overlapping achievements by sportsmen often tend to obscure the past, gaining prominence only when one particularly starts to sift through this ever-increasing pile. A similar sort of occurrence has transpired with the achievements of Maureen Connolly; a tennis player so excellent, that had her career not been blighted by an injury, the world would have borne testimony to greatness for perhaps generations to come.

Born in the year 1934 in San Diego, California, taking up tennis as an alternative to horse-riding, Maureen Connolly’s life and career was indubitably touched by both sports – one that pushed her to its uppermost echelons and the other that unmistakably influenced the untimely end to her career, and thus effectively thrust her into the shroud of darkness, away from active tennis playing. But in the nine years that Maureen wielded the racquet, her game and technique were incomparable, accounting for her stupendous successes at the majors.

Between 1949 and 1953, Maureen won nine of the 11 majors she contested, especially the US Open which she won thrice – consecutively – between 1951 and 1953. Alongside her impressiveness in the singles front, this handful of years also saw Maureen Connolly as an equally good doubles player laying claim to the 1953 Australian Open doubles and the 1954 French Open doubles and mixed doubles’ crown.

Connolly’s success between 1951 and 1953 also accounted for her being presented the Female Athlete of the Year Award instituted by the Associated Press. The long-standing award, instituted in 1931 is amongst the highest sporting accolades in the United States with the most stringent eligibility criteria. That Maureen Connolly was able to triplicate her efforts for three consecutive years is a feat of brilliance that hasn’t been equaled till date, by any athlete – male or female.

But nothing in any these accomplishments can compare to the singularity of the feat that Maureen Connolly presented to the world in the 1953. A year in which she was unstoppable, notching a first of its kind, the likes of which went on to govern and lay the foundations of the ‘Greatest Of All Time’ debate in the forthcoming years. It was the year when Maureen became the first player in the history of the sport to win all the four majors, thus achieving a thorough ‘Grand Slam’ success; years before the names commonly associated with these accomplishments made their mark.

Wimbledon: Maureen Connolly in action at All England Club, London

Wimbledon: Maureen Connolly in action at All England Club, London

That year, Maureen Connolly was truly at the peak of her career with fame and recognition pouring in from far and wide. ‘Little Mo’, the name by which she was popularly known by then, became the much-loved and well-deserving darling of the fans who fell in love with her power-packed and effervescent style of play. Credit then does need to be given to her coaches, each playing a pivotal part in shaping her career and thereby enabling her to fulfill the potential of her inherent talent.

Maureen’s association with coaches too is an intriguing aspect, for each of her three coaches were highly sought after names of that era. In her nine-year long professional tennis life-span, Maureen engaged three different coaches starting with Americans Wilbur Folsom and Eleanor Tennant (Teach). The former was instrumental in changing her from a left-handed player to a right-handed one, alongside transitioning her game to an A-class base-liner. And the latter, under whose guidance she went on to compile an absolutely stunning record of winning 56 consecutive matches in a single year in 1939. Harry Hopman, the Australian, was also seen as the biggest positive influence in Maureen’s Grand Slam triumph in 1953.

Where 1953 saw Maureen reach and soar to an unparalleled status quo in the tennis world, 1954 marred her tennis sizzle in the most freakish way when the horse she was riding, spooked by a cement mixing lorry, threw her off and crushed her right leg badly. The incident occurred just weeks after she had defended her Wimbledon title, leaving her fans quite adrift with nothing but memories of her last major win to hold on to.

Over the years, as the trajectory of the sport changed with newer records being clinched, Maureen Connolly started to fade away, becoming a passé of sorts. Her induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in the year 1968 brought her back into focus for quite a while, as did the echoing footsteps of the news of her premature passing the very next year, in 1969. But for many years now, Maureen Connolly’s name hasn’t been raised at all much, though the sport’s history pages are never too far away to bring her back into the limelight where, with the racquet in her hand, she once ruled.


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