Maureen Connolly (1934-1969) was one of the greatest singles players in the history of women's tennis. In 1953, she won four international tournaments known as the Grand Slam of Tennis, an accomplishment achieved by only two other female players since. She is rememberd as a pioneer of women's tennis, who made significant contributions to help popularize the sport.
Maureen Catherine Connolly was born on September 17, 1934 in San Diego, California. She was the victim of a broken home. Her father, Marten Connolly, left the family when she was a toddler. Her mother, Jassamine Connolly, told the young girl that her biological father was deceased, an untruth that caused a rift between mother and daughter later, when Connolly achieved fame and Marten Connolly resurfaced.
Connolly was raised by her mother and a stepfather, August Berste, a musician by profession. Connolly's mother, an amateur pianist herself, urged her daughter to find a career in music, but Connolly had other plans. As a youngster she grew inspired by watching tennis players at a local park. By the time she was ten years old, she asked her parents persistently for a tennis racket. Connolly's parents indulged her wish and purchased a racket for $1.50. Connolly was instantly obsessed with the sport of tennis. She practiced incessantly, even after dark and into the night. Initially she took lessons from Wilbur Folsom, but eventually she met Eleanor "Teach" Tennant, a distinguished and charismatic coach who agreed to work with the ten-year-old. Tennant instilled in Connolly a fierce sense of pride, confidence, and a desire to win. Connolly practiced with exceptional dedication.
Connolly was naturally left-handed, but with the help of her coach she developed a powerful right-hand swing. In her obsession to win she learned to generate hatred for her opponents on the court. At the same time, Connolly learned to conceal her emotion and remain expressionless during competition. The intimidating combination of Connolly's unflinching "court face" and powerful swing consistently overwhelmed her opponents. Retired tennis champion Ted Schroeder played partners with Connolly in mixed doubles at La Jolla in 1950, when she was only 14 years old. He recalled her unyielding determination to win. Schroeder's recollection of Connolly was quoted in 1998 by ESPN's Tom Farrey, "There's only one way to describe her-as an assassin … She was one of the nicest people you'd ever meet, but on the court, boy she went at it."
As Connolly grew into adolescence she remained unaffected by the rigorous regimen of her tennis practice. She was known to practice for three hours daily, seven days a week, yet she indulged her teen-age nature, despite the trappings of budding success. She sucked on sugar lumps, and loved to eat hamburgers. She was an average student at Cathedral High School in San Diego, and she crammed her studies into the precious few spare moments in her day. Her tennis wardrobe reflected the style of the times-She wore skirts made from cloth with a "sharkskin" finish that was popular in the 1950s; and she sometimes wore a tennis skirt with a poodle applique with rhinestone detail, also characteristic of the teen-age fashion of the times. Her "goodluck" jewelry consisted of a ring with double-dragons protecting a ball, and a heart-shaped locket given her by her mother. Connolly loved horses-perhaps more than she loved tennis-and enjoyed riding whenever time permitted. She practiced dancing, jumped rope, and performed calisthetics in an effort to maintain flexibility and to increase her stamina for tennis tournaments.
Entered Competitive Tennis
Connolly entered her first tennis tournament shortly after she began to play at the age of ten and emerged as the runner up. In May 1947, shortly after she began working with Tennant, she won the 15-and-under title in the Southern California Invitational Tennis Championship. That early victory began on a winning streak that endured for 56 successive matches. By the age of 14 she was the youngest girl ever to win the national junior tennis championship. During an early match, Connolly lost control under the pressure of competition. She flew into a rage and threw her racket, but learned quickly to control her temper and to accept the decisions with grace. Off the court, she was a completely different person. Charming at all times, she endeared herself to every audience because of her youthful effervescence and extraordinary zest for the game of tennis. She won 50 championships by the age of 15 and was ranked 19th among women singles players in the U.S. Lawn Tennis standings in 1948. The personable, five-foot-three-inch teen-aged slammer became known affectionately as "Little Mo," after she won the national junior championship. The nickname, coined by a reporter, was derived from the "Big Mo," a term used in reference to the battleship U.S.S. Missouri.
Connolly graduated from junior competition to women's tennis after winning the USA Junior International Grass Courts Championships in 1949 and 1950. In 1950, her first year in the adult standings, she was ranked tenth among U.S. women singles players. In 1951 she successfully defended the Wightman Cup for the United States and was the youngest team member in the history of that competition. She went on to play for four consecutive years on the Wightman cup team, winning all of her matches in those tournaments. Connolly won eight successive tournaments in 1951, including the U.S. National Women's Title at Forest Hills-the competition that came to be known as the U.S. Open. Connolly, still a rookie at that time, was largely inexperienced in offensive playing techniques and was undeveloped in power serving, yet she was the youngest player in history to win the U.S. National Women's singles tournament, and she repeated the victory in 1952 and again in 1953. On July 5, 1952, at the age of 17, Connolly became the second youngest woman in history to win the women's singles tournament at Wimbledon, second only to Lottie Dod of England. Not since 1887 had the title gone to someone so young. Connolly retained the Wimbledon title through 1954.
Won the Grand Slam
In 1953, after three successive U.S. National titles and two Wimbledon victories. Connolly attained the pinnacle of women's tennis with a series of wins known as the Grand Slam of Tennis. During that calendar year she won not only the U.S. Nationals and Wimbledon, but the Australian Championship and the French Open. The four competitions together comprise the Grand Slam. Not only was Connolly the first woman, she was also the youngest woman in history to win the four Grand Slam tournaments, all within the same year. Only two other women ever accomplished the feat after Connolly: Margaret Court in 1970, and Steffi Graf in 1988. Graf, who was also a child tennis star, was Connolly's senior by three months when she took the Grand Slam title, leaving Connolly as the youngest Grand Slammer in the history of women's tennis. Connolly won not only the Grand Slam, she won all but one game set of the competitions involved.
Competitive Career Ended Tragically
In 1952, Connolly was the guest of honor at a parade organized by her home town of San Diego, following her unprecedented success at Forest Hills and Wimbledon. In recognition of her achievement, Connolly was given a horse named Colonel Merryboy. Two years later, on July 20, 1954, as Connolly rode Merryboy he became "spooked" and threw her from his back. In an instant Connolly was hurled into a cement truck and her leg was shattered by the impact. She spent some time in recuperation and returned to competitive tennis, but the extent of her leg injuries were ultimately too severe for the rigors of competition. On February 22, 1955, she announced that she would retire from professional tennis competition.
Connolly was not yet 21 when she announced her retirement. She had competed in women's professional tennis for less than five years. During her abbreviated career she amassed multiple wins in major tournaments around the world. In addition to her triumphs at the U.S. Nationals, Wimbledon, Australia, and France, Connolly won the Italian Championships in 1953 and again in 1954. She was honored by the Associated Press as the Female Athlete of the Year in 1951, 1952, and 1953. She was ranked the number one female tennis player in the world in 1952, 1953, and 1954.
A New Life
On the day that Connolly retired from competitive tennis, she announced her engagement to Norman Eugene Brinker. Five months later, on June 11, the couple married in San Diego. The 23-year-old Brinker, a naval officer and Olympic equestrian athlete, was a student at San Diego State College at the time of their marriage.
After Connolly retired from competition she devoted her time to coaching. She contributed a sports column to the San Diego Union, and on February 6, 1956 she signed with Wilson Sporting Goods in Chicago as a sports "pro" (a professional consultant) and public relations representative. Connolly by that time was just 21 years old. She devoted much of her energy to further the sport of tennis. She was deeply involved with tennis programs that encouraged women and children to play the game.
In time Connolly and Brinker set up housekeeping in Dallas, Texas where they raised two children. She was diagnosed with cancer and died in Dallas on June 21, 1969, at the age of 34. Before her death, Connolly was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1968. She was inducted posthumously into the Women's Sports Foundation Hall of Fame in 1987. The tennis world honors her memory with the Maureen Connolly Brinker Continental Players Cup for junior girls, an international competition that was dominated by Britain during the 1990s. In 1998, Farrey praised Connolly and held her as a standard for modern women's tennis contenders to emulate. "Show me what Maureen Connolly showed us," he demanded, and went on, "Her game demonstrated that she was No. 1."
Further Reading on Maureen Connolly
Krull, Kathleen. Lives of the Athletes, Harcourt Brace, 1997.
Woolum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes Who Influenced American Sports, Oryx Press, 1992.
Sports Illustrated, August 29, 1988, p. 124.
ESPN Sports Zone, July 1, 1998, available at http://espn.go.com/ gen/columns/farrey (March 18, 1999).