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'Little Mo' becomes first female player to win tennis Slam

Even though an injury forced her to retire at 19, Maureen Connolly won nine major titles.

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By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 1, 1999


Had she not been forced into retirement by a leg injury when she was only 19, Maureen Connolly might have gone on to be the Chris Evert or the Steffi Graf of her era, a thoroughly dominant tennis player.

As it was, in the relatively short time she played, she was dominant, never losing a Grand Slam tournament. She won three U.S. National singles titles, three Wimbledons, two French and one Australian.

On Sept. 7, 1953, at Forest Hills, N.Y., Little Mo, at 18, became the first -- and still the youngest -- woman to win the tennis Grand Slam.

She was an unknown 14-year-old Californian who caught the eye of tennis great Jack Kramer in a doubles match at the La Jolla Beach Club when she rocketed a ball past him for an early point. "I was with a prince from India, and she was with a local pro," Kramer recalled years later. "It was supposed to be a friendly doubles match. I knew then she was something special."

Two years later, she helped the United States win the Wightman Cup competition, after which she told Ted Tinling, famed clothing designer for women's tennis stars, to start working on her outfits for the tour. "She just marched up to me and said: "I like your clothes. I'm going to wear them,' " Tinling said.

Connolly was barely 16 when she won her first United States Championship in 1951. She won it again a year later, defeating Doris Hart of Coral Gables, and beat her again in the final at Wimbledon in July 1953.

Connolly had not lost a set at Forest Hills in the '53 U.S. National when she once again met Hart in the final. She wouldn't lose one this time, either. Employing her remarkable speed, she took just 43 minutes to dispose of Hart 6-2, 6-4.

Hart, a five-time Forest Hills finalist, tried everything -- changing the spin on the ball, the length and speed of her shots, the pace of the match. None of it helped.

Only once did Connolly seem to waver, and by then it was too late for Hart. Little Mo was one stroke from winning the second set 6-2 as well, then she gave up two more games before putting Hart away.

In July of 1954, just a few weeks before she was to defend her United States championship, Connolly broke her leg in an accident while horseback riding. It forced her to retire, although she remained in the game as a coach and commentator. Connolly died of cancer one day before the start of the 1969 Wimbledon. She was 34.

How good was she? She was a natural left-hander. After her coach, Eleanor "Teach" Tennant, told her that no left-hander in the 1900s had won a top women's singles championship, Connolly became a right-handed player.


-- Information from the Fireside Book of Tennis was used in this report.

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