x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The Instant Expert: Maureen Connolly

The life and times of "Little Mo", queen of the courts.

THE BASICS Maureen Catherine ("Little Mo") Connolly Brinker ruled the female tennis world from 1951 to 1954. The diminutive American was the first woman (one of three) to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in the same year.

THE PHENOMENON Connolly came whooshing from the public courts of San Diego, California, like some ferocious weather front, taking tennis balls on the rise and striking them as had no prior female. By the age of 14 in 1948, she had dominated American juniors with 56 straight wins. In 1951, she won the US National Championships, precursor to the present-day US Open. By the age of 18 in 1953, she had won the four Grand Slam events - Australian, French, Wimbledon and US - in the same year, a feat only Margaret Court and Steffi Graf have matched.

THE OUTSET A left-hander who ended up playing right-handed, Connolly asked for and received a racket at the age of 10, which cost her mother US$1.50.

THE NICKNAME A 5-foot-4 sprite, Connolly reportedly received her moniker "Little Mo" from one of those infallibly wise beings, a sports writer. It played off the famous battleship USS Missouri, or "Big Mo", thereby upholding the American affinity for war machinery.

THE MOST COMPELLING STATISTIC Maybe it's that in her last nine Grand Slam tournaments, she won... nine. Maybe it's that in her last 50 Slam matches, she won... 50. Maybe it's that she harvested her nine Slam titles from a mere 11 entries. Or maybe it's that - let's go with this - of her 45 Slam sets in her blaze of 1953, she lost... one.

THE VERVE A lover of animals, Connolly wore one tennis skirt with a poodle appliqué with rhinestone detail, according to the Gale Encyclopedia of Biography. The tour today could use such daring. Serena?

THE NERVE With manufactured contempt for opponents on court and fetching charm for all off it, Connolly arrived for Wimbledon 1952 to a riveted British press, and promptly went into London to watch a boxing match. She was famous for occasional 1am bedtimes and a disbelief in "strict training". She also called a press conference to announce the firing of her longtime coach, Eleanor "Teach" Tennant, over an injury-treatment disagreement. Note: Connolly was 17 at the time.

THE INNER STORM From her autobiography: "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-struck hunter. I was a strange little girl armed with hate, fear and a golden racket."

THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED Riding her colt Colonel Merryboy after a third Wimbledon title in July 1954, Connolly suffered a crushed leg after a cement lorry caused the animal to rear. The tennis dress designer and historian Ted Tinling told the Chicago Tribune: "I thought it was a contentious, ill-tempered beast myself, and so did a lot of others. But Mo loved that horse, and no one could tell her anything bad about it."

THE AFTERMATH Retired at age 20 in 1955. Married a US equestrian Olympian. Bore two daughters. At 34 in 1969, she died of stomach cancer during the same June of Graf's birth. In her last 14 years, she taught and promoted tennis in Texas and worked occasionally as a tennis journalist, with no one accusing her of lacking knowledge from not having played.


Legends who followed Mo

MARGARET COURT (b. 1942) The Australian was the second woman to win the Grand Slam (in 1970) and holds the record for the most Grand Slam singles titles: 24, between 1962 and 1973. However, 11 of those were for the Australian, which few stars played in her era. She won three Wimbledon singles titles.

BILLIE JEAN KING (b. 1943) An acclaimed player, not just for her haul of titles - 12 Grand Slam wins between 1966 and 1975, including six Wimbledon singles titles - but for setting up the women's pro game. The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York is the showcase US tennis venue.

MARTINA NAVRATILOVA (b. 1956) Considered by many, along with Steffi Graf, to be the greatest female player ever. The Czech-American won 18 Grand Slam titles between 1978 and 1990, including nine Wimbledon singles, a record. Her athleticism revolutionised the game, and her matches with Chris Evert were epic.

STEFFI GRAF (b. 1969) The German won 22 Grand Slam singles titles between 1987 and 1999. In 1988, she became the first and only player (male or female) to win all four Grand Slam singles titles and the Olympic gold medal in the same year. She won seven Wimbledon singles titles.