The finest of all female players

Maureen Connolly's record is held in awe even today. When she became the first woman to lift the four major titles in 1953, she dropped just one set and won 10 of the 12 tournaments around the world for a 61-2 match record.

GULU EZEKIEL

Maureen Connolly used to overwhelm opponents with hard and relentless groundstrokes.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

RARELY has a sporting career been so brief and yet so brilliant and ended in such a tragedy. The story of tennis legend Maureen Connolly is perhaps unique in these respects. Indeed, tennis pundit Bud Collins is of the opinion that she may have been the finest of all female players.

Maureen Connolly's story began in San Diego, California, on September 17, 1934. Twenty years later her career came to an end. But as a teenager she had no peer in the 1950s and even today her record is held in awe by tennis lovers.

Life was tough from the start. Her father abandoned the family while Maureen was still an infant. Her ambitious mother introduced her early on to singing and dancing, having failed to achieve her own desire to be a concert pianist.

But little Maureen's budding stage career was dashed when a tonsil operation put paid to her singing. Her own heart was set on buying a horse as riding was an early passion. The family's financial position, however, ruled that out and instead Maureen turned to tennis.

Riding's loss was tennis' gain though it would ironically be through a riding accident that her tennis career was brought to a shocking halt.

She was fortunate at 13 to come under the tutelage of legendary coach Eleanor `Teach' Tennant who had previously coached another world beater in Alice Marble. The formidable coach instilled in her a killer instinct rarely seen before or since in women's sport.

Cheerful and sporting, on court Maureen had a well-earned reputation for utter ruthlessness. Defeat for her was unthinkable. Indeed, in the brief period of domination (1951-54), she never lost a single important match, rarely even dropping a set. Her opponents on the other side of the net simply quaked in their shoes at the sight of her.

"I attacked my weaker opponents more ferociously than other girls in the history of tennis," she admitted candidly. "I believed I could not win without hatred, a blazing, virulent, powerful and consuming hate. And win I must, because I was afraid to lose."

Strong words indeed and a style that earned her the nickname of `Little Mo', not because of her size (5 ft. 5 inches and 127 pounds at her peak) or her name but as a comparison to the destructive power of the US battleship Missouri (also known as `Big Mo').

It was at the 1951 US Open that she first stunned the tennis world, winning the title at the tender age of 16 years and 11 months, the youngest champion till 1979 when Tracy Austin won when just two months younger. In the final Connolly defeated Shirley Fry 6-3, 1-6, 6-4. Just a few months earlier Fry had finished runner-up at Wimbledon to Doris Hart.

That began her astonishing run of form during which she was never once beaten in a Grand Slam event and also helped the US beat Great Britain in the Wightman Cup from 1951-54, winning all seven of her singles matches.

During that stretch she was beaten on just four occasions — twice by Doris Hart, notably in the 1953 Italian Open final and once each by Fry and Beverley Baker. She took on and beat all the big names of the era — Hart, Fry, Louise Brough and Margaret du Pont.

Indeed only once in Grand Slams was her steam-roller like advance threatened when she saved a match point against Britain's Susan Partridge in the fourth round of the 1952 Wimbledon.

That was the year she won the most coveted title for the first time but also the year she parted company with her coach. Suffering an injured shoulder in the Queen's tournament in the run up to Wimbledon, she went against Tennant's advice to play and of course win on debut.

Once the challenge of Partridge had been overcome, there was no stopping Connolly. Fry was beaten 6-3, 6-4 in the semifinals and the final saw 1950 champion Brough defeated 7-5, 6-3. Then, the next year she came back to successfully defend the title.

The world of tennis was now at the feet of the formidable teenager. And 1953 was to see her reach the pinnacle of tennis fame.

Connolly's game was based on hard, relentless groundstrokes. She rarely volleyed but did not need to as her strength and accuracy were enough to overwhelm her opponents on all surfaces.

Only one player had achieved the Grand Slam, Don Budge in 1938. Connolly was to become the first woman to lift the four major titles in one year, dropping just one set in the process. Since then only Margaret Court (1970) and Steffi Graf (1988) have emulated her feat among women.

Indeed in that glorious year of 1953 she won 10 of 12 tournaments around the world, with a 61-2 match record.

In the Australian Open Julie Sampson was beaten 6-3, 6-2. Then in the French Open final Connolly defeated Hart 6-2, 6-4.

Wimbledon was a cakewalk for the 19-year-old. Hart fought bravely but still lost the final 8-6, 7-5. They met again in their third straight Slam final at Forest Hills in New York and this time Hart was crushed 6-2, 6-4. It was Connolly's third successive US title. But what mattered most was that the Grand Slam was now hers.

Nothing it seemed could come in her way. And she was just out of her teens when she began 1954 by winning the Italian and French Open titles and then Wimbledon for the third straight time, once again without dropping a set.

Then just as suddenly as her career had begun, it ended in sad circumstances. A few weeks before she was to defend her US Open title, the horse she was riding was struck by a truck and severe leg injuries meant she would never play tennis again. The comet had blazed briefly, brightly and then suddenly burned out.

Maureen married Olympic equestrian Norman Brinker and they had two daughters. She remained active in tennis as a coach and TV commentator. But in June 1969, the day before Wimbledon was to begin, Maureen Catherine Connolly Brinker was dead of cancer at the tragically young age of 34.

According to that doyen of tennis writers, the late Lance Tingay: "Whenever a great player comes along you have to ask: could she have beaten Maureen? In every case I think the answer is, I think not."