Louise Brough was one of the finest players in an era of outstanding American tennis champions. Maureen Connolly, Althea Gibson, Doris Hart, Pauline Betz, Margaret Osborne duPont and Shirley Fry were all contemporaries as the United States dominated the women’s game in the 1940s and 1950s.
A magnificent serve-and-volley player, Brough enjoyed a long and hugely successful senior career, which began when she competed in the US National Championships at the age of 16 in 1939 and ended only after she retired from competition following her marriage, at the age of 35, to Dr Alan Townsend Clapp. In all she won 35 Grand Slam titles, a tally bettered only by Margaret Court, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and DuPont.
Six of those titles were in singles, but it was as a doubles player that Brough reigned supreme. Her partnership with DuPont brought a succession of triumphs and their unbeaten run in doubles at the US Championships from 1942 to 1950 remains the longest in any Grand Slam competition. They won 58 of the 60 matches they played together at their home Grand Slam event and lost only five sets in the process.
Althea Louise Brough was born in Oklahoma City, but her family moved to Beverly Hills when she was four. She learned to play tennis on the public courts at Roxbury Park and her talent was evident from an early age. She was a successful junior, winning the US 18-and-under title in 1940 and 1941, at a time when her biggest rival in southern California was Gussie Moran, who would be best known for the furore she went on to cause at Wimbledon with her lace-trimmed panties.
However, it was on the senior stage that Brough made her biggest mark. Her softly-spoken calmness off the court was in stark contrast to her bold tennis on it. “I had to attack,” she used to say. “I did not feel very comfortable on defence.”
Brough is regarded as one of the best volleyers in history. The combination of her twist serve, hit with plenty of top spin, and her volleys, made her a superb doubles player and helped her to excel on grass. However, her game was far from one-dimensional. She had an excellent backhand and was a fine athlete.
In his Encylopedia of Tennis, the highly respected tennis historian Bud Collins wrote: “A willowy blonde 5 foot 7 and a half, she was quiet, but the killer in the left court when at play alongside DuPont. Despite their close friendship and partnership they were keen rivals in singles and Brough’s most difficult Wimbledon triumphs were the three-set wins over DuPont in 1949 and 1950.”
But for the Second World War, Brough might have won even more major titles. The US Nationals were the only one of the four Grand Slam events not interrupted by the hostilities and Brough won her first title there in 1942 in the doubles alongside DuPont. Her first Grand Slam singles title came five years later in New York. The French Open, where the slower clay courts did not suit her game, was the only Grand Slam singles championship to elude Brough, who won Wimbledon four times (1948, 1949, 1950 and 1955) and the Australian Open once (in 1950). She never added to her 1947 New York title, though she was runner-up there on five occasions.
Brough’s partnership with DuPont brought regular doubles success. Their tally of 20 Grand Slam doubles titles is still the record, though it was equalled in 1989 by Navratilova and Pam Shriver. Brough also won eight titles in mixed doubles, including four at the US Nationals, all with different partners. She played 22 matches in the annual Wightman Cup match against Britain – 12 in singles and 10 in doubles – and won them all.
Very few of today’s leading singles players compete in doubles at the Grand Slam events, but Brough was successful in all forms of the game, especially at Wimbledon. Between 1946 and 1955 she appeared in 21 of the 30 singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles finals contested at the All England Club.
Between 1948 and 1950 Brough won the Wimbledon singles and women’s doubles titles three years in a row and also won two mixed doubles championships. She would have won a hat-trick of Wimbledon hat-tricks had Eric Sturgess and Sheila Summers not beaten Brough and John Bromwich 9-7, 9-11, 7-5 in the 1949 mixed final. That defeat came at the end of a remarkable day in which Brough played a total of 117 games, having beaten DuPont 10-8, 1-6, 10-8 in the singles final and then joined forces with her to defeat Moran and Patricia Todd 8-6, 7-5 in the women’s doubles final.
Although Brough retired from competition after her marriage, she was not lost to tennis. She continued to teach the game and later made occasional appearances in 40-and-over tournaments. She won the US hard-court doubles title in that category in 1971 and 1975 alongside Barbara Green Weigandt.
Althea Louise Brough, tennis player: born Oklahoma City 11 March 1923; married 1958 Alan Townsend Clapp (died 1999); died Vista, California 3 February 2014.