Nell Truman: Tennis player who defied the US to win the Wightman Cup

 

Making her first steps as a tennis player in a decade when British women won five singles titles at Grand Slam tournaments must have been a challenge for Nell Robinson, née Truman. What made her career all the more commendable was the fact that she was not even the best player in her own family.

While her sister, Christine, was the more accomplished singles player,winning the French Open in 1959 and finishing runner-up at Wimbledon two years later, Nell was a fine exponent of doubles. She reached the final of the French Open in partnership with Winnie Shaw, two quarter-finals at Wimbledon with her sister and the semi-finals of the mixed doubles at the US Open alongside Roger Taylor. The most celebrated match of her career was in the Wightman Cup, when she partnered Christine to victory in the deciding rubber at Wimbledon in 1968.

The 1960s was a golden decade for women's tennis in Britain. Angela Mortimer won Wimbledon in 1961, beating Christine Truman in the final, and Ann Jones beat Billie Jean King in the final eight years later, having lost to the American at the same stage in 1967. Jones also played in five French Open finals, winning in 1961 and 1966, and lost in two finals at the US Open, where Virginia Wade won in 1968.

Nell could not match the power of Christine, but was quick around the court and volleyed well, which served her well in doubles. "She wasn't tall like me but she had quick reactions and was a very good all-court player," Christine said. "She was a good foil for me because she was small and nippy. She had quick reactions. I had the bigger shots, so we were a good combination. It wasn't easy being the younger sister, any more than it was for my daughter being compared with me when she played. I don't doubt it was hard for Nell, but she was always good fun, very smiley and bubbly."

The youngest of six children, Nell came from a sporting family. Fittingly, her parents, Stanley and Aimee, met at a tennis club. Her brother Humphrey competed at Wimbledon, her sister Isabel played in the junior event there and her sister Elizabeth was captain of Lancashire. It was at Oxford University, where she studied geography, that Nell emerged as a serious tennis talent. She captained the university's team and won a gold medal at the World Student Games in 1967.

She had made her first appearance in the singles at Wimbledon three years earlier. Nell was a regular competitor at the All England Club until 1972, enjoying her best run in the singles in 1969, when she reached the last 16. Having beaten Judy Congdon and Wendy Gilchrist, she eventually lost to Judy Tegart of the United States. In the doubles Nell and Christine reached the Wimbledon quarters in 1965 and 1969. However, it was with Shaw that Nell reached the final of the doubles at the 1972 French Open before losing to King and Betty Stove. Nell and Taylor had made the semi-finals of the mixed doubles at the US Open two years earlier.

Between 1965 and 1972 Nell played five times in the Wightman Cup, which was contested every year by women's teams from Britain and the US. The Americans had won seven years in a row when the two countries met at Wimbledon in 1968 and the match score stood at 3-3 when Christine and Nell played Stephanie DeFina and Kathy Harter in the deciding rubber. Amid great excitement on the old No 1 Court the sisters triumphed 6-3, 2-6, 6-3, Nell hitting the winning shot.

"Nell felt more confident playing doubles and it was through playing doubles in the Wightman Cup that she really made her name, though she played more singles later in her career," Christine said. "I think the fact that we were sisters playing together captured the public's imagination."

In her final year of competition, in 1972, Nell played on the new professional women's circuit in the US, sponsored by Virginia Slims. She married Christopher Robinson, a solicitor, and had the first of their four children in 1973. After settling into family life in north Essex she played more golf than tennis. She was also a keen gardener and bridge player.

Nell made a good recovery after a first stroke two years ago but never recovered after suffering a second stroke. She is survived by her husband and four children, Nicholas, Melissa, Anna and Clare.

Paul Newman

Frances Ellen (Nell) Truman, tennis player: born Loughton, Essex 12 December 1945; married 1972 Christopher Robinson (one son, three daughters); died Cambridge 8 April 2012.

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