Little Mo, the blazing comet whose light still shines over Wimbledon

"Little Mo" was a lot more than anybody could cope with half a century ago. When she landed in London for the second time, the other 95 women with Wimbledon ambitions knew the game was up, and they were incidentals, bystanders. Centre Court was hers for the taking, and she took it mercilessly, though demurely, a good-natured executioner.

It was all in the devastating spirit of "Big Mo" the US battleship Missouri of Second World War fame, from which her nickname was derived.

Even though Maureen Catherine Connolly, a 5ft 4in teenager, was not armed with 16in guns, Nelson Fisher, a sportswriter in her hometown of San Diego, California, could see that her long-range salvos with a wooden racket had a similar effect on adversaries.

She sank all that mattered in 1953 during an unprecedented campaign in the female game, when "Little Mo" signified little chance for those in her earth-scorching sights. The kid had too much Mo-mentum.

Honey-haired, effervescent, modest, yet supremely self-confident, she hit the big-time as a short-skirted tornado. Wreaking utmost damage wherever she alighted, little Miss Connolly was finished with it before age 20, dead at 34.

Clearly she lived up to Kipling's iffy proposition of treating triumph and disaster just the same, the poetic thought expressed on the sign above the players' doorway to Centre Court. Both involved fight and aplomb, with which Mo was well stocked.

During a unique stretch of 30 months before the whirlwind subsided in a freak accident, she was perfect when it counted most: nine majors entered, nine majors won - three Wimbledons, three US Opens, two French and one Australian.

Her career-terminating injury and, later, the fatal attack of cancer were greeted with stoicism and unfailing smiles. Just days before her death, she kept up her schedule of inspirational speeches. Mo was committed to lifting the spirits of those about her, including her husband, Norman Brinker, and two daughters.

"Nothing like Maureen had ever hit Wimbledon," remembered the sage man-about-tennis, the late Ted Tinling. "When she arrived in 1952 she was an extraordinarily self-possessed 17-year-old. Not only was she invincible from the baseline, equally strong with forehand and one-handed backhand, but she wrapped reporters and photographers around her little finger with her outgoing accessibility. She called a press conference, and talked and posed until every last request was answered."

The next year at Wimbledon, Little Mo was a certainty to retain the title, but there was much more to that sojourn in SW19. As the winner of the Australian and French titles she was on a path never before trodden by a woman. An accomplishment was in the making that was not yet in common conversational usage - a Grand Slam. Fifteen years had passed since another Californian, Don Budge, had made that almost unimaginable possibility a reality by seizing all four majors within the 1938 season. He was the first of only five, followed by Connolly, Rod Laver (1962, 1969), Margaret Court (1970), and Steffi Graf (1988).

"If Mo had any intention of making a Slam, she never mentioned it, and we had a lot of time to talk about everything," says Julie Sampson Hayward, loser of their Australian final, 6-3, 6-2. They were companions on the "endless" flight to Australia in that pre-jet time, and won the doubles together.

"We knew Maureen was good. After all, she was the US champ and had won Wimbledon in '52. But," recalls the first of 22 Slam victims, Carmen Borelli Tobin, "we couldn't imagine how good. It was soon apparent. Her shots were harder, deeper than anything we'd ever seen, and she seldom missed."

Beaten 6-0, 6-1, Tobin is kidded by her husband, the recent International Tennis Federation president, Brian Tobin, that Connolly could not have gone all the way without getting past her. But she says: "The embarrassment wasn't in being beaten so badly by a great player. It came midway through the second set when I finally got a game and the crowd in the Kooyong stadium cheered madly." Getting a game was like pulling teeth - from a lioness.

"She was a sweet kid," says Ted Schroeder, the 1949 Wimbledon champ, "but the adjective that fits her at play was 'ruthless'." During her Grand Slam run, opponents averaged 3.8 games a match, and merely one of them salvaged a set, the Briton Susan Partridge Chatrier in a French quarter-final which she lost 3-6, 6-2, 6-2.

Doris Hart, beaten in Connolly's Paris, London and New York Grand Slam finals, preceded her as Wimbledon champion and followed her to two US titles. She feels: "If Mo came along today, using the hi-tech rackets, she'd do all right. Maybe just as well as she did then. Her determination would have pulled her through in any era.

"She was so quick, accurate and competitive. I know I never played anybody as good. You might be ahead 40-0, but she made you feel like it was 0-40. I think I peaked - I actually felt like I'd won - in the '53 Wimbledon final. She beat me, 8-6, 7-5. The shame is that she isn't around for this golden anniversary."

Connolly beat Hart for the French title 6-2, 6-4. At the US Open, she completed the Slam, shutting the door on a trio of compatriots and future Hall of Famers: Althea Gibson, 6-2, 6-3; Shirley Fry, 6-1, 6-1; and Hart, 6-2, 6-4.

The feat made few headlines, and not much more than a paragraph or two in newspapers and magazines covering the US Championships, playing second racket to Tony Trabert's victory over Vic Seixas in the men's final.

But Don Budge had been dining out on his original Slam, talking up the concept. By 1956, when Lew Hoad arrived in New York with the Australian, French and Wimbledon titles in his satchel, the publicity drums were resounding, only to be punctured as Ken Rosewall beat his compatriot in the final.

Hart says of the relative lack of acclaim for Mo's quartet of titles: "Nobody talked about records and titles much in our amateur day. I had a few myself [35 majors in singles and doubles], but people weren't counting. The main idea was to travel and have fun, and we did. There was no money to speak of."

Room, board, transportation and trophies were enough for Mo. Rod Laver's 1969 Slam was worth $35,200 (£21,150 at today's rate) in prize-money for the four titles, Margaret Court's $14,800 the following year, Steffi Graf's $877,722 in 1988. Serena Williams earned $2,922,891 (£1,756,228) while winning four successive majors culminating in this year's Australian Open

Steve Flink has written that Jack Kramer, who promoted the nomadic one-night-stand pro tours before the 1968 dawn of open prize-money tennis, and Mo planned to capitalise on her laurels with a 1955 world-wide trek against the 1946 Wimbledon champion, Pauline Betz.

However, the curtain fell abruptly, heartbreakingly, after Connolly had won Wimbledon and the US Clay Court titles in July 1954. Enjoying a horseback ride at home, she was struck by a truck, suffering severe damage to her right leg. "I knew immediately I'd never play again," she said. Otherwise she might have improved on her season high of 1953, winning 10 out of 12 tournaments, 61 out of 63 matches.

After early exits from the US Championships as a 14- and 15- year-old, Mo won the title in 1951. She was 16. The world became her tennis ball as she racked up 52 consecutive major singles match wins. Serena Williams' string was 33 when Justine Henin-Hardenne applied the scissors in Paris.

Although "Big Mo," the battleship, and "Little Mo," the battling slip of a girl, are gone, the memory of their firepower lingers in the history books.

Comments