This is the fourth in a series of examining the greatest female tennis players of all time, this is the third, you may read about Helen Wills, Margaret Court and Billie Jean King‘s arguments for greatest of all time.
Total Singles Major Titles: 9
US Open: 3
French Open: 2
Australian Open: 1
Doubles Major Titles: 6
Career Titles: unknown
#1 in the World: 1952-1953
Maureen Connolly was the first teenage star of tennis. In fact, no teenager has been so dominant as Connolly. But nor has any career ended so dramatically. She was born September 17th, 1934 in San Diego to a father who was an officer in the Navy and a mother who dreamed of success on the stage. Her father left when she was four and her mother pushed her to be a singer and dancer on the stage. But Connolly had her heart set on a different career entirely.
She picked up tennis at 10, not as wealthy as most of her predecessors at the top of the American game, earning her stripes on public courts rather than at a private club. But she was discovered by the coach Eleanor Tennant, who had already guided more than one player to a Major title and together the pair set about dominating the tennis world. In 1949, aged just 14, Connolly made her debut at the US Open and she won the tournament two years later, making her then the youngest player ever to win the US Open.
Her competitive drive is said to have come not from a love of tennis, but a hatred of losing. Either way, certainly served her well. And whilst her record in Flushing Meadows was eventually broken, with Martina Hingis, the current holder, winning the US Open in 1997 when she was eight days younger than Connolly had been. But Hingis never triumphed in New York again. In contrast, Connolly successfully defended her US Open title in 1952 and 1953.
Her 1953 win came as part of a Calendar Grand Slam as she won all four Majors, without dropping a set in any of the four finals she played. She followed that landmark year with two more Grand Slam titles in 1954, taking her total to nine, all before her 20th birthday. She had also earned the nickname ‘Little Mo’ for her power on the court and was named as the Associated Press’ Female Athlete of the Year three times in a row, the only tennis player with that honour.
But after her win at the 1954 French Open, disaster struck for Connolly. Out riding, she was hit by a truck, suffering a crushed leg as a result. And although she worked hard to rehabilitate her leg, she was unable to fully recover from the injury. At a stroke, her tennis career was over and she retired at the age of 20, with the world having been at her feet. And sadly for Connolly, there was further tragedy to come. After her retirement, she married Norman Brinker, raising two daughters in Dallas, but she fell ill with ovarian cancer and died in 1969 aged 35.
Maureen Connolly had no rivals. She burst onto the stage and dominated and then had her career tragically cut short before having the chance to develop any rivalries of note.
Arguments for Greatest of All Time:
Before the age of 20 she already had nine Majors, having completed both the Career Grand Slam and the Calendar Grand Slam. By way of comparison, Margaret Court had also completed the Career Grand Slam aged 19 but she was 22 by the time she had nine Major titles. And whilst Court also won a Calendar Grand Slam, she did not accomplish this feat until 1970 when she was 28. In short, what Connolly accomplished in such a short time is astounding.
In fact, her achievements are so remarkable that it seems almost certain that she was not going to be a flash in the pan in the way that other teenage tennis stars who peaked early and then disappeared were. Rather, Connolly was a special talent, better and more consistent than her peers from the start of her career until its sudden conclusion. As a result, she belongs on the list of the greatest female players of all time. The question is where.
She finished her career with nine Majors in singles and seven more in doubles. That is some way behind both Billie Jean King and Helen Wills, never mind Court’s 24. And though she would surely have won more had her career not ended the way it did, she still cannot be given credit for titles she did not win. She is inevitably behind Court, Wills and King as a result. King may not have been the greatest of her generation, but she won far more than Connolly, whilst Wills may not have been the greatest of her generation, but her 19 Majors is also too much for Connolly to overcome.
Greatest of All-Time List:
- Margaret Court
- Helen Wills
- Billie Jean King
- Maureen Connolly
Still to be discussed:
- Chrissie Evert
- Martina Navratilova
- Monica Seles
- Steffi Graf
- Venus Williams
- Serena Williams
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