They didn't seem special at the time, but as the years pass I realize that indeed they were. I'm referring to two weeks of my life in September, 1950 when I came to know Maureen Connolly, whom many consider the greatest woman tennis player in history, and how I happened to beat her in a one-set match.
I was living in an elegant Spanish-style house off Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles with my mother, stepfather and 15-year-old sister, Fran. My stepfather was nearing the end of a seven-year contract as a writer at MGM, and I had become accustomed to a stream of social encounters with celebrities like Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor. Gary Cooper lived across the street. Fran and I often would be playing croquet as Coop went whizzing by in his low-slung sports car. He'd wave and we'd wave back.
Coop had a tennis court and used it frequently. The pro at our club, Westside, used to arrange doubles games for him. I would plead to be included, but at 20, my game was too wild—and perhaps too good—for Coop. Big twist serve, hammer the volley. No rallies. Cooper wanted the gentleman's stuff. I can appreciate that now.
But this isn't about Cooper. It's about those two weeks, nearly 34 years ago, when Maureen was a guest in our home. She wasn't yet the Little Mo who, while still a teenager, would win three straight Wimbledons and three straight national championships at Forest Hills. But the first of those championships was only 11 months away. So when we met it wasn't as if she couldn't play.
May 13, 1984
In those days there was a California tournament circuit, with events scheduled up and down the coast. My sister dabbled at playing on it, and because she was the same age as Maureen, she came to know her. It was the custom of tournament patrons to put up players in private homes, and so it came about that when it was time for the Pacific Southwest in Los Angeles, the most important California tournament of the year, Maureen and her mother, Jessamine Berste, were our guests.
I was employed as a copy boy at the Los Angeles Examiner, often working the evening shift, so that I would arrive home after the family had retired. One such night there was an extra car in the drive and I recalled having heard that some people would be staying with us for a while, but I thought little of it until early the next morning, when I heard someone trying to get out of the bathroom I shared with my sister. The door handle had been loose for some time but because both Fran and I knew just the right way to lift and turn it, we never bothered to fix it. Now someone was trapped inside.
I hopped out of bed, threw on some clothes and told the occupant to stand back. Turning the handle just so, I pushed forward—and there stood a young girl in a plaid bathrobe. We must have said hello, but I can't remember.
Later that morning I was rallying with a friend at Westside when my mother, Maureen and Mrs. Berste appeared on the porch above us. My mother made introductions from the porch and Maureen descended the stairs to the court. My friend sat out while Maureen and I rallied. She asked if I'd care to play a set. Why not? I had no idea that this person was an incipient immortal, that within a year she would begin to win all those titles. She was just a chunky kid with solid ground strokes.
Don't ask me for a stroke-by-stroke account. I beat Maureen 6-2. I do recall sequences, patterns of play. My lefthanded serve, effective on cement, confused her long enough for me to get by. She had just left the grass-court circuit back East and her timing was slightly off. She never came to net and her serve was pitty-pat. Even when she was at her best it was no offensive weapon. I'd play in close when she served, toss a return into her back-court and be at the net in two steps. Maureen would then lace the ball by me, down the line. But it would be wide, or long, by a hair.
A week passed. Maureen became a member of the family, she, Fran and I listening to records and laughing a lot. We quickly developed in-jokes, and the slightest change of expression would be cause for merriment.
Maureen won the junior portion of the tournament. There was a brief break before the senior event began and she suggested a rematch. She'd gotten permission to use a private court anytime she chose. It was right across the street and belonged to my old friend Coop.
Copper, it turned out, was away. His place was magnificent. It took several minutes of wandering through gardens and stands of citrus trees to reach the court. We laughed a lot on the way. Everything I said seemed funny to her.
Until we began to play. I tried to rekindle the humor as I went down the tubes. But she was all business, beating me 6-4, 6-3. Those passing shots were now an inch in. My serve was no longer a mystery to her. The minute it was over she was laughing again; she had held it in until then. Which, I suppose, is how it is with champions.
Three years later, in 1953, she had won those titles, including the Grand Slam. Four years later, while riding her horse at home in San Diego, she suffered a leg injury that ended her career. Ten years later she was living in Scottsdale, Ariz., having married Norman Brinker and given birth to two children. Nineteen years later, in 1969, she was dead of cancer.
One March when she was in Scottsdale, I was there, too, covering spring training. I phoned my sister and she gave me Maureen's number, but I never got around to calling. What a shame.