Queen Mother Of Tennis

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On December 5, 1974, Mrs. Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman, who had won more national tennis titles than any other player in the history of the sport, died at her home in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. She would have been eighty-eight on December 20. During several days late in November, two weeks before her death, Mrs. Wightman reminisced with an AMERICAN HERITAGE editor, talking humorously, lucidly, and often bluntly about her career in tennis, about the current state of women’s tennis, and about her unflagging devotion to the game.

Her career as a player spans most of the history of tennis in America. She won her first National Women’s Singles title in 1909. (She also won the National Women’s Doubles and the National Mixed Doubles that year.) Her last national title, her forty-fourth, was the Women’s Senior Doubles, which she won in 1954 at the age of sixty-eight. Her career as a teacher was even longer. Teaching, to her, was an addiction. She was spotting likely young players on any courts she happened to be near from the time she became a ranking player herself; she was still working happily with groups of beginners at the Pine Manor Tennis Camp in 1973; and until recently she was trotting visitors with tennis ailments out to her garage, where she diagnosed their problems as they smacked balls against a bangboard set up there. She also played house-mother—with instruction in strategy and in department thrown in—to several generations of young women tennis players who boarded at her house while playing in various national tournaments held at the Longwood Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill.

Hazel Hotchkiss was born in 1886 in Healdsburg, California. A small, frail child, she was encouraged to play outdoor games for her health. When she was sixteen, the family moved to Berkeley, and her brothers introduced her to tennis—a game considered suitably ladylike for a well-brought-up young woman. Six months after she first held a tennis racket in her hand, and apparently not at all handicapped by her small stature, she won her first tournament, with a doubles partner she had never seen before. In 1909, 1910, and 1911 she spent her winters as a college student at Berkeley and her summers sweeping up all the available national tennis championships—three singles, three doubles, and three mixed doubles. In 1912, a year after her graduation from college, she married George W. Wightman, a Bostonian, and spent most of the next seven years, as she said, either pregnant or nursing a baby. But in 1919, after the births of three of her five children, she decided to compete seriously again, and. again won the National Singles—ten years after she had won it the first time.

She won titles on grass, clay, and composition, indoors and outdoors, with all combinations of players, and in all age categories into which tennis players are divided. She also competed abroad, winning at Wimbledon in England and at the Olympic Games in France in 1924.

In 1919, feeling that there should be an international competition for women to match the men’s Davis Cup matches, she donated the Wightman Cup. Teams of American and English women have been competing for it ever since. Mrs. Wightman played on the team herself for five years and was the nonplaying captain on and off until 1949. Honors for her accomplishments piled up along with her trophies. There is a monument to Mrs. Wightman in Healdsburg, her hometown. She was one of the first three women to be enshrined in the Tennis Hall of Fame, and in 1973 she was made an honorary Commander of the British Empire.

White-haired, under five feet tall, and compactly sturdy even in her eighty-eighth year, Mrs. Wightman still showed the temperament that had made her a winner. She had obviously been a fierce competitor, yet her code of behavior was firmly old-fashioned. She spoke emphatically about proper manners—about grace, femininity, and good sportsmanship—on and off the court among women players (whom she always referred to as ladies). In Mrs. Wightman, somehow, these values did not seem incompatible with relentlessly aggressive tennis.

Mrs. Wightman, I’m impressed not only by the success of your tennis career but also by its length. How did you manage to play for so long? Most people can’t play championship tennis when they’re sixty-eight, if they can play at all.

Well, the thing was, I was never a great tennis player. All I did was to outmaneuver my opponents. Why shouldn’t I outmaneuver my opponent at sixty-eight if I’ve been doing it for fifty years? My feet may not he quite as good, but I won because my head was better. And there again people always say, “Well, it was natural tor you.” Well, how do you become natural?

How do you? How did it become natural for you?

Well, I never was a very strong child. When I first went to school, they used to send me out of the school about ten o’clock every morning to get some fresh air, and my parents encouraged me to play ball with my four brothers. We lived in the country in Healdsburg, so our sport was playing baseball and cricket and things like that out in the field. There were lois of boys in the group and not so many girls, and they all used to call me Sis. I got to be chosen on the teams. It made no difference whose brother’s team I was on; I got chosen by somebody’s brother because apparently, in those days, I was the best girl around.