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Queen Mother Of Tennis
August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
All this ballplaying, and doing things to help my mother around the farm, and helping take care of my little brother—all these things were part of my training to learn how to handle my body, see. My little brother was blond and had lovely curls and was so pretty, and all my brothers were good-looking and all had curly hair, and I was the plain one with black, straight hair. And I want you to know that if I heard it once, I must have heard it a thousand times, people used to say to my mother, “Oh, Emma, your boys are so good-looking; it’s too bad Hazel’s so plain.” But on a playfield with the boys nobody said anything about my looks. They spoke about my game, you see? I mean, if I start to analyze it, that was the way I was brought up.
When did you start to play tennis?
When we moved from the country to Berkeley. I was sixteen. I had never seen a tennis game until then. Imagine! I had never hit a tennis ball. I had never seen a tennis racket. I never had even held a tennis ball. But the minute that tennis ball bounced, apparently, 1 enjoyed the fact that it bounced because I had only had a wooden ball or a baseball that didn’t bounce before. Apparently my tendency was to adjust my knowledge of balls to that new one that bounced.
When you started playing tennis, where did you play?
We played on anything we could find. There was only one tennis court in Berkeley, at the Faculty Club, so we played mostly in our driveway, on gravel.
Is that why you learned to volley so well? I’ve heard you were an expert volleyer. Did you learn that because tha ball didn’t bounce very accurately on gravel?
Well, partly. But really it was the first match I saw. It was a women’s singles, and it was two of the Sutton girls, and they were the best in California—and May Sutton was the best, she won the championship in England too. She was the best all over the world—and she and her sister played singles. And it was boring to me because the points went on for so long. Just the ball over here and back …
Back and forth?
Back, back, back, back, back. And then they had a men’s doubles, and the men were very attractive and they looked very well, and they were quick in going to the net and volleying. I loved it! So I said, why not volley the ball? See? And that means you get it back into play quicker. But nobody happened to tell me that. I learned In hitting the ball and having fun. I wasn’t contaminated by some teacher telling me just how to do it—hitting the ball this way, or having my racket head come down this way or that way. I didn’t think about those things. I learned to do what I needed to to make it successful, to make the ball go where I wanted it to go.
Your coordination must have been very good and natural.
Well, nothing’s natural until you do it.
I have read that it was your rivalry with May Sutton that first stimulated interest in women’s tennis on the West Coast. Tell me about May Sutton.
Well, May Sutton and I, we were the two top ones, and I didn’t win often from her, let me see, she usually beat me. She beat me three or four times before I had a chance to win from her. She was very hard for me to play against because she was not ladylike—she was rude, she was unsportsmanlike—and it upset me.
With May Sutton it’s awfully hard for me to criticize her at all, because she didn’t know any better. She was the youngest of four girls, and she beat them all. And she beat them because she could make them mad. It wasn’t necessary, because she could have outplayed them by using her head. She didn’t have the head—I’m not criticizing her, but she wouldn’t go to school. She no more could have analyzed a shot than a cow.
It bothered me for quite a little while. She had a lovely figure, she had blond curly hair—I’d give anything to have curls—oh, she was a lovely-looking person … and the stamina of a horse. Strong. And determined. My game apparently was the kind that I needed a little extra practice to get warmed up, and when we’d start to rally, May wouldn’t give me a ball to hit.
She hit them all out, you mean?
She just didn’t give me a ball. If I picked the ball off the ground and knocked it to her—ordinary players knock it back and forth—she knocked it out of reach. She didn’t let me hit a ball. I don’t think she knew what she was doing. My idea of tennis was to give the other person a chance to practice, but as I got smarter and thought about it I realized it would be good for me to keep the ball away from her too. But I couldn’t do that. That’s not the way it should be. The umpire told her, “Miss Sutton, you are not supposed to delay the game.” She said, “If you don’t like the way I play, I won’t play any more.” Imagine. Imagine!
When did you finally beat her?
I only had a chance to play her twice when I won. Once was in southern California. I won the final point when she was about at the service line, and she walked off the court and didn’t come toward me, so I ran around the net and grabbed her hand. I said, “Well, May, I was lucky today” or something like that, and she never said a word.