August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
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.
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.
Was she mad?
I guess so. She wasn’t the kind that thought. She eliminated everything that bothered her in the game.
When was the second time that you beat her?
Once [ten years later] when we were playing, we got to be set all, and then I remember very well the third set. I was getting tired, but one of the gentlemen said, “If any of you ladies have spikes, you ought to wear them. The grass is very damp out there.” I said I had some spikes, and he said, “I suggest you put them on then,” and May said to me, “I don’t need spikes.” I remember that remark. I ran quickly and got the spikes and put them on. Therefore I didn’t slip as much as she did. My head said she wasn’t going to slip unless you run her, so I ran her and kept the ball in play more, and I won. When I won, she started to walk off the court just the way she had ten years before. Then as I walked up to the stadium she said something like “Stinkpot tennis!” She was describing the game I had played. It meant nothing to me especially, except I remembered it.
Maybe it did mean something if you remember it all these years.
I remember it because usually when you win something, the person congratulates you. May married Tom Bundy, a great friend of mine. He said two different times when I played her, he said, “Hazel, I hope you win today. You deserve to win. You’re an awfully good player, and May needs a lesson.” There was no question that the things she did were anything but sportsmanlike. Later I became very fond of her daughter [Dorothy Bundy]. She was one of my pets.
Was she a good tennis player?
Yes, she was good. Not as great as her mother, though. Not as outstanding.
Mrs. Wightman, what did you wear for playing tennis back early in your career—in 1905, 1910, say?
My mother made me dimity dresses—you don’t remember dimity; dimity was a thin material—my mother sewed dresses for me with short sleeves, and they were nice-looking dresses.
They were what I played in. They had a round neck or something. It was a full dress, a feminine dress. It would have looked much better on somebody who was more feminine-looking. Here I was, square like a horse, see.
How long were the dresses?
They had to be four inches from the floor.
What did you wear with those dresses?
I think I wore corsets. I can’t imagine. But I think I wore corsets, because how else would I have kept my stockings up? I wouldn’t have known any better. And we wore high shoes, high sneakers. Hideous-looking things!
Did you wear a hat?
Well, on an awfully hot day I think somebody put a hat on me. I don’t remember playing in a hat very often. Of course, I had a little longer head of hair then—though I always had poor hair—but I wore a bun, and in order to keep the bun from sliding down my neck I tied a ribbon around it. And if I was wearing a ribbon, I thought I better put a bow on it, so I’d put a bow on it. Silly; looked horrible.
What did you play in later when it became proper to wear the skirts a little shorter?
Well, later I played in anything I could find that would fit me, because I wasn’t a regular size. It wasn’t as if I wore a 16 or 18 or something like that. I was either nursing a baby or I’d just had a baby, so my figure was never what I’d call a nice little ladylike kind of figure. I remember I had sort of a two-piece thing one time, say in Helen Wills’s time, but I was never a fashion plate. Helen Wills wore a middy blouse, and the reason she wore a middy blouse was because of the sun on her back. She roasted if she had to stay out playing tennis for two hours, so she found a middy blouse with the collar was a great help and very respectable.
And the skirt?
It had a full skirt, always a little below her knees. There was no showing the waistband when you served. It was a very satisfactory dress for her, but to me I was an old married lady then, and I didn’t want to wear middy blouses. Now most of the women when I played in the East, all played in the middy blouse or some blouse with long sleeves to keep the sun off their arms. But I needed a short sleeve because the sleeve bothered me for overheads. Isn’t it strange? And yet if it hadn’t been for the fact that I had the freedom of the arm, I never would have perfected the volley.
Did you ever wear your tennis skirts really short?
I did get them a little shorter, but, oh, I wouldn’t wear them the way they are today. I’m almost embarrassed when I see a girl’s pants.
Why is that? Does it seem immodest?
To me your pants are your own. And you only wear pants just because it’s your own business, see? And a woman’s behind isn’t very pretty anyway. Of course, people don’t wear petticoats any more. But there is something about, when these people serve nowadays, seeing their pants or seeing their waistbands—it’s hideous.
Even for tennis? Even for an active sport?
The only time I countenance it is for skating. Skating is a different story, but in tennis it just isn’t decent. I get so mad at it!
Except for the clothes, what do you think about todays women tennis players?
Oh, I’ve got great admiration for them all; they’re all wonderful players. So long as they’re feminine—that’s the only thing that bothers me. I think you can be a great player and still be feminine. When tennis began to get so professionalized, I will admit I had a few qualms. I have a few qualms now, and when things happen that I don’t think are too ladylike, I think, “Why do it? Why sink so low?”
Such as what, Mrs. Wightman? What kind ofthing has happened that you feel is unfeminine?
I don’t want to put my finger on anything special, see, but I have been pleased that it’s avoided going low. I’m a long way from tennis now except my one foot in a tennis group here, but anything that goes on out there touches me. And I think that’s why I’ve had so much pleasure, and also why sometimes I’ve suffered.
What do you think about the whole movement today to make women’s tennis just as important as men’s? For instance, Billie Jean King’s insistence on equal treatment for women? How do you feel about that?
Well, I don’t think Billie Jean can do any different. Because Billie Jean has come a long way that way. I knew her when she couldn’t hit a ball. I knew her when she got beaten every time she stepped on the court, and I also saw her when she swore. I didn’t like it, and I kept telling her. I said, “Billie Jean, please don’t do it, don’t swear when you miss a point.” I said, “Men swear, but women don’t swear.” I said, “If you miss a ball, who’s to blame?” I never could make her realize the difference between a lady out in front of four or five hundred—a thousand—people, swearing, and a man swearing.
What about her insistence that women players get paid as much as men?
Well, I’m all for her, and she has the right motive, although myself, I don’t believe any woman should be paid as much to play tennis as any man.
Why is that? Do you think men are just better players?
Well, they are stronger. They’ve got longer legs.
In terms of the spectators, do you think people enjoy watching women’s tennis as much as they do men’s?
People enjoy watching women’s tennis more than men’s.
Why is that?
Because they can understand it better. Women have naturally more grace, more rhythm, and they don’t hit the ball so hard. Therefore it isn’t so quick, so hard to watch. People can learn more from watching women play.
But in spite of that you don’t think they should be paid as much as men?
I’ve felt that women don’t spend as much energy, they don’t have to work as hard as men; and, well, I just have always felt that no woman is capable of earning as much money as a man tennis player. I guess maybe I haven’t thought enough about it.
As for yourself, have you ever made any money out of tennis in any way?
Oh, no, no, I couldn’t. But I give these women today credit for coming along. And I think Billie Jean has done a mighty good job to keep at it the way she has.
Did you see Billie Jean’s match with Bobby Riggs?
Oh, yes. Nobody enjoyed it more than I. Bud Collins [the television commentator] had sent a car to take me over to his studio to talk about it. So whatever he asked me I answered. I must have sounded awfully stupid. He said who did I think was going to win. At that time I’d seen Margaret Court play him [Riggs], and I’d seen Billie Jean never rise to any great occasion by that time; and whereas I wanted her to win like nothing at all—I’d have given anything in the world to have her win—I couldn’t say I thought she would. And yet when she got to playing good tennis that night, outplaying Bobby, no one was happier than I.
She played beautifully, didn’t she?
Oh, I was so proud of her. I was so proud of her, and as a matter of fact, you know, I watched her lips, and I don’t think she swore once. And that was the first time I’ve ever been so pleased with her. I was so pleased that I could be pleased with her.
What do you think, Mrs. Wightman, about the tennis leagues- World Team Tennis? Does that seem to you a good idea?
Well, I was one of the first people to say it wouldn’t go. After I went to see the first match, oh, I said, that’s too tough. The women can’t do this. This is going to be awfully hard on the girls. But do you know how many matches I went to see? Six last winter. I went six times. It intrigued me. It is so hard, and it takes so much effort to do it.
Is that because they play the matches so quickly, one after another?
Well, it isn’t just that. But the bell rings, and you start right in playing. Usually on the tennis court you warm up —some people four minutes, some five minutes, then somebody stalls a little bit—you can be a little more like yourself. In a regular tournament if you’re going to play singles and doubles and mixed doubles, you have a question of hours in between. You can pace yourself; it’s not rushing. But here I just felt, oh, how can they take it? And that’s the way I felt all last winter, and yet I was foolish enough to go every time somebody would take me. And I enjoyed it every time.
How do you like the scoring system they use in team tennis- the one, two, three, four, instead of fifteen, thirty, forty, game?
I haven’t made any attempt to understand it, but I don’t like it as well as what I’ve done all my life, and it isn’t much simpler either, but a lot of people could never understand “fifteen love” and “advantage.” But that was tennis to me.
Were you bothered by the noise at the Lobster [the Boston league] matches?
After the first match I saw, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to like it, because of the rowdyism. I am one of the few people that believes that the audience should be quiet when people are playing tennis. I remember the first time I ever gave a thought to it. I was playing against May Sutton, and the gallery had gotten so big because it made tennis popular to see two women playing, one from northern California and one from southern California, and they [the audience] were shouting, “Come on, northern girl! Come on, southern girl!” It nearly killed me.
I realized that the reason noise bothered me particularly is I depend on hearing the sound of the ball on the racket. The hearing is very important because when I hear the ball hit so loud, I know it’s going to go farther. It may be hit so it’s going to be a half volley, it may be hit so it’s going to be a high lob. I depend on hearing it.
I wish I could have seen you play, Mrs. Wightman. Tell me about jour game.
Well, I’ve never been a perfect player, but I’ve been a successful player; I couldn’t do as many good shots as Billie Jean can do today, but I can be more intelligent about it than she was several years ago. Nobody ever gave me a lesson, so all I did was learn how to make a shot I wanted to make, though I didn’t always know what shot I was making. I had played two or three years when somebody said to me in Seattle, “How’d you learn to make that half volley?” and I said, “What is a half volley?” I’m just telling you the truth. If somebody would have taught me, I never would have learned to make a half volley, because they would have told me wrong.
Which was better, your backhand or your forehand? Or was there no difference?
I wouldn’t say I had any outstanding shot. I don’t think I ever had a beautiful forehand drive. I think that’s the last thing in the world I ever had. I may have had one of the best drop shots in the world, but I never had a good drive. And a backhand, I don’t remember having a good backhand drive either, but I never was afraid if the ball came to my backhand. The shot I liked to use was either a cut or a chop. My placements were accurate, so therefore I used the shot I could make.
I know you were an expert volleyer. What other parts of your game were especially good?
I was the only girl who could smash. You see, I’m a player that if any ball comes over the net and there isn’t anybody to play it but me, I’ll be there. And I didn’t win by losing the points, you know.
When you first started playing and coming into the net, weren’t most women still playing a base-line game?
Yes, and the reason I started playing net was it made it hard for them. That was all. Nobody told me anything about it, but if this woman [her opponent], if I can be sure she’s going to hit the ball from way back there and stay there, I’ve got a lot of space.
What about your serve, Mrs. Wightman? I gather that most women served underhand when tennis first started in this country. Did you ever play against a woman who served underhand?
Yes, I did. That first woman I won the Nationals from, Mrs. Wallach [Barger-Wallach].
Yes, that’s the first woman I remember who did [serve underhand], and she was like my grandmother. She was old and thin, wore black stockings, and had long sleeves and a skinny little figure. She didn’t play through the tournament. In those days the champion stayed out until after the tournament was won by somebody, and then she played against the winner in the finals the next day.
So the champion really just defended her title?
That’s right. The champion had quite a time, too, because usually the player who was playing all that week had gotten more used to the grass and was in better form. How she [Mrs. Barger-Wallach] had ever won the singles I’ll never know. She never won any tournaments after that, that I know.
How did you learn to do an overhead serve?
I served overhand from the beginning. And I didn’t practice my serve with anyone until I had been playing for several years. Then once when I was playing with Maurice McLoughlin [National Singles Champion in 1912 and 1913]—he had a beautiful serve—he wanted me to learn his American twist, but I told him, “I’m not built that way. I have short arms, short legs, and it isn’t comfortable to throw the ball the way you want me to do it.” I suppose I was too feminine, but I couldn’t do a serve that would put me off balance. All I could think of was to keep my short, square body on balance.
What about your lob?
Well, I’ll tell you a story about that. Once when I was over in England, I was walking across the Wimbledon grounds, and I saw this gentleman I had played mixed doubles with four or five years before. The minute he saw me, he put his hand behind his back and hobbled along. I asked him what was wrong, and he said his back was still sore “from those lobs you gave me.” I remembered that match; I had to keep the ball away from him the best I could. In order to keep it away from him I put the lobs over his head. I knew the stupid girl he was playing with wouldn’t have the sense to go over to get them.
Did you practice a great deal?
When I was living in Berkeley, I didn’t practice. I played probably once or twice a week. That was all the chance I had. And then I usually played with one of my brothers or boyfriends, because the girls weren’t good enough to hit the ball over the net hardly. Playing with the boys, I didn’t loaf. That’s all.
What about when you moved to Boston and started playing there?
I didn’t have a lot of time to practice. I usually had a baby at home I was nursing, and, well, I should think if Billie Jean plays four and five and six hours a day now, if I happened to play one hour a day, it was pretty good.
Did you go into training before matches?
Well, I was in training all the time, which doesn’t mean anything, because I didn’t do anything except eat, drink, and not be too merry. I don’t know what it is to go in training and out of training.
Did you have great endurance as a tennis player?
No, I didn’t have much endurance. But I made use of what I have. I guess the way I did it was to make my shot so difficult for [her opponent] that I wouldn’t get caught on my next shot. I think that’s what I did, now you mention it.
You must have been a master of the forcing shot.
I remember the first time I played this girl who was six inches taller than I was, and everybody told me that she had a service I couldn’t get back; well, I thought about it. So when she served to me, I said, well, I’m going to get that serve back. I’m going to have my racket flat and hit the ball in the middle and get it back, and if she is not used to people getting the ball back, she won’t be ready for the return. That was my psychology. So after I got her serve back, she was so surprised she didn’t return the shot. It wasn’t that I was smart or brilliant or had beautiful shots, but I kept myself from getting caught.
Did you make a point of trying to see a new opponent play before you had to play her?
I never was averse to seeing anybody play. And usually anybody that I was going to play against that I hadn’t seen, if I was handy, I always looked. I can remember one instance when some girls from New York had played in a tournament and gotten beaten, and I criticized them badly for having lost, because I said, “I’ve seen that girl play and she’s not good.” And they said, “Well, you don’t know what it is to play against her.” Well, later in Brookline [Massachusetts] I was to play against this girl, and my New York friends were there—they were there to see me get beaten. But that girl didn’t have a backhand. After we had played the match, the girls said to me, “How did you ever beat her?” I said, “I didn’t give her a shot to hit that she liked.”
What about other games? Do you play golf, for instance?
I was never a golf player. I played once, and I got a top score. It just happened, but I don’t like any game that’s slow. I won the squash national championship, though, and then I won the badminton national championship. Anything with a racket.
When was that?
About 1927. Well, let’s see now. I won the squash singles, and I won the badminton; I think I won the badminton singles, but I lost the badminton mixed doubles. Got to the finals twice in two different years. And Ping-Pong, I won the state Ping-Pong championship. Anything with a racket.
Have you ever played platform tennis, paddle tennis?
Paddle tennis came along too late for me. It’s a simple game, and I don’t care for it. Don’t like the sound of the racket, it’s so dead. I only played it a few times, but enough to know that I don’t like the dead sound.
What kind of racket do you use, Mrs. Wightman?
Well, as a matter of fact I haven’t any idea what the last racket I had was. I remember playing with a Pirn, that was the first racket I had. P-I-M , the first racket I ever saw. Then they brought out rackets with people’s names. There was one named for Doris Hart. I had a Hart racket one time. It was nice.
Was there ever a Wightman racket?
Yes, they had a Wightman racket, put out by Bancroft. It was kind of a ladylike racket. They had to name rackets after something.
Do you ever use a metal racket?
No, it came along after I was interested. I’ve hit a few balls with them, but it didn’t appeal to me.
I gather you don’t have trouble with tennis elbow. Have you ever had a tennis elbow?
No, that’s foolish. A tennis elbow comes from overdoing when you are not ready, see. The only time I had a little tendency for a sore arm was soon after I had had a baby and played an exhibition match. When you play an exhibition, you go out for the big shot, the shot you ordinarily wouldn’t play, to put on a good show; and once playing a Red Cross exhibition, I almost got a sore arm.
Mrs. Wightman, I gather that as well as playing tennis, you’ve done an enormous amount of teaching. Is that right?
I have never been able to be anywhere without teaching tennis. I am happier teaching than anything else. You know, I could name twenty people that are very outstanding that wouldn’t be playing tennis if it were not for me. Now I don’t want people to know that. It means nothing to anybody else but me, but I think that’s why I still have this terrific love for the game.
But I gather you don’t think much of most tennis teachers. Why is that?
I’ve seen a lot of people giving lessons, and I used to marvel at the pupils being so patient, because what the teacher was telling them was nothing. The teacher was nothing, just an automaton who was out there knocking a ball.
Well, what about when you teach?
I don’t tell them wrong. That’s all. I always demonstrate with my own racket because people see easier than hear. Now, average teachers who are no good, I don’t think they make an effort to explain properly, and of course rhythm is hard to explain. But most people who teach tennis don’t feel the way I do about rhythm. I think the only way you can teach tennis is slow motion to begin with, so the ball is hit smoothly, rhythmically, nothing jerky about it.
Where do you do most of your teaching?
Anywhere. Wherever I was, I used to teach. And in my garage. That’s right out here, and it’s my answer to teaching tennis. It’s right there. You hit against the wall. The best wall, I think, is wood, just ordinary wood. I got a man to come cover up the windows with plywood in the garage, and the bottom below the windows, I had him slope the boards a little out from the bottom—that’s a good idea, and it takes a little speed off. A lot of people don’t have the patience, but if more people used the bangboard, they would learn quicker. The garage, it’s to me the perfect way of teaching and learning.
Have you ever written a book about tennis?
Yes, I wrote a book, a little book, Better Tennis . I wrote it in longhand, mostly while I was waiting in the car to pick up my children from school. It was put out by Houghton Mifflin, and of course they wanted a fancy book, but I didn’t want a fancy book. When I looked at Billie Jean’s book a few years ago, the first one she wrote, I tried to read it, but it was so technical. It was so difficult. If I were fifteen or sixteen, trying to learn tennis, and tried to read her book, I would have thrown it out the window. My book was plain ordinary writing and plain ordinary language, and it wasn’t very pretty.
Was it useful to people?
Oh, everybody liked it. In fact, I played mixed doubles with a gentleman I didn’t know over at Harvard one day, and I said to him, “It’s fun to play with you. You know so much about doubles,” and he said, “I should; I read your book.” I nearly dropped dead. Last thing in the world I expected. Have you seen my tennis alphabet? It’s in the book.
No, but I’ve seen it quoted. My favorite was your advice for the letter Q—“Quash Qualms.”
Well, it was enough of a little thing that it made its mark.
You’ve been running tennis tournaments here at Longwood for many years, haven’t you?
Oh, yes, children’s tournaments, adult tournaments, I’ve been running tournaments here since 1923. I know practically everybody who hits a tennis ball in Massachusetts. And then the National Championships were played here in Boston—which is why I got so many titles; the only tournaments I played in [after coming to live in the East] were the Nationals, so if I happened to win them, I got the title—so I got the idea of putting up tennis players who travelled. I could remember that when I was young and travelling, I had to have some friend’s house to stay in.
You mean in the early days the tournament committees didn’t necessarily find housing for the players?
Oh, they had never heard of it. Well, I was using my house for players, and there were getting to be more players, so I happened to find this house. It’s bigger, and it’s just four minutes’ walk from Longwood, and that gave me the idea.
What’s the greatest number of players you’ve ever had staying here?
Fourteen; fourteen extra girls. I didn’t often have men, because at that time my husband and I were not living together, and I didn’t want to worry about extra men in the house. They cramped my style. [The Wightmans were divorced in 1940.] And when the pros got into it, I said I wouldn’t take any pros into my house during the tournaments. For instance, I told Maureen Connolly’s pro, I remember saying to her, “I’ve asked Maureen and her chaperon to stay at my house, but I can’t ask you because I don’t have any pros staying here.” I wasn’t going to have her do something I didn’t like. I said, “You can come for lunch, you can come for dinner any day, but you’re not spending the night.” That’s just me.
When the players come to Longwood now, do you still have girls here?
Well, I’ve only given it up since I haven’t been feeling too well, just the last year or two.
We’ve been talking all this time, and I haven’t asked you about the Wightman Cup.
It doesn’t say Wightman Cup on it, you know. It says International Trophy, but nobody knows that. The reporters wouldn’t ever call it anything but the Wightman Cup. They say that gives it prestige.
Why, if you originally intended it as an international trophy, do only the English and the Americans compete for it?
Well, when I gave the cup, fifty years ago, I thought it would be nice to see that French girl, Suzanne Lenglen, come over here. She won Wimbledon in 1919, and I won the National here in 1919. Everybody thought it was quite something to win the Nationals in 1909 and ten years later to win it again. But I never thought of any such thing. I just thought wouldn’t it be fun to have Suzanne Lenglen and other foreigners come here to play.
But the French women never have played for the cup, have they?
No, the English women had no desire to compete in anything with the French at the time. The way it happened, the English team had arrived in New York [in 1923, the first time the Wightman Cup was actually awarded], and that new stadium at Forest Hills was just getting finished, and the important thing was to have something special—an event—to open it with. We won all the matches that year. And the next year we played in England, and we lost all the matches but one. I won the only one that we won—the doubles. Then after we’d been in competition for a while, other people wanted to get in, and that’s when the English stepped down and said, we don’t want any competition with the French. It’s interesting. Small. But there was nothing you could do about it. I didn’t worry about it. The interesting thing is that the English have only won the Wightman Cup six times. Isn’t that something?
Why have they won it so seldom, do you think?
Well, they don’t have the setup we do. America has a terrific setup—lots of places to play and lots of people interested in playing. They don’t have as much time out in the open as we do.
The Wightman Cup used to be completely for amateurs, didn’t it? Do both amateurs and professionals play now?
There’s nothing amateur any more. Amateurs and professionals, you can’t keep them apart. Everything’s professional. A few years ago people voted on what they wanted, and the English were the first ones that wanted to have it professional, because their good players had all turned pro and they wanted to win.
I read somewhere that last year some of our top players, BiIKe Jean King and several others, didn’t want to compete for the Wightman Cup. Why was that?
There is no money in the Wightman Cup. There’s expense money, it doesn’t cost anything to play, but they don’t get prize money.
How did you actually select the Wightman Cup, the actual physical trophy?
Well, I went to a store in town, in Boston. It was Woods, N. G. Woods in those days, and I picked out the only cup they had that was feasible. It was a beautiful cup—it’s not big or that tall, but it’s kind of slender. It’s a very pretty cup, very feminine.
There was a celebration for the fiftieth anniversary of the Wightman Cup last year, wasn’t there? Was that fun?
When I heard that Longwood had decided to give a celebration for the fiftieth year of the Wightman Cup and that they wanted it to be special to honor me, I said, “That’s ridiculous.” I said, “I will not come. I don’t feel like things like that any more.”
Did you go?
I was there every day. I didn’t miss one thing. I even went to dinner at a backyard supper party. Oh, it couldn’t have been a better thing. And they made up this beautiful program. This is a picture of me on the front, and pictures of teams, teams, teams, and very few beer ads, and very few whiskey ads. They got pictures from Wimbledon in England that couldn’t have been gotten anywhere else. I think it is the most remarkable program ever printed. One little girl’s mother wrote me—she had stayed here at my house when she was fourteen—the mother wrote to me this last summer, and she just had to have me autograph a picture. I didn’t have any picture to autograph, so I got the girl one of these programs, and I autographed every picture of me in it. And she was tickled to death. Of course, she’s a grown woman now, and she’s married and has four children. Her husband’s in the Bahamas. I think he’s the governor of some island.
Mrs. Wightman, over all the years you’ve been playing, which woman player have you admired the most?
Oh, that’s a difficult question to answer. I would say that up through the first era, the era I knew best, it was Suzanne Lenglen. She was so homely—you can’t imagine a homelier face—but she graceful, a wonderful player. And Helen Wills, of course. It is very difficult to pick out the great players, but I’m satisfied to keep those two on my list. And Alice Marble. Alice was the first girl who became sensational. Nowadays each girl is sensational, I think.
What do you mean by sensational?
A little bit on the publicity side. Wanting to do something a little spectacular. Helen Jacobs was a great player too. She was the most responsive pupil I ever taught. I just hate to put any of them down. The finest of the younger ones was little Maureen Connolly. Maureen Connolly was the type that I could sit back and say, well, there is perfection. She was such a wonderful player, used her head. She was nipped in the bud, got her leg injured when she was riding horseback. She was not able to play well again, and then she died young. What a shame! She was on the brink of greatness.
Who do you think are the best among the current crop of players?
It’s hard to say … I certainly think Mrs. [Margaret] Court. And have you seen Evonne [Goolagong] play? She’s a charming girl. And Billie Jean. Chris Evert, she’s a lovely little girl. I love her femininity. There is something about her. Oh, I’m very much pleased with her.
Do you think you could have beaten today’s players when you were playing at the top of your form?
Oh, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t think so—I should say that I could run them, but I couldn’t beat those girls. They are too fast, they are too agile In a doubles game I would hold my own. My problem would be the distance. You see, I am too short to be able to cover the ground that these girls can who are eight inches taller than I am. They would be a whole stride ahead of me all the time.
I understand that a lot of the players who have stayed here and a lot of your pupils call you Mrs. Wightie. Who started that?
I think it was Mrs. Du Pont. She was one of our best tennis players. She was Margaret Osborne before she married Will Du Pont. She was a particularly fine doubles player, could win mixed doubles off most anybody. And do you know? She’s named a horse after me, one of her yearlings. It’s in its third year now and just beginning to pace out a little bit. When she decided to call the horse Mrs. Wightie, she went through all the rigmarole you have to go through if you want to name a horse after somebody. She sent me a picture of the horse.
I’ve also heard you called the Queen Mother of Tennis and Lady Tennis. Do you like those titles?
I don’t mind. I know why: because there is hardly anybody in the group in the last twenty years who hasn’t stayed here and who hasn’t had some connection with me. For instance, Margaret Court stayed here four years, and in the fourth year I hadn’t planned to put the Australians here, because I wanted someone else to come. I was out the day before they were supposed to come, and when I got home that afternoon, the four Australian girls were here and were all in bed asleep.
They really felt at home, didn’t they? Over all the years you played, Mrs. Wightman, are there any particular matches that stand out in your mind?
Well, I played with the queen of Spain once, and the Spanish prince too [Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain, in 1924]. I had a beautiful day that day because I sat by the king [Alfonso], and he said to me, “You can do me a favor. You’re the only person I’ve ever seen that might be able to do this favor for me. I think you can take my second son and win a match from my number-one son and his cousin. Will you play?” I said, well, certainly I’d be willing to play. Well, his second son was about six feet two or three, big awkward boy, and I don’t think he spoke very well. I don’t think he thought very well either. We went out on that court, and that boy could hardly hit a ball. He didn’t hear very well, and when I said “Mine,” he’d go to hit the ball, and two or three times I got hit over the head, I think. But we won. When we got through, the king was very much pleased. I was so relieved.
The queen herself was there too, and we had planned to play tennis, but it was kind of raining, and we thought we might not play. I said, “Oh, I hope we will play, because that’s the fun of being here,” and so the queen said to one of her daughters, “Beatrice, go back and get my tennis shoes.” Just the way I would have said to my daughter. So I played against the queen. This time I was playing with one of our American men, and we were leading 5-3, and I said to him privately, “I don’t think we ought to beat the queen. I don’t think it’s the polite thing to do.” So we didn’t win the final game. When we got through playing and I sat down next to the king—oh, he was a cute old fellow—he said, “Well, I’ve never seen a match thrown so beautifully.” Isn’t that cute?
I read a story published in American Lawn Tennis to the effect that you once won a third-round match in a tournament without letting your opponent get a single point. That seems incredible. Did you actually do that?
Oh, no, no, I don’t think so. That was in Seattle, and it was put in the newspaper, and I’ve heard about the story. But I think she did win some points. She won some points, because I remember I had trouble—I think there was a drop shot she made off the wood of her racket. Not on purpose, of course.
I have heard that there is a monument honoring you in your hometown, in Healdsburg. What does it look like?
It’s awfully cute; I’m one person in the monument, and there are three men—one is a high jumper, one is a runner, and I can’t remember the other. Anyway, there are three men and me, all born in Healdsburg. It’s a cute, nice little monument. It stands on a pedestal, and you can sit around on the pedestal. About my height and kind of broad, and it has an eternal light. They asked me to come when they installed it, but I wasn’t planning to be in California then. So four or six years later when I was out there, one of my nieces took me to see the monument.
What’s that framed document on the wall, Mrs. Wightman?
That is my Queen’s Honors.
“November 29, 1973, at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., Mrs. Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman with the Earl of Cromer—”
I’m glad his name is on it; I couldn’t remember it. They gave a lovely party.
” British Ambassador, receiving the insignia of the order of honorary Commander of the British Empire.” There can’t be many Americans who can use a C.B.E. after their name. You must feel very honored.
Oh, I do. It’s because of the Wightman Cup, you know, fifty years. The party was in Washington at five o’clock in the afternoon. We got halfway down there on the train when I said, “Where’s my suitcase with my dress to wear?” My suitcase was gone. Can you imagine? My daughter said, “Mother, you wear my dress.” I said, “Imagine me wearing your dress after all these years,” because she is five foot seven. All these years of their growing up I could never wear any dress my daughters could wear, and now I have shrunk in height. I said, “Let me see your dress.” It was a very pretty little dress, and she said, “Mother, I’ll take it up for you and shorten the sleeves.” And it looked all right. Nobody else in the whole world knew what I wore that day. And look here now. That’s my Queen’s Honors medal. When I go out at night, sometimes I wear it.
That’s a wonderful picture of you and Arthur Ashe, Mrs. Wightman; it looks like a recent one. Do you remember when it was taken?
Oh, I love that picture. He’s such a nice boy. It was taken at Pine Manor Tennis Camp a few years ago— 1971, maybe. Arthur came up to get his feet fixed (there was a podiatrist at Pine Manor), and I was over there that day. Arthur had a good sense of humor. I was wearing a pin the Virginia Slims Tournament people had given me the summer before, which said “You’ve come a long way, baby.” You know, that thing they say. So when I was saying good-bye to Arthur on the porch at Pine Manor that day after the picture was taken, he noticed my pin, and he said, “You sure have come a long way, baby.”