The Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Month was the most dominating women’s tennis player of her career before a tragic accident ended her career while she was still a teenager.
Maureen “Little Mo” Connelly won the final nine majors in which she competed, which is quite impressive given how challenging Serena Williams is currently finding it to win four straight majors for the second time in her career.
In fact, in 1953 Connolly did something Serena has still not accomplished and that wasn’t done by another woman until Margaret Court in 1970. In an era when the tournaments were still limited to amateurs and not all top players participated in all four tournaments, Connolly won the Australian, French Wimbledon and U.S. Championships in the same year.
Having won the Wimbledon and U.S. Championships in 1952 (she didn’t compete in the Australian or French), Connolly actually won six straight grand slam titles, something that Court matched from 1969-71.
Born in San Diego in 1934, Connolly’s first love was horseback riding, but with her mother unable to afford riding lessons, she began to play tennis. It proved to be a fortuitous circumstance as Connolly soon proved to be a natural.
She began playing competitively at age 10 and as a 14-year-old won 56 consecutive matches. The next year she became the youngest winner of the U.S. 18-under championships.
She reached the second round of the U.S. Championships in 1949 and 1950, but as a 16-year-old in 1951 she made it all the way to the finals where she defeated 24-year-old Shirley Fry. In that match, Connolly won the first set 6-3, but Fry, who had won the French Championship and reached the finals of Wimbledon, rebounded to win the second set 6-1. Despite lacking the experience of her opponent, Connolly came back to win the final set 6-4. She would never again lose a set in a grand slam tournament final.
In 1952 she won in her first appearance at Wimbledon and then defended her U.S. National Championship with a 6-3, 7-5 win over Doris Hart.
She continued to dominate in 1953 as she participated in all four grand slam tournaments for the only time in her career and won each tournament while dropping only one set. With her grand slam sweep she joined Don Budge as the only players to that point to ever win all four championships in the same year.
In 1954 she did not participate in the Australian Championship, but came back to win both the French and Wimbledon Championships for the second straight year.
Her plan was to try for her fourth straight U.S. National Championship and then retire.
However, just two weeks after winning Wimbledon, she was riding her horse, Colonel Merryboy, in San Diego when a passing cement mixer truck frightened the horse, pinning Connolly between the horse and truck. She was thrown off and suffered a compound fracture to her right fibula.
The injury proved to be severe enough that Connolly was unable to continue her tennis career and retired in February 1955 at the age of 20.
In June of 1955 she married Norman Brinker, a member of the 1952 U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team. They had two daughters, Cindy and Brenda.
Connolly Brinker was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1966 and passed away on June 21, 1969 at the age of 34.
Though her career was meteorically short, Connolly packed a lot of honors and recognition into a brief period. She was the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year from 1951-1953 and finished each of those years as the top ranked U.S. women’s tennis player. She was the world number one ranked player from 1952-1954.
She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1969 and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1987.