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Frank Deford
August 29, 1988
If Steffi Graf is victorious at the U.S. Open, she will join her sport's most elite group
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August 29, 1988

A Grand Try For The Slam

If Steffi Graf is victorious at the U.S. Open, she will join her sport's most elite group

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Little Mo won her first Grand Slam title, the '51 U.S. Nationals, at 16, and was still a teenager when she won her last major, Wimbledon, in '54. All told she won nine Grand Slam tournaments, including six in a row. Connolly could be absolutely merciless with opponents—she gave up only 11 games in the entire Australian championship of '53—forcing herself to despise the poor woman across the net. "This was no passing dislike," Connolly wrote, "but a blazing, virulent, powerful and consuming hate."

Little Mo's mother, who had always wanted to be a pianist but couldn't because she had such small hands, dreamed her child would grow up to be a musician. Maureen grew up thinking her father was dead, only to have him suddenly surface one day when she was an adult. She loathed her stepfather. Perhaps all this made it easier for her to fall under the thrall of the fabled Teach Tennant, a tennis Svengali who had also tutored Alice Marble and Bobby Riggs and who honed Connolly's killer instinct. "Maureen just had the ability of total concentration on the court," says Norman Brinker, her widower.

Away from the chalked rectangle, she was a frisky, well-rounded teenager, a superb equestrienne, a tap and ballet dancer, modest and becoming, and a devout Catholic who was given a special papal dispensation to eat meat on Fridays before big matches. All during her glitter years she was in love with Brinker, a young Navy officer and horseman who saw Connolly play tennis only once, briefly, in a minor tournament. Little Mo's hometown, San Diego, was so proud of her when she first won Wimbledon and Forest Hills, in 1952, that the chamber of commerce gave her a big roan named Colonel Merryboy. It was generally thought that only her love for that horse could distract her from winning the Slam in '53. It did not.

Little Mo eschewed the long trip to Australia in 1954, but she successfully defended her French and Wimbledon crowns with ease. Back in San Diego she and some friends went out riding on July 20. A cement mixer drove by and spooked Colonel Merryboy. He reared and crashed into the truck. Connolly broke her right leg, severing all the muscles in her calf. Little Mo was not yet 20, and she was finished. Fifteen years later, at age 34, as Laver began play at Wimbledon in pursuit of his second Slam, she died of cancer. Even her beloved Colonel Merryboy outlived her.

Four years ago, when Navratilova beat Sukova 6-1 in the first set of the semifinals of the Australian Open, which was the last leg of the Slam that year, Court, who had been watching on TV at home in Perth, turned off the set and went shopping. She was satisfied that Martina would soon join her as the only living female Slammer. But by the time Court returned, Sukova had won the last two sets 6-3, 7-5.

This July, at home in Dallas, Brinker flipped on the Wimbledon women's final. Graf fell behind a set and 2-0, but he didn't turn off the set. He watched as she won the third leg of the Slam. "It's funny." Brinker says. "You know, I never really saw Maureen play, but just watching Steffi for a few minutes, just a few minutes, and you know what I said to myself? I said, There is Maureen."

Graf was born June 14, 1969, the Saturday before Little Mo died. Evidently, the torch is to be passed.

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