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Like Alice Marble (with whom she likes to be compared), Maria plays the full-court game, always pressing toward the net and volleying position, like the modern male stars. Her service, which she hits with a full body twist as she rises to the tips of her toes, is about as fast as Marble's. (Because she was the first girl to serve with a man's style, Marble, though very fast, may have looked even a shade faster than she was.) Aside from her set poker face on the court, Maria has less in common with Helen Wills than with the other two superstars. A comparatively large and big-boned girl, Helen rarely moved from the baseline—and didn't have to. No one has since matched her backcourt power and accuracy, certainly not Bueno, although by general standards she has exceptional speed, particularly off her backhand.
If there is a weakness in her stroke production, it is in her forehand, which she is inclined to hit with a slightly cramped motion, the elbow tucked in a bit. In the average tournament player this deviation from the ideal copybook form would not be noticeable. It is noticeable in Bueno because the rest of her strokes are so flawlessly executed. The feet twinkle into position, the body is always in exquisite balance, the racket arm is at full stretch, the other arm is extended right down to the finger tips in the perfect counterbalancing position for the shot she is making. If you like graceful women and good tennis, you can watch her all day.
Maria Esther Audion Bueno was 11 when she came across a tennis book which included a series of stopped-action photos of Bill Tilden executing his famous cannonball service. She instantly decided that she had to have a serve like that. For weeks on end she carried the book out to a practice court, spread it open to the Tilden sequence and hit ball after ball until she could approximate at least a few of the fundamentals of Tilden's delivery. By this age, Maria was already well along in tennis. When she was one year old, her father, Pedro Bueno, had made her a member of the Clube de Regatas Tiet�, a mammoth sports establishment (though far from the biggest in S�o Paulo) which offered its 22,000 members two Olympic-length swimming pools, two smaller pools for the kids, outdoor and indoor basketball and volleyball courts, target ranges, lawn bowling on clay, facilities for parachute jumping—and eight clay tennis courts.
Senhor Bueno, one of five partners in a firm which manufactures chemically enriched food for animals, was a capable weekend tennis player. Maria's mother had played the game when a girl but had given it up. What was more to the point, the club was situated right across the street from the Buenos' home. From the age of 4 on, Maria was over there all the time, patting a ball with a junior-size racket against the bangboard or any vertical surface she found free. "I must have been kicked out about 10 times when I was a little kid for practicing in the wrong places, like against the main bulletin board," she said recently. "I practically lived at the club. It was my garden. My mother didn't have to worry where I was. The club was my playground."
Maria grew up into a prodigy of sorts. In 1954, when she was 14, she won the Brazilian women's championship. She was a little chubbier then but had the same beautiful strokes. For this, a good deal of credit should go to Henrique Terrone, the professional at the club. Terrone was not at all versed in tactics, but he had a very nice, natural style and provided the children at the club with a sound model.
Whenever players of international reputation made their infrequent visits to Sao Paulo, Maria studied them carefully. "I have always tried to copy a little bit of each player," she says. "When I saw Art Larsen in 1952, I'd say, 'I'm going to hit more backhand like Larsen.' Or when I saw Enrique Morea, I'd say, 'I'm going to hit my forehand like Morea.' " This anthology of collected best strokes was executed with much more pace than most girls manage, for Maria preferred to practice (as she still does) with men. Here she was fortunate in that her brother, Pedrinho, a few years older, was generally available and extremely patient. At the present time Pedrinho, now 23, is finishing his final year at Lamar Tech in Beaumont, Texas, where he is studying engineering. He has let his tennis go but is still good enough to have carried off a tournament recently to which all the small colleges in Texas sent their champions.
Special plane for a heroine
When it comes to the encouragement of young athletic talent, Brazil is much like any other country. In 1959, after Maria had won at Wimbledon, President Kubitschek ordered the heroine flown home in a special plane, and there were motorcades in Rio and a special Mass at the cathedral in S�o Paulo. A new Medal of Sporting Merit was coined in her honor, and for three weeks she was toasted at balls and banquets. Four years earlier, however, when she was just a young player of thrilling promise, it had not been quite the same. Girls of less talent from the socially prominent clubs were given the plum privileges of playing against the visiting stars. Some rationalization probably would have been found for sending someone other than Maria to represent Brazil in the Pan American Games in Mexico City in 1955, except for the hard fact that she was the national champion.
The 15-year-old girl's excellent showing at Mexico City—she defeated the South American champion, Maria Weiss, in straight sets—constituted the first of a succession of small, unspectacular steps upward in the world of international tennis. In 1957, after sitting out all competition for a year while a strained muscle in her right shoulder mended, she spent the winter on the Caribbean circuit. Her countryman, Armando Vieira, who regularly played those tournaments, arranged with the sponsors to invite Maria. She did all right.
The next winter she played the Caribbean circuit again and then went on to Europe with the rest of the itinerants. It was an encouraging year, although at one place or another she was defeated by Althea Gibson, Beverly Fleitz, Darlene Hard, Shirley Bloomer, Janet Hopps, Yola Ramirez, Heather Brewer Segal, Barbara Davidson and players of even slenderer reputation. On the other hand, at Caracas she forced Gibson all the way before losing 9-7 in the third set, she won the fairly important tournament in Rome and she partnered Gibson to a victory at Wimbledon in the doubles (which, incidentally, she has a flair for). Her campaign might have been even more successful had she not suffered a recurrence of her shoulder injury. During the six months she sat it out, she completed her work for her teacher's certificate at Col�gio Santa Ines and taught classes in the first five grades.