SI Vault
Melvin Maddocks
April 10, 1972
Still swatting the ball and barking orders like a drill sergeant, at 85 Hazel Wightman is truly the Queen Mother of U.S. tennis
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April 10, 1972

The Original Little Old Lady In Tennis Shoes

Still swatting the ball and barking orders like a drill sergeant, at 85 Hazel Wightman is truly the Queen Mother of U.S. tennis

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Late in the afternoon, when the sun starts to dip and the energies of normal people slump, a relentless rhythmic thudding begins in a brown-shingled garage only a couple of desperate lobs, three or four wild smashes, and maybe a trick) drop shot from the Longwood Cricket Club in Brookline, Mass. Plop-a-BOOM, plop-a-BOOM, plop-a-BOOM. The beat is so regular you could set a metronome to it.

What is this native drum so stubbornly saying to suburban Boston? Open the door at the left side of the gauge and walk in. Half dozen teen-age and pre-teen-age girls form an awed semicircle—apprentice priestesses, some in tennis whites and others in faded blue jeans. They come in the usual sizes and shapes. Fireplugs with determined red faces you wouldn't want to meet on a hockey field. Pale, languid, don't-muss-my-hair types—sex goddesses of Beaver Country Day School. But all have one thing in common: a tennis racket in hand, clutched like the Holy Grail.

In the middle, towered over by the taller girls, stands a Little Old Lady in Tennis Shoes. Plop-a-BOOM, plop-a-BOOM, plop-a-BOOM. A scuffed tennis hall is being propelled with controlled fury against a square of unpainted plywood at the back of the garage. Like a computer-directed missile the ball keeps hitting precisely the same spot—a little to the right of center—then arches back, bouncing obediently onto the face of the waiting racket as if magnetized.

Little Old Lady has the voice of a genteel marine drill sergeant. As she strokes her flawless forehand she lays it on the recruits. Plop-a-BOOM. "Be ready!" Plop-a-BOOM. "Move! Move!" Plop-a-BOOM. "Do I give the impression I have lots of time?" Plop-a-BOOM. "I have, I have."

Now it is the pupils' turn. God have mercy on them, Little Old Lady won't. Her fierce cries rattle the garage windows:

"Where did you aim that ball?"

"Don't cross your feet! Don't ever let me sec you cross your feet."

"Be determined! Be determined! You're the master of the ball."

What did these poor teeny-tennis-boppers do to bring into their nice permissive little lives this sadistic perfectionist? As they lunge under those gray-blue eyes that miss nothing, absolutely nothing, they become total believers. They are (plop-a-BOOM) in the presence of a superhuman, who certainly, beyond a doubt (plop-a-BOOM), was there when the first tennis ball bounced on American soil.

Well, this is not far wrong.

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