Wightman was an American who dominated American women's tennis before World War I and who had an unparalleled reputation for sportsmanship. Wightman won a lifetime total of 45 U.S. titles, the last at age 68. She won 16 titles overall at the U.S. Championships, four of them in singles (1909-11, 1919). Nine of her titles at the U.S. Championships came in 1909–11, when she swept the singles, women's doubles, and mixed doubles competitions three consecutive years.
Wightman is known as the "Queen Mother of American Tennis” or "Lady Tennis" for her lifelong participation in and promotion of women's tennis and because she was instrumental in organizing the Ladies International Tennis Challenge between British and American women's teams, better known as the Wightman Cup. The Cup was first held in 1923 and continued through 1989. She played five years on the American team and was the captain of the American team from inception of the competition through 1948. The Cup was composed of five singles and two doubles matches. The cup itself was donated in 1923 by Wightman in honor of her husband. The first contest, at Forest Hills, New York on August 11 and 13, 1923, was won by the United States.
Born during the early days of American tennis, Wightman was a frail and awkward child. Her doctor recommended that she take up a sport to strengthen herself. Her brother suggested tennis as it was considered a 'genteel' sport. Wightman learned to play at the nearby courts of the University of California at Berkelely where she graduated in 1911. Her rivalry with fellow Californian, May Sutton, shaped a new women's game, with Wightman attacking the net to counter Sutton's dominating forehand.
Wightman was the mother of five children and devoted herself to teaching other young people, opening her home near Boston's Longwood Cricket Club to aspiring champions. In recognition of Wightman's contributions to tennis, the USTA Service Bowl was donated in her honor. In 1973, Queen Elizabeth II named Wightman an honorary Commander of the British Empire.
Though short in stature, Wightman anticipated and moved extremely well around a tennis court. She perfected her volleying style early, hitting the ball against the family home in Berkeley, California, where she grew up and graduated from the University of California. She refused to let the ball bounce because the yard was so uneven. She used to play against her four brothers and then the proud and spiky Sutton sisters.
Wightman was a shy, somewhat awed, and fascinated 22-year-old college girl when she arrived at the Philadelphia Cricket Club in 1909 for the U.S. Championships. She had never before played on grass, but she used her attacking style and rock-ribbed volleying--she was the first woman to rely so heavily on the volley--to win the all-comers final over Louise Hammond 6–8, 6–1, 6–4 and then the title over 39-year-old Maud Barger-Wallach 6–0, 6–1. Wightman also won the women's doubles and mixed doubles titles that year.
Wightman successfully defended all three titles at the U.S. Championships in 1910 and 1911. Wightman easily defeated Hammond in the 1910 singles final. May Sutton, an old West Coast rival and singles titlist at the U.S. Championships in 1904, pushed Wightman hard in the 1911 singles final before Wightman prevailed 8–10, 6–4, 9–7.
Wightman married Bostonian George Wightman in 1912 and did not defend her U.S. titles. But, responding to a challenge from her father to win after becoming a mother--a U.S. first--she reappeared in 1915, losing the singles final to Molla Bjurstedt Mallory but winning the women's doubles and mixed doubles titles. But papa's wish came true for the spunky 125-pound 5-footer in 1919. At age 32, she won her fourth singles title with the loss of only one set, beating Marion Zinderstein 6–1, 6–2 in the final. She also reached the women's doubles final. Thereafter, her long-lived and unapproached success (U.S. adult titles between 1909 and 1943) was confined to doubles.
Wightman envisioned a team tournament for women similar to the Davis Cup and offered a silver vase as prize. In 1923, the British and Americans had the strongest women players. So, Julian Myrick of the United States Lawn Tennis Association decided that a U.S.-Britain competition would be in order for the Wightman Cup. The event, with Wightman captaining and playing for a winning U.S. side, opened the newly constructed stadium at Forest Hills, New York. A treasured series, it lasted through 1989, disbanded when the competition was no longer competitive.
Wightman, devoted to the game in all aspects, generously instructed innumerable players at no charge throughout her life. She also teamed with two of her protégés who later joined her in the International Tennis Hall of Fame to win important titles: Wimbledon, U.S., and Olympic doubles titles with Helen Wills Moody in 1924 and U.S. Indoor women's doubles titles with Sarah Palfrey Cooke from 1928 through 1931. Her second Olympic gold medal in 1924 came in mixed doubles with Dick Williams.
The last of Wightman's record 34 U.S. adult titles was recorded in 1943 as she, 56, and Pauline Betz Addie won the women's doubles title at the U.S. Indoors over Lillian Lopaus and Judy Atterbury, 7–5, 6–1.
Wightman was ranked in the U.S. Top Ten in 1915, 1918, and 1919 and was the top ranked American player in 1919.
"First Lady of Tennis" is a short biography of Wightman. The book traces her career and honors and details her lifelong dedication to teaching the game.
Wightman won one of the few recorded "Golden Matches" in which the winner did not lose a point. She defeated a Miss Huiskamp (first name unknown) in the 1910 Washington State Championships.
|Tournament||1909||1910||1911||1912 - 1914||1915||1916 - 1918||1919||1920||1921||1922||1923||1924||1925||1926||1927||1928||Career SR|
|Australian Championships||NH||NH||NH||NH||NH||NH||NH||NH||NH||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||0 / 0|
|French Championships1||R||R||R||A||NH||NH||NH||A||A||A||A||NH||A||A||A||A||0 / 0|
|Wimbledon||A||A||A||A||NH||NH||A||A||A||A||A||3R||A||A||A||A||0 / 1|
|U.S. Championships||W||W||W||A||F||A||W||A||A||A||A||A||A||3R||1R||QF||4 / 8|
|SR||1 / 1||1 / 1||1 / 1||0 / 0||0 / 1||0 / 0||1 / 1||0 / 0||0 / 0||0 / 0||0 / 0||0 / 1||0 / 0||0 / 1||0 / 1||0 / 1||4 / 9|
NH = tournament not held.
R = tournament restricted to French nationals.
A = did not participate in the tournament.
SR = the ratio of the number of Grand Slam singles tournaments won to the number of those tournaments played.
1Through 1923, the French Championships were open only to French nationals. The World Hard Court Championships (WHCC), actually played on clay in Paris or Brussels, began in 1912 and were open to all nationalities. The results from that tournament are shown here from 1912 through 1914 and from 1920 through 1923. The Olympics replaced the WHCC in 1924, as the Olympics were held in Paris. Beginning in 1925, the French Championships were open to all nationalities, with the results shown here beginning with that year.