Molla Mallory – the unsung record-breaker

Marianne Bevis looks back at the ground-breaking career of Molla Mallory

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
molla mallory
Mallory's success was built on something new, a fresh approach to women’s tennis Photo: M Bevis

molla mallory

When Anna Margarethe Bjurstedt, the daughter of a Norwegian army officer, arrived in the United States in 1915, very few people had heard of the 1912 Olympic bronze medallist. But it was not long before ‘Molla’ was taking the US tennis scene by storm.

In her first year in North America, she entered the US Indoor Championships and beat three-time defending champion Marie Wagner in straight sets: It was the first of five singles titles in that event.

She won the women’s title in Cincinnati – a tournament otherwise entirely dominated by Americans until after the Second World War.

To make her point even more firmly, Bjurstedt completed the year with her first US Grand Slam title – and went on to take a record eight US singles trophies, beating a different woman in each final.

She is the only woman apart from Chris Evert to hold four US titles consecutively, and her win in 1926, at the age of 42, established her as the oldest singles Grand Slam champion in history.

Yet even with the married name she assumed in 1919, the ground-breaking Molla Mallory remained, until very recently, a relatively little known champion.

While this extraordinary woman demands respect for her records alone, her success was built on something new, a fresh approach to women’s tennis that showed many of the hallmarks shared by the great champions who followed. Her contribution, indeed, laid an important stone in the foundation of the women’s game.

Mallory was born – in 1884 – into a world where the modern rules of lawn tennis were still just 10 years old. Bismarck was Chancellor of Germany and Victoria was Queen of the British Empire. Van Gogh had not painted his Sunflowers and Tchaikovsky had yet to write his Sleeping Beauty.

In 1915, Mallory and her most renowned contemporary on the other side of the Atlantic, Suzanne Lenglen, played in a world where long skirts, long sleeves, and even boned corsets, were the order of the day.

But to play the kind of tennis that this new brand of woman brought to the court needed change. Lenglen is credited with shocking European audiences – especially Wimbledon – with her calf-length, loose fitting attire, but Mallory was adopting the same style in the States.

This break with tradition enabled her to play as she wanted rather than as she was expected, and one of her few recorded quotes illustrates what that style of play should be.

“I find that the girls generally do not hit the ball as hard as they should. I believe in always hitting the ball with all my might, but there seems to be a disposition to ‘just get it over’ in many girls whom I have played. I do not call this tennis.”

Other observers of the day build a similarly formidable picture. Bob Kelleher, a former president of the USTA, was a ball boy during her era.

“She looked and acted tough when she was on the court hitting tennis balls. She walked around in a manner that said you’d better look out or she’d deck you. She was an indomitable scrambler and runner. She was a fighter.”

Even as a 42-year old in 1926, Mallory fought back against Elizabeth Ryan from a 0-4 final set deficit to win the US title, 4-6 6-4 9-7.

It’s not difficult, then, to see many of the Mallory qualities – including her very contemporary attitude to fitness, speed and aggression – played out in some of most successful and inspirational women to play the game since: Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and the Williams sisters.

Mallory’s tennis career ended at 45, as a semi-finalist at her beloved Forest Hills. By then, she had played in every US Open between 1915 and 1929 – and she didn’t start until she was 31. Not content with winning eight Opens, she was a finalist in two more, a semi-finalist in three and – her worst result – a quarter-finalist in 1927.

Mallory was also a fixture in the mixed doubles between 1915 and 1924, winning three times (twice with Bill Tilden) and a runner-up five times (again twice with Tilden). Add another pair of titles in the women’s doubles and Mallory boasts 13 American titles.

Mallory could not take her tennis to Europe until after the First World War, in 1920. In her mid-30s, she was arguably past her physical peak.

Nevertheless, she reached the final of the French Championships at her first attempt, never having played on clay before, and got to one final, two semis and two quarters at Wimbledon.

Yet the Mallory name and achievements have rarely enjoyed the kind of spotlight shone on her glamorous French counterpart. Lenglen’s career is often credited with marking a sea-change in women’s tennis and she was undoubtedly one of the most gifted and agile exponents of the sport.

Lenglen drew headlines wherever she played, was flamboyant, given to emotional outbursts and attracted French and British crowds in never-before-seen numbers. She made just one visit to the US Championships, losing to Mallory in the second round. Dogged by ill health, Lenglen’s career ended in 1926.

In a reversal of their early renown, however, Mallory was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1958, a year before she died at 75. It was another 20 years before her famous contemporary, Lenglen, took her place there.

Mallory’s reputation was finally complete when her name appeared, in 2008, in the Court of Champions at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. At last she stood shoulder to shoulder with her equals: King, Navratilova and Evert.

She was also reunited with one of the great men of US tennis history – a man who undoubtedly appreciated Mallory as much as any from his own doubles experience: Bill Tilden.

Don’t miss: Helen Wills Moody: The classy and Garboesque woman of tennis

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