Aussem, Cilly (1909–1963)

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Aussem, Cilly (1909–1963)

Tennis star of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and only German to hold a Wimbledon title before 1985, who briefly represented hope of a better future for Germans during their severe economic crisis after World War I. Name variations: Cilly, Cäcilie. Born Cäcilie Aussem inCologne, Germany, on January 4, 1909; died in Portofino, Italy, in March 1963; married Murai della Corte Brae (an Italian count), in 1935; no children.

Winner of the German mixed-doubles championship in Berlin (1926); winner of the German national singles title (1927); rescued from her faltering game by American champion Bill Tilden and won the French mixed-doubles championships with Tilden and the women's singles title (1930); ranked the world's number two player and won the Wimbledon's women's singles title (1931); at the height of her career, ill health forced her retirement (1935).

During the first decades of the 20th century, Great Britain, Australia, and the United States dominated tennis, although some of the world's top-ranked women players hailed from other countries, including Suzanne Lenglen from France, Lili de Alvarez from Spain, and Molla Bjurstedt Mallory from Norway. Before Boris Becker and Steffi Graff established German dominance on the courts in the 1980s and 1990s, German champions were few and far between. Cilly Aussem, born in Cologne on January 4, 1909, was the first and only German international tennis champion of her time. Very well known for a brief period, she was then largely forgotten, partly because the politics of World War II helped obliterate her achievements and partly because her career was cut short by illness. But her accomplishments on the court do not merit such oblivion. In the words of American tennis great Helen Hull Jacobs , Aussem should be remembered "for the almost unparalleled swiftness of her rise to tennis heights against the sort of odds that are seldom overcome."

When she began playing at age 14, many remarked on Cilly Aussem's good looks. Said Norah Gordon Cleather : "She had a lovely, heart-shaped little face with big amber eyes, and wore her russet-coloured hair parted in the middle, a fashion that enhanced her doll-like appearance." Aussem was pretty, petite, and determined, qualities that eventually transformed her from an above average tennis player to the best in the world. In 1926, Aussem was 17 when she won the mixed-doubles title in Berlin; the following year, she took the national singles title. Suzanne Lenglen, the French tennis champion, dominated the international courts at the time, and, because Germany had never been a tennis powerhouse, few took notice of a German champion in 1927, until she defeated Lili de Alvarez at the Le Tourquet tournaments in France.

Cilly Aussem's game was unimaginative but tenacious. She relied on quick footwork and clever placing to win. Scampering along the baseline, she would flick the ball into unexpected places, catching her opponent off guard. In the French championship semi-finals in 1928, she demonstrated this style when she defeated the English player Phoebe Holcroft-Watson . Driving the ball from corner to corner, Aussem wore Holcroft-Watson down and advanced to the finals. But the finals, played against the American champion Helen Newington Wills , demonstrated the weakness of Aussem's game. She was a cautious, unaggressive player, with a weak service, often resulting in double faults. Aussem displayed little self-confidence on the courts, and her lack of power, combined with her tentative manner, caused many to assess her as a typical German tennis player of the time—good enough to play the best but never good enough to beat them.

Alvarez, Lili de

Spanish tennis player. Name variations: Lili d'Alvarez. Born in Rome, Italy.

Born in Rome of Spanish descent, Lili de Alvarez was one of Europe's most popular tennis stars. Fluent in five languages, she was a beautiful, sophisticated woman, who introduced the first culottes to be seen at Wimbledon. "She wore the Lenglen bandeau with a twist, slanted to one side, and brought trousers—voluminous, calf-length slacks—to the game," writes Billie Jean King in We Have Come a Long Way. "She was a bold, exciting player who hit the ball on the rise, and aimed for winners." Termed brilliant but erratic, Alvarez played in the finals at Wimbledon in 1926, 1927, 1928.

In the summer of 1928, the international championships in the Netherlands proved to be a replay of that year's French championships. This international tournament was the most important before Wimbledon, and Aussem was determined to win it. She advanced to the finals where she faced Kea Bouman , the Dutch player who had won the French championship in 1927. Bouman started slowly, playing the first match conservatively. Few drives went beyond the service line and there was no aggressive net attack. During long rallies, Aussem and Bouman maneuvered for an opening, allowing safety and placement to take precedence over speed and depth. Aussem won the first set, and the second set should have been hers as well, but her unaggressive style proved her undoing and Bouman took the second set 6–4. Always persistent, Aussem fought for the third set, only to see victory slip

away. At Wimbledon not long afterwards, she played similarly, and lost to d'Alvarez. In 1929, Aussem lost at Wimbledon to Joan Ridley , an English player whose skills were not even in the same category. Watching Aussem's defeat, Helen Hull Jacobs summed up her failures:

The German girl lacked a very potent quality in her match play temperament. She had arrived at the point where she would either go forward or backward very fast, and the course she was to take depended upon her ability to develop this quality-fearlessness. Cilly played as if she were so afraid of losing that the game itself had little pleasure for her.

Jacobs and many others thought Aussem would quickly fade from the scene. But at this low point in her career, the young German attracted the attention of Bill Tilden, the American star. William Tatem Tilden dominated men's tennis during the 1920s and early 1930s. A large man with a cannonball service, he was Aussem's opposite in every respect. Tilden had great faith in his abilities, which were considerable as he won seven Wimbledon championships before turning professional. His maxim was, "Never give your opponent the shot he likes to play." As a child star, his natural abilities had taken him far when, without warning, his game began to fail. He began to analyze the game and realized there was a "why" and a "how" to tennis. Tilden concluded that the mind was as important as the racquet arm in the game. Using this approach, he began to work on his weaknesses—a long, tough process as Tilden did not win a major title until he had reached the age of 27.

Watching Cilly Aussem's cautious, tentative style, Tilden was reminded of himself, and he believed his coaching could transform the German player. In 1930, she could scarcely believe her good fortune when one of the world's greatest proposed to coach her. Tilden began by building Aussem's confidence, teaching her to enjoy the game again. After a few weeks of training, she played Elizabeth Ryan , who defeated her. Depressed, Aussem told Tilden she had disgraced Germany. Tilden quickly set her straight, declaring that no one cared whether she won or lost a tournament except herself and her mother. Few Germans were even that aware of her playing schedule, and the few who were undoubtedly paid no attention whatsoever to her wins and losses. Buoyed by this pep talk, Aussem went back to intensive training.

Tilden emphasized footwork, timing, and stroke production during endless hours of practice. He strengthened and steadied Aussem's service. Previously only a baseliner, she was extremely limited in her strokes, so Tilden added a creditable volley and smash as well as powerful overheads to her repertoire. He also improved placement of her drives. Most of all, Tilden taught Aussem to enjoy the game and to forget her fear of losing. Under his careful coaching, her natural abilities began to reassert themselves. The transformation was remarkable as Jacobs noted:

I was on the Riviera this same spring and, although illness forced me into the role of spectator during most of the tournaments so that I had no opportunity to play Cilly, I was astonished at the progress of her game. One could see from match to match the hand of Bill Tilden in her sweeping forehand drive and accurate, cleverly placed backhand. I marked her at once as a player to treat with great respect and to play with infinite attention to strategy, should we ever meet.

Aussem and Tilden won the French hard-court championship mixed doubles that year. For the first time, Aussem could serve, smash, and volley with the best. Then she beat Elizabeth Ryan in the singles at the French championships. When she arrived at Wimbledon in the summer of 1930, her game had never been better. Jacobs, who played Aussem in the quarter-final round, commented:

Bill Tilden had succeeded in teaching her the sharply angled, short drive that leaves the opponent in such a vulnerable position and, as much as I varied my game to make the production of this shot more difficult, she played it with maddening regularity. Cilly's speed of foot and position play were vital factors in the soundness of her game against any attack or defense that I could launch. When finally the length and angles of my shots began to improve, it was too late. The set and match were over at 6–1.

The next day at the semi-finals, Aussem played Ryan. She had beaten Helen Jacobs 6–2 and 6–1 the previous day, so defeating Ryan was a possibility. Aussem lost the first set to Ryan 3–6 and won the second 6–0. In the final set, she crumpled to the ground in a faint, and another Wimbledon championship eluded her.

At this point, however, Cilly Aussem was a star on the international tennis circuit. Her aggressive style of play had gained her many fans, and she was ranked the number two player in the world. Picture postcards of the German with the pretty face were the rage in Europe. Aussem enjoyed the limelight and the spectators who mobbed her, although fans could be somewhat dangerous to the petite player. Once at Wimbledon, enthusiasts literally swept Aussem off her feet and Teddy Tinling, the master of ceremonies of center court, had to rescue her. The 6'6" Tinling snatched the 5' Aussem from her admirers, safely depositing her in her dressing room.

Aussem never possessed great physical stamina, relying instead on an iron will and a fighting spirit to play the game. Exhausted at the end of the 1930 season, she spent the winter resting, but by May 1931 she was ready for the next challenge. Helen Wills, the American star who had won the Wimbledon single's championship every year from 1927–30, withdrew from competition, wishing to spend time with her new husband. Her absence left a vacuum on the international circuit that Aussem was determined to fill. She won the French championship easily, mowing down her opponents, and arrived at Wimbledon determined to do the same.

Reaching the semi-finals, Aussem faced Simone Mathieu , the French player known for her inexhaustible style. Aussem easily defeated Mathieu 6–0 in the first set and looked to be a sure winner in the second. Mathieu, however, found her form and took the second set 6–2. In the old days, the threat of defeat would have immobilized Aussem, but Tilden's training reasserted itself and Mathieu went down 6–3 in the third set. Aussem had reached the finals at Wimbledon for the first time in her career. This match was unique because two Germans, Cilly Aussem and Hilde Krahwinkel (Sperling) , faced each other in the finals, an unprecedented occurrence that would not happen again for many decades. Sperling and Aussem were opposites in almost every respect. In later years, Tilden said of the tall, ungainly Sperling:

She is one of the best yet most hopeless looking tennis players I have ever seen. Her game is awkward in the extreme, limited to cramped unorthodox ground strokes without volley or smash to aid her, yet she has been the most consistent winner in women's tennis each year since 1934. She is another proof of that great tennis truth that it is where and when you hit a tennis ball, not how, that wins matches.

The final match was excruciating for both players. Sperling had blistered her feet in the semi-finals, which she played against Helen Jacobs, defeating her 10–8, 0–6, 6–4. Aussem suffered a similar situation in her match against Mathieu, and in consequence neither player was at her best. Sperling was a dogged player whose height and grip worked against her. As a child, she had injured the ligaments in the fourth and fifth fingers of her right hand, causing them to drop at right angles to the palm of her hand. Gripping the racquet was very difficult, a handicap she struggled to overcome. But she was a tenacious player, and the smaller, more nimble Aussem did not underestimate her. Said Allison Danzig , while describing the match:

Today, with the championship at stake, Fräulein Aussem did not trust herself to rush to the net or depend too much on her backhand. She stuck stubbornly to the baseline, sparking from one side of the court to the other and running so fast that she always was in time to return Fräulein Krahwinkel's drives with her high, swift forehand. Fräulein Aussem was so fast, in fact, with her short rushes along the back line that she was able to get her forehand into use on strokes that nine out of ten players would have answered with their backhand. Against such a game Fräulein Krahwinkel could do little.

Cilly Aussem won the championship 6–2 and 7–5, the first German to ever win a Wimbledon title.

Aussem's unexpected victory inspired celebrations throughout a defeatist Germany then suffering from the economic depression and political chaos that had followed World War I. Shortly before her surprising upset, Max Schmeling had also won a boxing bout in Cleveland, and sports fans in their country now went wild. The Leipziger Neueste Nachrichten echoed a common sentiment in the headline, "Cilly and Max would not be beaten. Neither will we." For Germans, their victories marked a turning point, an end to ignominious defeat that had plagued the country since 1918. The Leipziger Neueste Nachrichten could barely contain its delight:

This third of July is worthy of remembrance in German sport. Two figures, Cilly and Max, appeared as world champions in their games. Higher honors are impossible. We do not desire to overrate the results, but they prove to our great satisfaction that the German folk, although not yet free from the Young Plan and the Versailles Treaty, are not in the slightest thinking of dropping out of world affairs.

The Vossische Zeitung of Berlin echoed this theme under the headline, "The Wimbledon Turning Point":

Krahwinkel and Aussem bestowed upon German tennis a new authority in the hour of our deepest humiliation. Both worked themselves up through the world's best and accomplished grandiose feats on unfamiliar grass courts. Their example is an assurance that German women's tennis never will lose touch with international stardom.

Cilly Aussem's victory at Wimbledon represented a resurgence of hope in Weimar Germany. For a moment, the humiliation of defeat, Nazi diatribes against the Jews, and financial woes brought on by the Great Depression were put aside. Aussem proved that Germans could forge ahead with renewed hope and determination. Like the "fragile Fräulein with the will of iron," the German people would one day stand in the winner's circle.

With tennis immortality so close at hand [Aussem] abandoned all adventure and played the final with a steadfast refusal to err.

—Davidson and Jones on Aussem's championship bout at Wimbledon, 1931

Success followed success for Aussem in 1931. She was the "Tennis Queen of Europe," winning the national singles championships of France, Germany, Hungary, and Austria. In the fall of 1931, she traveled to South America where she defeated Irmgard Rost, a fellow countrywoman, in Argentina. During this tour, appendicitis struck, however, and Aussem underwent surgery upon her return to Germany. Unfortunately, she returned to competition before she had fully recovered. Still only 22 years old, she was dogged by poor health during every match. In 1932, she was forced to retire from the French championships, falling behind in matches against Betty Nuthall . When Aussem played against Helen Hull Jacobs at Wimbledon in 1934, Aussem was a different athlete. Jacobs recounted:

When we met for the second and last time at Wimbledon in 1934, Cilly did not remotely resemble the player of 1931. I don't believe I ever played much better in my life than I did on this day to win 6–0, 6–2, but I faced an opponent on the wane. Cilly seemed to have lapsed into her old, hopeless, match-play psychology, probably induced by numerous setbacks she suffered after her operation. The aggressive power of her fame was gone and with it the will to win.

In 1935, Aussem married an Italian count, Murai Della Corte Brae. Although it was often rumored that Aussem and Bill Tilden were engaged, theirs was a strong friendship rather than a romantic relationship. Not long after her marriage, Aussem contracted a jungle fever, which further eroded her health and affected her eyesight. She ended her tennis career in 1936.

A superstar in the 1930s, Cilly Aussem faded from view. Her health remained frail, and she was only 54 when she died in Italy in 1963. Der Spiegel, Germany's foremost publication, devoted a short six lines to her obituary. Aussem was no longer listed in the German Who's Who, and her accomplishments were mostly forgotten in the tennis world. Still, there were those who remembered her remarkable ascent to the top ranks of tennis. In May 1988, Aussem was featured on a German postage stamp. The passage of time has brought greater perspective to her accomplishments, and Cilly Aussem has been restored to her rightful place as a champion.


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Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia