Bueno, Maria (1939—)

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Bueno, Maria (1939—)

Brazilian tennis superstar who, in her day, was one of the world's most graceful and proficient athletes, winning 62 titles in her career as an amateur. Name variations: (nicknames) Little Saber and Sao Paulo Swallow. Born Maria Esther Andion Bueno in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on October 11, 1939; daughter of a veterinarian who was also an amateur tennis player.

Ranked the world's best woman tennis player (1964); rated No. 1 in the world (1959, 1960, 1964 and 1966); won eight Wimbledon titles, three in singles (1959, 1960, 1964) and five in doubles (1958, 1960, 1963, 1965, 1966).

Born on October 11, 1939, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Maria Bueno grew up in pleasant upper-middle-class surroundings. Her father was a veterinarian and amateur tennis player. When she was about five, Maria was given a junior-sized tennis racquet; from that time on, when not at school or at home, she could be found at the Clube de Regatas Tiete, a large sports club directly across the street from her family's white stucco house in downtown Sao Paulo. Entirely self-taught, by age 11 she was using Bill Tilden as one of her models. She attempted to duplicate his powerful service by studying his photographs, then imitating the same strokes on the court of the Clube. By 12, Maria Bueno had won a girls' tennis tournament in Sao Paulo. A superb all-around athlete, the same year she also won the city's 50-meter women's swimming championship. In 1954, at age 14, she became the women's tennis champion of Brazil. In 1955, Bueno represented her country at the Pan-American Games held that year in Mexico City, where she defeated Maria Weiss , the South American champion, in straight sets. After this victory, she went on to win several more international tournaments in Argentina and Venezuela.

By 1957, Maria Bueno was playing in the "sunshine circuit" in Florida and the Caribbean. Bowing to family wishes, she also completed work for a teacher's certificate during this period and briefly taught in an elementary school. Bueno's heart, however, was in tennis, not teaching. By December 1957, she was again competing, winning Florida's Orange Bowl junior championship. The next year, 1958, saw a whirlwind of activity, with Bueno winning 18 of the 32 tournaments in which she played.

Despite her formidable talent, Maria occasionally met a champion who was at least her equal and sometimes better. One such player was Althea Gibson , who defeated Bueno in several tournaments, including the Caracas Invitational in March 1958. In April of that year, Bueno and Gibson teamed to win the women's doubles of the Good Neighbor Tournament, held in Miami Beach. In the summer of 1958, Bueno-Gibson won the women's doubles championship at Wimbledon. To top off a remarkable year, in September 1958, Maria Bueno was seeded fourth for the national singles championship. Althea Gibson won the crown.

By the time Maria Bueno appeared at Wimbledon in July 1959, many writers were predicting that she would be the next great star of tennis. She fulfilled those expectations with "a fluent and almost flawless performance," noted The New York Times, beating Darlene Hard , who had defeated her in six earlier matches, by the score of 6–4, 6–3 in the finals. Bueno's triumph ended an unbroken string of U.S. victories for women tennis players that dated back to 1938. The year 1959 proved an excellent one for Bueno, as she won 19 of the 35 tournaments she entered. In January 1960, the Associated Press Annual Poll named her the leading female athlete of 1959.

At Wimbledon in July 1960, Bueno retained the singles title for the second consecutive year, scoring an 8–6, 6–0 victory over South Africa's Sandra Reynolds . A few days later, Bueno defeated Reynolds in Switzerland. As the top-seeded star and the Forest Hills defending champion, Bueno was expected to make a two-year sweep of both American and British titles. But the strain of playing was beginning to tell, for in September 1960, she lost the United States singles title to Darlene Hard. In her home country of Brazil, she had become an unchallenged national hero. In December 1960, the Brazilian post office issued a six-Cruzeiro air-mail stamp to honor Bueno for her second Wimbledon victory.

Shortly after winning the Italian championship in May 1961, Bueno came down with hepatitis and had to cancel all performances, missing both Wimbledon and Forest Hills that year. Thought to be fully recovered, she appeared in April 1962 at the Masters Invitational tournament in Florida, defeating her longtime rival Darlene Hard. But Bueno was still not fully recovered from her illness and lost a few weeks later in Italy to Margaret Smith (Court) . Summoning her last reserves of strength, the next day she teamed up with Hard to win the doubles title against the Italian team of Lea Pericoli and Silvana Lazzarino . Although the aftermath of her illness made the quality of Bueno's playing in 1962 somewhat inconsistent, it was not her playing but her style of dress at Wimbledon in the summer of that year that brought her international publicity. Maria Bueno wore shocking pink panties under a "twist" tennis dress, a costume that the spectators reacted to with a mixture of cheers, gasps and boos. Some sportswriters suggested that the costume had interfered with her powers of concentration. In any event, in October 1962 Wimbledon officials ruled that henceforth only "all white" would be permissible dress.

Despite continuing victories and another singles triumph at Wimbledon in 1964, by the late 1960s Maria Bueno was coming to the end of her career due to a variety of arm and leg injuries. The dawn of a new era in tennis with the appearance of open tennis and prize money came too late for her. In 1974, she won the Japan Open, her lone pro title in singles. After a long period of virtual retirement, she felt sufficiently recovered in 1975 to undertake a pro tour. Bueno returned to Wimbledon for a personal triumph in the summer of 1976. Long past her prime, she won the respect of fans who remembered her from her glory days as well as those who now saw her for the first time. Traces of her old style remained, and she won three rounds. Billie Jean King , who defeated Bueno at Wimbledon the following year, spoke for countless fans when she noted, "In her day she was so marvelous to watch. But it was painful to watch her today. I wanted to remember her as she was." Maria Bueno was philosophical and serene about the coming of the end of her career, "I have always loved tennis, and still enjoy playing. I've had my glory." Nicknamed the Little Saber and the Sao Paulo Swallow, she would continue to be regarded by admirers throughout the world as one of the great women tennis stars of all time, comparable to Suzanne Lenglen, Evonne Goolagong, Alice Marble and Helen Wills .


"Bueno, Maria," Current Biography 1965. NY: H.W. Wilson, pp. 59–62.

Collins, Bud, and Zander Hollander, eds. Bud Collins' Modern Encyclopedia of Tennis. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1994.

Moran, Sheila. "The Swan Song of the 'Sao Paulo Swallow,'" in Women Sports. Vol. 4, no. 2. February 1977, pp. 35–36.

Robertson, Max, ed. The Encyclopedia of Tennis. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1974.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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