Wightman, Hazel Hotchkiss (1886–1974)
Wightman, Hazel Hotchkiss (1886–1974)
American tennis champion who revolutionized the way the women's game was played and won more national titles than any other player in the history of the game . Name variations: Hazel Hotchkiss; Mrs. George W. Wightman; Mrs. Wightie. Born Hazel Hotchkiss in Healdsburg, California, on December 20, 1886; died on December 5, 1974, in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts; only daughter and fourth of five children of Emma Lucretia (Grove) Hotchkiss and William Joseph Hotchkiss; graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, 1911; married George William Wightman (a lawyer), in 1912 (divorced 1940); children: George, Jr. (b. 1913); Virginia; Hazel; Dorothy (b. 1922); William (b. 1925).
Won 44 national titles and 2 Olympic gold medals; played her last national tournament at age 73; the Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman Trophy or Wightman Cup (given to the winner of a match between British and Americans) was named in her honor.
Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman was born in 1886 and grew up on a 1,500-acre ranch in Healdsburg, in a remote area of California. Small and frail, she was encouraged to play outdoors with her brothers, indulging in a number of sports, football and baseball being particular favorites. When she was 16, the family moved to Berkeley where she was pressured to give up her roughneck ways. But after watching the 1902 Pacific Coast Tennis championship tournament, Wightman became an enthusiastic player. Fortunately, her parents thought tennis more genteel than other sports.
As a teenager, Wightman rose at first light to practice on the only asphalt tennis court in Berkeley, at the Faculty Club; girls were not allowed to play on the court after 8 am. The remainder of the day she spent in the family's graveled backyard, hitting the ball against the side of the house or playing with her brothers. A rope had been strung across the yard to serve as a net.
After six months of practice, Wightman won the Bay Counties Women's Doubles in San Francisco with Mary Radcliffe as her partner. In many respects, Wightman had not given up her rugged approach to sports. At the turn of the century, women's tennis was played at the baseline with very little movement. But during her six-month apprenticeship, Hazel continued to recall that Pacific Coast championship: "It was a women's singles," noted Wightman, "and it was two of the Sutton girls, and they were the best in California—and May Sutton was the best, she won the championship in England, too. She was the best all over the world—and she and her sister played singles. And it was boring to me because the points went on for so long. Just the ball over here and back." (Through the years, there would be no love lost between Wightman and Sutton.) Then Wightman had watched the men play, running to the net and volleying; she found that game far more interesting. Without instruction, her instincts prompted her to get the ball back in play quicker. A ball bouncing off backyard gravel may also have been an added influence. Wightman brought the volley and net play to the women's court, a much more aggressive style which was obviously successful.
This method made the restrictive nature of women's tennis togs immediately apparent, however. Hitting serves, volleys, and overhead smashes was a difficult task in a long-sleeved dress. Wightman had her mother run up a dainty white dimity dress, sans sleeves, on the Singer, giving her freedom in arm movement while retaining the proper ladylike look. It was the first fashion revolution on the court. "If it hadn't been for the fact that I had freedom of the arm, I never would have perfected the volley." "I think I wore corsets," said Wightman in an interview with Barbara Klaw . "I can't imagine. But I think I wore corsets, because how else would I have kept my stockings up? I wouldn't have known any better. And we wore high shoes, high sneakers. Hideous looking things!" The length of her dress still followed the rules, however, which demanded it be no shorter than four inches from the floor. Inadvertently, Wightman's playing style prompted the long and acrimonious battle which would eventually result in men and women wearing the same attire on the courts. Ironically, she did not much approve of modern day tennis apparel, saying of the short tennis skirt, "It just isn't decent."
(In later life, Wightman had trouble accepting many of the changes in the world of women's tennis. Asked to comment before Billie Jean King 's match with Bobby Riggs, Wightman sadly predicted that King would lose. "Yet when she got to playing good tennis that night, outplaying Bobby, no one was happier than I," said Wightman. "I was so proud of her. I was so proud of her, and as a matter of fact, you know, I watched her lips, and I don't think she swore once.")
In 1909, Wightman won the national triple—the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles—repeating this feat again in 1910. In 1911, she did it again, only this time she played all three games on the same day. That year, she graduated from the University of California and met George Wightman while summering at tennis tournaments on the East Coast. They married in 1912 and eventually settled in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. Though George, Jr., arrived the following year, his birth did not keep Hazel Wightman off the court. She defeated the national champion at the Longwood Cricket Club
in Chestnut Hill months later. After two more children, Hazel and Dorothy , she recaptured the national singles title in 1919. Wightman had a total of five children, a fact which never interfered with her athletic career. She won on grass and clay, indoors and outdoors, and, in 1924, she took the trophy at Wimbledon in England and the gold medal at the Olympics in France.
Wightman worked hard to promote women's tennis and expand its opportunities; one of her major objectives was to bring France's Suzanne Lenglen to compete in America. Pushing for an international competition for women to match the men's Davis Cup, she donated a silver vase, which became known as the Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman Trophy, to the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA); it was first awarded in 1923. Teams of American women have been competing with their English counterparts for this prestigious cup every since. Wightman, who would play on the team for five years (1923, 1924, 1927, 1929, and 1931), was also a nonplaying coach-captain for 13 years. By the 1920s, she had begun to teach and write about tennis as well as play; Helen Hull Jacobs was a student, as were Sarah Palfrey, Helen Newington Wills, Margaret Osborne, Maureen Connolly and many others. Wightman often opened her enormous Chestnut Hill home to women tennis players so that they could socialize and form a support network. Wrote Billie Jean King:
At Longwood, Hazel conducted clinics and numerous tournaments. During tournament weeks her three-story home became a kind of sorority house for aspiring young girls and women from all over the world. Guests slept everywhere, from the basement to the solarium, coexisting peacefully with Mrs. Wightie's cats, which came and went as they pleased through the open windows.
Hazel Wightman, who won more national tennis titles than any other player in history, did not retire from competitive tennis until 1960, when she was 73. She had been inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame three years earlier. In 1973, she was made an honorary Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II , in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Wightman Cup. Wightman died in 1974, two weeks before her 88th birthday.
In assessing her strategy, Wightman thought her strength was in the intelligence of her game; she felt her shots were limited, her backhand fair, her smash good, but "I'm a player that if any ball comes over the net and there isn't anybody to play it but me, I'll be there."
Women's tennis was profoundly shaped by Hazel Wightman. She revolutionized the style of play and tennis attire, and most important, widened professional opportunities. When she began playing, economic independence was unheard of for women, but thanks to her untiring efforts, women had the chance to support themselves while competing. Tennis became a gateway which fed women into other sports, such as track and field, gymnastics, basketball, and soccer. After Hazel Wightman rushed the net, the world of women's athletics was never quite the same.
Clark, Alfred E. "Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman Dies; Holder of Tennis Titles Was 87," in The New York Times Biographical Service. December 1974, p. 1801.
King, Billie Jean, with Cynthia Starr. We Have Come a Long Way, Baby: The Story of Women's Tennis. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1988.
Klaw, Barbara. "Queen Mother of Tennis," in American Heritage. August 1975, pp. 17–24.
Wightman, Hazel Hotchkiss. Better Tennis. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1933.
Woolum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1992.
Karin L. Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia