Lesley Turner Bowrey, stalwart of the 1960s
The International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., is the ultimate destination for the greatest of this sport. To be enshrined here is the definitive statement of your importance and impact on the game. Every name here represents an important pillar in tennis’ strong structure; each inductee has forged a lasting legacy in the game. They are champions, all.
So many of these names are household names; iconic figures of global renown. But there are others—no less significant in the storied history of this great sport—who are lesser known, unheralded heroes whose important achievements too often fall just this side of the spotlight. As we celebrate Women’s History Month throughout March, we take a closer look at five of those women who, although they may be lesser known are most certainly no less important in crafting the remarkable herstory of this game. Here, we look at Australia’s Lesley Turner Bowrey, a two-time champion at Roland Garros who also owns 11 major doubles crowns, including a career Grand Slam in women’s doubles.
Looking back over the vast historical landscape of women’s tennis, few players of stature have been as overlooked or under-appreciated as Australia’s diminutive yet large hearted and highly accomplished Lesley Turner Bowrey. This earnest woman from Sydney did it all during her best years in the 1960’s, securing two singles titles at the French Championships in Paris, reaching three more singles title round contests at the Grand Slam events, taking another eleven majors in women’s and mixed doubles combined. Adding to her excellent credentials, she played a pivotal role in leading her country into the final of the first Fed Cup in 1963 and then helping Australia win that prestigious international team event in 1964 and 1965. At her zenith, she was ranked No. 2 in the world.
Now 78, the beguiling Turner Bowrey reflected on her stellar career and far reaching contributions to the women’s game both pridefully and unassumingly when we spoke recently. Her mood was upbeat, her memories clear, and her deep and lifelong affection for tennis unmistakable.
Recollecting her first journey to a “Big Four” final at Roland Garros in 1962 when she lost an agonizing 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 contest to her countrywoman Margaret Smith [Court] after leading 5-3 in the final set and having a match point, Turner asserts, “It took me a good week to get over that one. I can still see the off forehand that I hit to her backhand going wide on that match point. I just got a little nervous.”
A year later, Turner trailed Great Britain’s guileful left-hander Ann Jones 5-2 in the third set of the 1963 Roland Garros final, but rallied with considerable temerity to prevail 2-6, 6-3, 7-5 and claim her first major singles crown.
As Gloria Butler wrote in World Tennis magazine, “Ann was tiring after leading 5-2 and she began to lose her length. This gave Lesley the opportunity to come in. Suddenly she started to play tennis—glorious passing shots, deep angles, business-like little volleys and all the assurance in the world.”
Responding to that description, Turner Bowrey says, “I was nervous being in another big final but when I got down 5-2 in the third set, I thought to myself, ‘I am out of this match. It is over.’ Then I just relaxed and played beautifully. That taught me a lesson about not allowing myself to get uptight.”
Having turned that corner, Turner Bowrey did not look back. In 1965, she avenged her loss three years earlier to Smith, dismissing her formidable rival 6-3, 6-4, in their second Roland Garros final.
Turner Bowrey recalls, “I came into that tournament playing very well. It was the only time in my whole career where I was feeling, ‘I know I am going to win this tournament.’ That is not the personality I had, but I was just so confident and that final with Margaret was probably one of the best matches that I ever played.”
Although she did not win any more majors in singles, Turner Bowrey’s triumphs in women’s and mixed doubles were prolific. Making her successes all the more remarkable was the fact that she succeeded with so many different partners. Of the four majors she won in mixed doubles, she took three with Fred Stolle and one with Owen Davidson. In her seven women’s doubles championship runs at the Grand Slam tournaments, she was joined by Smith (four times), Judy Tegart Dalton (twice) and once by American Darlene Hard.
She captured a career Grand Slam in women’s doubles, which was no mean feat in an era when all the top singles players competed regularly in doubles. Winning the U.S. Nationals with Hard in 1961 was among her most memorable triumphs. She had just turned 19 and that year was the first time she traveled overseas to compete worldwide. She did not originally have a partner for that tournament at the Longwood Cricket Club outside Boston, but Nell Hopman (wife of legendary Australian Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman) stepped in.
“Nell organized it for me to play with Darlene,” recalls Turner Bowrey. “Darlene was a few years older than I was with a good sense of humor. It was fun playing at Longwood and we all stayed at Hazel Wightman’s [accomplished American player and founder of the Wightman Cup] house. In those days, we didn’t stay in five star hotels.”
It was just a few months earlier that Turner Bowrey joined the congenial Stolle for a seminal moment in her career as she won her first of two Wimbledon mixed doubles titles. “Fred was a very funny guy and he still is. He used to say to me, ‘Don’t take one overhead! I am playing every ball in the air.’ I would have gotten in awful trouble if I had tried to outdo him, so I did not. I had grown up with Fred and my parents owned a court. Fred was the only ‘non-Turner’ to play on that court. We were great mates, so winning Wimbledon with him was incredible.”
Almost as gratifying for Turner was her victory at the 1967 Australian Championships with the left-handed Davidson, who would take the three other majors that season with Billie Jean King to complete a mixed doubles Grand Slam.
“Owen was a very good mixed doubles player and a great guy” recalls Turner Bowrey. “Being a left-hander, he had that terrific slice serve and the good volleys. It didn’t surprise me that he won the Grand Slam.”
As she dug into her treasure chest of memories from across the years, Turner Bowrey discussed the differences between playing doubles with her two countrywomen Smith and Dalton.
“Margaret, of course, was the better player, but she was quiet and never really had a lot of strategy, whereas Judy was more of a thinker, a more bustling and open player. Judy and I were great mates. She always wanted to hit the winning shot so one time I said to her, ‘Look, I am going to win one of these matches myself because I am sick of you finishing it off.’ We laughed about that. I did all the setups. I just wanted to look the star once.”
She did indeed play a starring role alongside Smith as the Fed Cup—now re-named Billie Jean King Cup—was launched in the 1960s. In 1963, the King-led U.S. team defeated the Australians 2-1 in the final, but the next years (in Philadelphia and Melbourne) Turner Bowrey and the Australians prevailed over the Americans to win the Cup.
Turner Bowrey vividly recollects the pride she took in that endeavor. “When we played that first year in ‘63 in London, it was on the fast boards indoors at Queen’s Club, and Billie Jean was thriving with her serve-and-volley game, so that was pretty daunting for me. We got revenge the next year, and then we had about 10,000 fans watching in Melbourne when we won there in ‘65.”
King, of course, was a tireless crusader for women’s causes and equality for women in sports. Turner Bowrey remembers how passionate Billie Jean was as a performer. Asked if she is surprised that King evolved into an icon, Turner Bowrey replies, “Billie Jean was always so interesting. She was just this outgoing person. It doesn’t really surprise me about the many great things she has done and where she has gone with her life. She has done a tremendous job for women’s tennis.”
By the time King established herself as the prime player leader for the “Original Nine” in 1970, Turner Bowrey was in a different phase of her life. She had married Australian player Bill Bowrey in February1968. He won the Australian Championships that year. Her career was winding down, although that spring she won her last Italian title in Rome, defeating Smith in the final. Turner Bowrey gave birth to her first child, Michelle, in 1970. Two years later, she had twin boys.
Family had become the focal point of her life. She did not have any misgivings about not being around for the emergence of the women’s tour in the ensuing years, but admired what the women did to raise their profile.
“I was very impressed,” she says. “It was fantastic what the ‘Original Nine’ did for women’s tennis. Billie Jean did an amazing job with Gladys Heldman. But I was busy with my family. I felt like I had done a lot in tennis and I wanted to do something else in being with my family and having kids. That was such a big part of my life, even though I never stopped loving tennis.”
Turner Bowrey did play World TeamTennis starting in 1974 for Houston with her husband Bill, and then reached the final in doubles at the 1976 Australian Open and again at the 1978 French Open as she was winding down her playing career. Past her prime in her thirties, she remained an extraordinary player, qualifying and then reaching the round of 16 at Roland Garros in 1978, concluding her career with a loss to defending champion Virginia Wade on Wimbledon’s Centre Court that summer.
Playing her last match in that regal setting was entirely fitting. “Wimbledon gave me a wild card that year and that was the end of my career,” she recalls. “I was pretty happy about that. It was a very nice way to end it playing Virginia on the Centre Court.”
Turner was a luminous historical figure, coming along in the sixties with a cavalcade of players who advanced the women’s game immeasurably, setting the stage for Open Tennis and the Original Nine. Her era of female players— including King, Court, Jones, Bueno and Nancy Richey—was golden, diversified and consequential.
As she says, “We had a huge international group with very different personalities. It was a wonderful time to be playing then, just to see the world and play the game I absolutely love. Playing against all of those women, it was great company to be in. I suppose I was always in Margaret’s shadow and I accepted that. She was an amazing player who was so big, strong and powerful. I didn’t have that physique, so I had to find another way with my percentage tennis. I accomplished a lot more than I ever expected I would, and enjoyed my career immensely. I always gave it my best shot every match I played.”
Later, she ventured into coaching, eventually becoming Australian Fed Cup captain from 1994-2001. Turner Bowrey was exceedingly well suited to that role because as a player she was a masterful strategist with clearness of purpose, tactical acuity and total clarity of mind.
She says, “It was quite a challenge to have very seasoned players who knew what they wanted. To be a captain is not an easy job by any means but I used to say to my players, ‘Get yourself in the best possible form you can and then I will choose the players I think can win the matches.’ That was my attitude as captain and I think I was pretty successful at it.”
The years have passed and Lesley Turner Bowrey is as immersed in tennis as ever. She remains a teacher of tennis and a very happy participant as well.
As she explains, “I do some coaching and play my own tennis about three or four days a well, running around to get some exercise and just hitting some balls. Tennis is a game for a lifetime. I teach all five of my grandkids who all play well. I enjoy that and just love helping people, which is why I am still coaching. I feel very satisfied with what I have done and the ways I have tried to contribute to tennis, which is more rewarding than I can really explain.”