Louise Brough, an enduring champion
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, USTA.com’s Steve Flink—himself a Hall of Famer—takes 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, he looks at Louise Brough (Class of 1967), a prolific American champion of the 1940s and 1950s, who captured 35 major titles in her outstanding career.
She competed on tennis’ premier stages in relative obscurity long before the arrival of Open Tennis in 1968, displaying her considerable gifts for the game in an era when tennis was not nearly as popular as it would soon become. Pursuing her goals with quiet dignity and unmistakable professionalism in the amateur era, Louise Brough was irrefutably one of the most undervalued female tennis players the United States has ever produced. An aggressive practitioner who shaped her game to keep moving forward when three of the four majors were played on grass, Brough was much heralded for her craftiness, match-playing acumen and versatility. She attacked relentlessly, made her presence known comprehensively at the net, and developed strikingly sound technique on the volley.
Lost in the shadows of history by too many observers, Brough achieved prolifically in all forums of the game. Altogether, she captured no fewer than 35 major titles in singles (6), women’s doubles (21), and mixed doubles (8) across the 1940’s and on through the 1950’s. Her partnership alongside Margaret Osborne duPont was simply magnificent; they won 20 Grand Slam tournament titles together, most notably 12 U.S. National Championships crowns— including nine in a row from 1942-50. No wonder so many in the tennis cognoscenti rank Brough among the top ten doubles players of all time.
In 2002, about a dozen years before she passed away at the age of 90, I interviewed Brough for a story in Tennis Week magazine. She was enormously appealing, sprinkling the conversation with understated humor, remarkable candor and a balanced view of herself that few players of stature ever exhibit. She was prideful yet willing to address her vulnerabilities, confident but quite clearly not arrogant, and able to examine her life without looking through rose tinted lenses.
By the time Brough was moving through the end of her teens and heading into her twenties, she was coming into her own as a competitor. In both 1942 and 1943, she reached the final of the U.S. National Championships at Forest Hills, losing on both occasions in hard fought, three-set confrontations with countrywoman Pauline Betz. But in 1947, more seasoned and sophisticated as a player, increasingly aware of what it took to succeed at a major, she secured her first Grand Slam title back at Forest Hills, upending duPont in a three-set final.
That set the stage for Brough to take three singles titles in a row at the All England Club from 1948-50 as she accounted for Doris Hart in the first of those Wimbledon finals and then defeated duPont in the 1949 and 1950 title-round contests. She would win three of her four Grand Slam singles finals against duPont. They were such good friends that competing against each other was burdensome for both women. They much preferred being on the same side of the net claiming doubles titles together.
As Brough explained, “It was different playing Margaret than playing the other gals. Margaret and I were very close friends. There was a certain amount of competitive tension when we played, but I wouldn’t have killed myself if I had lost to Margaret, while I would have been very unhappy losing to Doris Hart or Pat Todd.”
Brough’s genuine appreciation of duPont was readily apparent as we spoke. She continued, “Margaret was just too nice. She never complained, never criticized officials if there were bad calls, never got upset. My coach had always told me not to get too friendly with the other gals because it would affect my game. So I always tried to think of some reason why I was angry with them, something that gave me more impetus to beat them. But I never had to feel that way with Margaret. She was a great help to me. When we were playing Wimbledon, people would call us and ask us for tickets, and she was the one who always answered the phone and made the arrangements.”
The doubles partners had some spectacular skirmishes in singles. One standout clash was their 1949 final-round duel at Wimbledon which Brough took 10-8, 1-6, 10-8. Osborne duPont served for the match at 6-5 in the final set and reached 30-0 in the twelfth game, standing two points from victory. But Brough found a way to turn the tables and rallied commendably for one of her most gratifying victories. The following year, she stopped Osborne duPont 6-1, 3-6, 6-1 in the Wimbledon final.
But perhaps one of Brough’s most painful setbacks was her loss to Osborne duPont in the 1948 Forest Hills final. She was beaten 4-6, 6-4, 15-13 in an exacting New York encounter neither woman would ever forget.
Brough had a match point at 6-5 in the final set on that occasion but could not seal the verdict. That showdown was twice delayed by rain. Brough’s dress became so wet that tournament officials felt they had to remedy the situation. As Louise explained, “That was terrible. I perspired profusely, plus it was raining. I know they felt like I could not go out and play the rest of that match in that wet dress, so they took it back to the clubhouse to iron it and that took a long time. The officials were pacing around and I thought I was going to be defaulted. I remember rushing to put the dress back on and then later having that match point before losing.”
It was agonizing for the two close friends to play matches like that 1948 final at Forest Hills, knowing that one of them would be exhilarated while the other was dejected. But in doubles they were an unbreakable unit, handling victory and defeat with equanimity. They succeeded endlessly together and rarely were beaten. They lost only twice in 14 years of competing together at their country’s Championships. They must be considered one of the top five female partnerships of all time.
Brough was delighted with what they accomplished. She mused, “I needed to feel some kind of connection with my partner. That is how I felt with Margaret. She just kept plugging away. She played the forehand court, and could move from a chop to a drive off her forehand. Our opponents were running into the net and they had a hard time handling it. I missed more shots than Margaret did, but we played very well together for a long time.”
In singles or doubles, no matter where she went, Brough put herself under intense pressure to keep living up to the highest of standards. “It meant a lot to me not to lose,” she said. “When you have won a few titles, you have a certain amount of pride and you don’t want to lose. That is what kept Margaret and I going in doubles. I always thought that I could play to win but, later on, after so many challenges, I felt like I had to win every point and not lose. That got to be a real stress thing for me.”
That strain of wanting to win so badly became a source of growing anxiety for Brough, which made her last singles win at Wimbledon in 1955 was so emotionally rewarding. Brough was 32 and many learned observers felt she was no longer capable of competing at the loftiest levels of the game in singles, but she proved the critics wrong and took that title with steely resolve.
“I wasn’t as capable at the net by then,” said Brough. “Fred Perry came up to me and said ‘Where did you develop those ground strokes?’ When I played Beverly Baker Fleitz in the final, we were warming up and I was hitting volleys but I just couldn’t get ready for the ball. So I felt I better stay at the back of the court and not miss. That was a terrific win for me, one of the nicest I can remember.”
The hard years of playing in the upper levels of the game for so long were taking a considerable toll on Brough. She reached her last major singles final at Forest Hills in 1957 and lost to Althea Gibson. As she spoke about that final stretch of her career during our conversation in 2002, Brough conveyed that she believed she might have hung around the sport longer than she should have,
Brough said, “You know when you have had it. You can’t face getting up and practicing for hours, keeping in shape and getting ready for all of those matches. It is a routine that wears on you. When I went back to defend my title at Wimbledon in 1956, I was not even in half the shape that I should have been. I lost to Shirley Fry in the semifinals. When I got to that 1957 final at the U.S. Nationals against Althea at Forest Hills, by that time I was throwing the ball up on my serve a couple of times before I could get it right, and I was kind of a nervous wreck.”
And yet, she confronted the issues of moving past her prime with admirable grace and extraordinary self-awareness. In 1958, she got married to a dentist with whom she lived in California until his death in 2000. Brough remained in California until she passed away in 2014. She played some senior tournaments in the 1970’s and won a couple of national titles, taught the game to recreational players, and followed big time tennis from afar on television.
Brough was an unabashed admirer of Serena Williams. After watching Serena beat her sister Venus in the 2002 US Open final, she said, “The way Serena came out in that final was fantastic. I like her game and am very impressed with her. She is a showman, an actor and a great tennis player. She loves these crowds and all of the hubbub. Serena has really got something and she and her sister are wonderful players.”
Honorable to her core and glad she came along when the sport was more obscure and the surroundings more intimate, Louise Brough felt no remorse about not playing professionally and missing the opportunity to reap immense financial rewards. As she told me in 2002, “I can’t regret it. It would have been nice to pile up the millions of dollars, but I am comfortable and I don’t have to worry about money. I am still in the same nice house I have lived in for a long time and able to walk over to the tennis courts nearby if I want to. I am very satisfied with my life.”