Grandson recalls Hazel Wightman, Olympic gold medalist and tennis legend
With historical photos, books and articles in the background Sandy Harlow of Lake Forest holds a trophy his grandmother Hazel Wightman won playing tennis. Hazel won two gold medals in the Olympics in 1924. | Michael Schmidt~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 13, 2012 7:04AM
LAKE FOREST -- Back in 1924, the Summer Olympics in Paris featured mixed doubles.
Afterward, the event was dropped. But when the torch is lit in London to signal the opening of the 2012 Games on July 27, mixed doubles will be contested after a nearly century-long absence.
The woman who holds the last gold medal in mixed doubles is Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman, who played with Dick Williams – a survivor of the 1912 Titanic disaster. Her grandson, Sandy Harlow -- a long-time Lake Forest resident who recently moved to Maryland -- remembered the woman who captured national tennis titles into her 60s.
“She had a bang board in her garage. She would hit it against the board 100 times in a row and challenge you to do the same thing,” Harlow recalled. “She played at a high level, so it was hard on my cousins and I growing up. Her expectations were high.”
Born in California during the late 19th century along with four brothers, Wightman learned quickly she needed to keep up with fierce competitors. And Harlow noted she learned the game not on grass, clay or asphalt -- but on gravel.
“ That’s why she became a great volleyer – she wouldn’t have to chase the ball as much,” Harlow said.
As Wightman recounted in “First Lady of Tennis: Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman” by Tom Carter, “I wasn’t contaminated by some teacher telling me just how to do it …I just learned to do what I needed to do to make it successful, to make the ball go where I wanted it to go.”
By 1924, the stout Wightman was a legend in women’s tennis, having earned a number of national championships before World War I. She had also donated the Wightman Cup, a ladies’ version of the Davis Cup, contested between the United States and Great Britain. Before traveling to the Paris Olympics, she won the Wimbledon doubles title with Helen Wills in an era when women played in skirts down to their ankles.
At the Paris Olympics, the 37-year-old nabbed two gold medals -- one in the mixed doubles and one in the ladies doubles with Wills. She said the Olympics was her biggest career thrill among dozens of championships -- including 17 Grand Slams -- in singles, ladies doubles and mixed doubles (the mother of five also earned national squash and national badminton titles).
Though an Olympics in Paris may sound glamorous, the tennis venue was anything but. Set in Colombes – “a dusty manufacturing district dotted with dirty cafes and grimy buildings”as Wills recounted in her autobiography – that was far from the only obstacle for Wightman. Her mixed doubles partner Williams was severely injured. In the finals, he would plant himself at the net or in the backcourt before a point started, and he could only move one step after that. Wightman hustled everywhere, and they won 6-2, 6-3.
In “First Lady of Tennis,” Williams said, “On several days only the umpire showed up and the line judges had to be recruited from patrons in the stands. I was on edge the entire tournament, but nothing bothered Hazel.”
She was devoted to tennis her entire life, which was principally spent in the Boston area.
‘Hearing her voice’
“She’d give a free tennis lesson to anyone who knocked on her door,” Harlow said. “I remember I went to Longwood (Cricket Club), and I couldn’t find her. But I kept hearing her voice. She was the net judge. Every time the service hit it, she’d say “Net.”’
Thanks to his grandmother’s tennis prowess, Harlow was able to meet Billie Jean King and Althea Gibson growing up because they stayed at Wightman’s house during tournaments at Longwood. She also championed Arthur Ashe. Recalled Harlow, “Whenever he played at Longwood, she’d bring him cookies.”
In fact, her grandson enjoys memories of Wightman involving food.
“I remember eating peppermint stick ice cream there in the afternoon. When you’re 8, you’re in heaven,” Harlow said.
Even as she neared death at 87, she refused to relent to age. A Sports Illustrated article by Janice Kaplan notes how she met Wightman as a teen and, somehow, the tennis pro who had apologized for not having enough energy to sit up somehow lifted herself out of bed to show Kaplan how to play:
“Follow me, dear,” she said, and with a crutch in one hand, and a tennis racket and cane in the other, hobbled outside. We walked toward the garage where so many young pros had practiced, and there was urgency in her voice as she began to expound her doctrines of the game. “Here’s the first principle of tennis.” she said. “It’s your thinking that counts most. Forty-love is no lead unless you think so.”
Wightman’s accomplishments continued even after her death in 1974. Sixteen years later, she became the first tennis player ever featured on U.S. Postal Service stamp. And it is expected she will be honored posthumously during the 2012 Olympic tournament at the All-England Club, also the site of her Wimbledon triumph.
But the whereabouts of her two Olympic gold medals is unknown.
“It’s been a mystery,” Harlow said. “Her house was full of silver trophies.”