Cilly Aussem, German champion that came before Kerber
After winning her first two Grand Slam titles at this year’s Australian and US Opens, might Angelique Kerber make Wimbledon her major target in 2017? The new world No.1, who replaced Serena Williams at the top of the rankings this week following her triumph in New York, was beaten by the American in this year’s Ladies’ Singles final at The Championships, where she has regularly proved her grass-court prowess, having also reached the semi-finals in 2012 and the quarter-finals in 2014.
If Kerber were to win the title at the All England Club, she would become just the third German woman to do so. Steffi Graf lifted the Venus Rosewater Dish seven times (in 1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995 and 1996), but the only other German Ladies champion was Cilly Aussem, who beat her fellow countrywoman, Hilde Krahwinkel, 6-2, 7-5 in the final in 1931. It is the only Ladies’ Singles final at The Championships to be contested by two players from the same country other than those finals featuring Britons, Americans or Australians.
Aussem did not enjoy a long career and was regularly sidelined by injury or illness. Born in Cologne in 1909, she was the daughter of a successful businessman and a domineering and ambitious mother, who encouraged her to take up tennis. Cilly’s talent was not particularly evident at first, but developed quickly under the coaching of Willy Hanneman.
Petite and graceful, Aussem was sometimes described as a dancer on the court, but she was a good athlete with a sound temperament and developed a powerful forehand as she grew older. She always showed great sportsmanship and was popular throughout the game.
Her most successful year, in 1931, came after Bill Tilden, 21 times a Grand Slam champion, started coaching her.
Aussem and her mother had first met the American while on holiday in the south of France. Aussem’s mother was a formidable woman, who once became involved in a courtside fight with one of Cilly’s rivals after accusing her of hypnotising her daughter.
At the age of 15 Aussem became German junior champion and in 1927, at the age of 17, she claimed her national senior title. At 18 she made her debut at The Championships, losing to Britain’s Betty Nuthall in the second round, having had a bye in the first. She reached the quarter-finals in 1928, the fourth round in 1929 and the semi-finals in 1930, only for misfortune to strike.
During her semi-final against Elizabeth Ryan, Aussem stepped back and trod on a ball at 4-4 in the deciding set. The injury she suffered was so painful that she momentarily lost consciousness. She was forced to retire and also had to pull out of the mixed doubles, in which she and Tilden had been the favourites after winning the titles that summer in France and Austria.
The injury kept Aussem off the court for several months and did not help with her physical issues. She had liver problems, went down with appendicitis and suffered with her eyes, which were so sensitive that she sometimes spent hours in a darkened room before going out to play.
However, by the summer of 1931 Aussem was fit and well again. She won the French title at Roland Garros, overcoming Nuthall in the final, and breezed through her early matches at The Championships, beating France’s Jacqueline Goldschmidt and Arlette Neufeld and Egypt’s E Alexandroff in straight sets. Considering that the draws in those days were dominated by home players, it was odd that Aussem did not meet one British player in that year’s competition.
Switzerland’s Lolette Payot and France’s Simone Mathieu took sets off Aussem in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively before the German faced her compatriot, Krahwinkel, in the final. Both players were no doubt grateful that Helen Wills Moody was not defending the title she had won in each of the previous four years.
Krahwinkel was a year older than Aussem but a late developer. She went on to win the title at Roland Garros three years in succession, in 1935, 1936 and 1937, and played in another Wimbledon final, losing 2-6, 6-4, 7-5 to Helen Jacobs in 1936, by which time she was representing Denmark as Hilde Sperling, having married a Dane. In 1933 she won the mixed doubles at The Championships alongside Gottfried von Cramm.
In 1931, however, Aussem was the more experienced player and won a marathon final 6-2, 7-5. With both players suffering from blisters, it was a long and sometimes tedious match, but Aussem held firm to take the title.
Aussem’s health problems increased after she fell ill with a liver infection during a trip to Argentina and Brazil in 1931 and 1932. In 1933 she pulled out of The
Championships because a doctor was concerned that she had been losing weight. She played at The Championships for the last time in 1934, losing to Jacobs in the quarter-finals, and retired the following year at the age of 25.
Having married Count Murari dalla Corte Bra, an Italian aristocrat, in 1936, Aussem spent most of the rest of her life in Italy, though the couple also lived for two years in Somalia, where she contracted malaria, which eventually left her almost blind. She died in 1963 at the age of 54 following liver surgery.
•Culled from www.wimbledon.com
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