Suffolk tennis ace Christine Truman remembers the day she contested Wimbledon final
- Credit: Archant
Christine Truman made her Wimbledon debut at 16 and won the French tennis championships at 18.
Still playing in Suffolk, she tells Steven Russell about walking onto Centre Court to contest a Wimbledon final and the battle to get young people hooked today.
When Serena Williams won the French Open three weeks ago, she received about £1,278,000. Give or take. When teenager Christine Truman triumphed at the same Stade Roland Garros in 1959 – actor Yul Brynner among the spectators – she received £40.
In expenses, really, for this was still the era of the amateur – even though the skills were out of the top drawer.
That £40 wasn’t just for the 6-4, 7-5 win over Hungarian Zsuzsa Körmöczy on the last day of May, either. For a halcyon few weeks, the 18-year-old Brit had been queen of the courts, taking the Italian and Swiss titles before conquering Paris.
What does she think about today’s mind-boggling prize money for the superstars? Does she ever wish she’d been born 30 years later?
“It’s a wonder,” she says. “They’re so lucky, aren’t they? It’s just odd, though. Amanda played a bit on the tour” – Christine’s younger daughter was once Britain’s number two – “and you could hardly make ends meet.”
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Apart from the memories, Christine does have a physical souvenir of that incredible day at Roland Garros. She goes to fetch it.
While I wait, I glance at the LP on top of the record player of the house in Aldeburgh where she and husband Gerry Janes have lived for 18 years. Hollywood Cha Cha Cha, by Edmundo Ros and His Orchestra – released by Decca in that momentous year of 1959. Coincidence or what?
Christine returns to the conservatory with a cardboard box. In it is a teeny-tiny replica trophy she received back then, “which is funny when compared to what they have now”, she smiles. “I wouldn’t mind if it were even big!”
Not that she’s losing sleep over it. Christine – once named Britain’s happiest person after an economist came up with a formula and crunched the data – is a cheery soul with a keen sense of humour, and is grateful for the fun and success she’s had.
One of six children, she was born in 1941 and grew up in Woodford Green, Essex. Her parents had met at a tennis club and, after the war, were lent a tennis net by friends. It was put up in the garden.
Some of the Truman children went on to have lessons from Essex coach Herbert Brown. That’s how Christine started, with a half-hour session. “I lived for that. I’d made up my mind at 10 or 11. That was what I wanted to be, a tennis player, and I was lucky I had the chance to do it.”
In those days there were many tournaments held in England, where those with potential could gain valuable match-play and hone their talents. Suffolk was on that circuit. Christine won at Framlingham and Bury St Edmunds, for instance.
By then the county had become a firm favourite with the family. Her parents had come to Suffolk first in 1948, to Thorpeness, when looking for somewhere to take their large brood on holiday. Friends suggested this slightly surreal holiday village, with big houses to rent and plenty for the children to do, what with its country club, tennis courts and the mere.
By the time we get to Paris in 1959, above, Christine is pretty much a star. It might still be an amateur sport, but Slazenger is supplying her rackets and shoes, and her dresses are being made for the British junior champion of 1956 and 1957.
ITN, which aired about two minutes of footage of the French final, said Christine must now be considered a favourite for the Wimbledon title. She’s actually the top seed that summer at SW19. It’s hardly surprising.
In 1957, a debutante, she’d been a semi-finalist, beaten by eventual champion Althea Gibson. In 1958 she went out in the fourth round, but it was a great year. She caused a sensation by beating Gibson in the Wightman Cup, helping bring the crown back to Britain after 21 consecutive defeats by the US.
In 1959, at Wimbledon, The Sydney Morning Herald’s corresponent dubs her the Fair Giant. (She’s 6ft 1in.)
Christine and teenage Brazilian Maria Bueno, a teacher, “play cold, unforgiving tennis like men”.
Herbert Brown, meanwhile, tells the paper: “Christine is really two people. On the courts she is a killer; off the courts a sweet, charming and unsophisticated girl.”
There’s no fairy-tale ending. Christine goes out in the fourth round. Later that year, though, she reaches the final of the US National Championships at Forest Hills in New York, the forerunner of the US Open. The following year, she loses her Wimbledon semi-final to Bueno. Then, 1961 at the All England Lawn Tennis Club brings something special. It’s an all-British final in the ladies’ singles: Christine against Angela Mortimer.
For a long time it looks as if the 20-year-old from Essex, the darling of the crowd, will give them what they want. She goes a set and 4-3 up. Then she slips, reigniting an Achilles injury, loses concentration because of the fall, and goes down 6-4 4-6 5-7. So near.
Christine received lots of sympathy, including boxes of chocolates sent by well-wishers and 2,000 or so letters of commiseration. There was a telegram from Sir Winston Churchill.
There won’t ever be another Wimbledon final appearance for her, though she does reach the semis in 1965; and there’s another semi in France.
Christine acknowledges her best years were between the ages of 16 and 21. “I never really regained that. I was never again in the 110% zone of concentration/dedication as I was then.”
Why? “Because I met boyfriends! I was engaged at 21. Absolutely mad thing one does. And unengaged at 22. Tennis doesn’t thrive on that. There’s only ever so little between you and (players ranked) nine, 10 and 11. Once you lose that, you become 10, 11 or 12.”
She says there’s a knack about winning and being on a roll – something ethereal. “You almost feel you will, somehow, win. And then, of course, you go down the other way, and I had some bad losses.”
I can’t imagine what it’s like playing in a Wimbledon final.
“Well, people always ask what it’s like to walk out on Centre Court, but because a lot of my training was at Wimbledon and at The Queen’s Club with Dan Maskell (a player turned coach turned broadcaster) from the age of 12 to 14. He actually took me onto the centre court several times after we’d finished practising.
“He’d say ‘I just want you to feel the grass beneath your feet, Christine, because one day you’ll play here.’ Apart from being very inspiring, it seemed possible that I could do that.
“I’d go through the doors – ‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster/And treat those two imposters just the same’ (the lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem are above the players’ exit) – and he’d open the doors and say ‘This is where you’ll walk through’, and I so wanted to do it. So wanted to do it.
“When I was 16 and went out at Wimbledon for the first time... Wow! It was ‘I’ve been waiting for this’, rather than ‘Oh, it’s too much pressure’.”
Of her halcyon days, she reflects: “I had an amazing innings in those five years. I didn’t winter in this country. I won the Australian doubles (with Bueno); I was a semi-finalist in Australia.
“I packed an awful lot in.”
In 1967 she married Gerry Janes, who’d played rugby for Wasps, and the first of their four children arrived in 1970. Christine says she “sort of petered out”, tennis-wise, in the middle of that decade. “I know I played Martina Navratilova in her first Wimbledon. (Christine lost 1-6 4-6.) I could tell straight away she was something special. She was fast, she was powerful, she was good!”
In 1974 she reached the third round, where defeat to fellow Brit Lesley Charles closed the box on an unforgettable record at the spiritual home of tennis.
Christine was a Wimbledon-time fixture on BBC radio for 34 years and is still heavily involved in the game. She plays at Aldeburgh, has run a weekly tennis-cum-coffee morning at Thorpeness for 18 years and organises junior coaching sessions. She and Amanda are running some tennis camps this September, too.
She says “I’m very bad now… especially the ladies on a Friday, they’ve realised that, actually, at my age I don’t get any quicker and I make mistakes”, but she’s invariably the best player when she takes to a court.
The family link with Suffolk had strengthened when the advent of package holidays dented demand at Thorpeness and some houses there were sold.
Christine’s parents bought one in 1967 and continued coming for holidays, and Christine would then bring her own children.
When her mother and father died, “for the first time ever I had some money and decided we’d put it into a cottage up here”. In 1984 she and Gerry bought a three-bedroom cottage in Aldeburgh – for £21,000 – and would come up for Christmas, Easter and summer. “We were very lucky,” she says.
When Gerry retired, they spent three years in Woodford. The house they’re in now had just been build and they moved up permanently 18 years ago.
If the magic existed, would she like to trade her era for the modern tennis scene?
“I’d love to see what it was like. The only thing is that I would not want to have started at (the age of) three, four, five, six, seven. I think starting, as I did, at nine or 10, you know more about what you want to do. I wouldn’t change that.”