A queen who ruled with panache

A queen who ruled with panache

STYLE AND SUbSTANCE Maria Bueno with the Rio Olympic torch in Sao Paulo two years ago. Bueno, nicknamed ‘The Tennis Ballerina’, was one of the most elegant and successful players of her era. AP/ PTI

Maria Bueno, the Brazilian “queen” of tennis who passed away in Sao Paulo on Friday, was known for her artistic play that fetched her three Wimbledon and four US championship singles titles.

Bueno, who was 78, had been suffering from mouth cancer since last year and was hospitalised in May.

Nicknamed the “Sao Paulo Swallow” for her ability to dominate the net, Bueno was a teen prodigy despite having no formal coaching, according to the International Hall of Fame, which she entered in 1978.

She swept the Brazilian scene, then the Caribbean circuit, and grabbed international attention by winning the Italian Championships in 1958, beating the best English and Australian players.

That same year she went on to win the Wimbledon doubles alongside American Althea Gibson. And although she once told reporters “I’m afraid of everyone I play,” her glory days were only just beginning.

Bueno’s death dominated Brazilian Twitter on Friday night, with tributes pouring in. Brazilian President Michel Temer, writing on his official account, said Bueno “will always be remembered as the number one of tennis in the hearts of all Brazilians.”

On and off the court, Bueno “always showed a lot of fight,” Brazilian tennis player Bia Haddad said.

“She was a pioneer in our country, where few people knew the sport and at a time when everything was much more difficult,” said tennis player Thomaz Bellucci.

“A very sad day for sports. Brazil and the world lost a true tennis legend,” tweeted the International Olympic Committee. 

Known for her stylishness and her exciting way of playing, she was the first South American woman to win the Wimbledon singles title. One tennis writer, John Barrett, called her “the elegant queen of Brazilian tennis.”

In “Tennis Encyclopedia,” Bud Collins described her as “the incomparably balletic and flamboyant Bueno”. Collins described her beautiful volleying besides her boldness and panache.

Her one major title of the open era, when big tournaments opened to professionals, was the 1968 US Open doubles alongside Australian legend Margaret Court. Another doubles partner was Billie Jean King, with whom she won the Wimbledon title in 1965.

“In my era, tennis was totally amateur. I’d only take two racquets to a tournament and the prize for winning Wimbledon was a £15 voucher,” she said in a 2015 interview with YouTube channel Esporte Ponto Final. “But through sport, I got things that money can’t buy. I even met the pope and Princess Diana.”

King, who beat Bueno in the 1966 Wimbledon final and later helped start a women’s professional tennis tour, said the Brazilian was one of the players that made tennis less of a men’s game.

“Maria was a big star who caught the interest of the fans at a time when the men took centre-stage. She helped lay the groundwork for what was to come. She deserves to be recognised,” King told Bueno’s website in 2009.

Bueno said men were key to her game. “It was only because I trained with men that I developed my speed. People said I looked effortless, but that was from training with guys.”

World number one in 1959, 1960, 1964 and 1966, Bueno won 19 Grand Slam titles. These included Wimbledon singles titles in 1959, 1960 and 1964, and the US National Championship -- the precursor to today’s US Open -- in 1959, 1963, 1964 and 1966.

She also got to the finals of the French championship in 1964 and the Australian in 1965. Bueno’s career took a downturn as the Open era started in 1968 because of arm and leg injuries. But she returned to tennis years later and won her final tournament at the Japan Open in 1974.

Bueno was a consultant for several years for Sportv and commented on matches with Gustavo “Guga” Kuerten, the other Brazilian tennis legend. Bueno also had an interest in fashion and played in dresses tailored by English couturier Ted Tinling.

Always smiling in her television appearances, Bueno continued playing until last year, when she was stricken by disease.