One of the most exciting tournaments to come to New York each year is the “Little Mo” Internationals at The West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, where the best juniors in the world come together for top-level tennis done the right way with fairness, sportsmanship and integrity. The “Little Mo” tournament is named in memory of Maureen Connolly Brinker, whose nickname was “Little Mo.” She was one of the greatest women’s tennis players of all-time.
“The ‘Little Mo’ was just for Dallas kids in the very beginning in 1977, and then it expanded into all of Texas. In 1998, the ‘Road to Little Mo Nationals’ was created, and then in 2006 it grew internationally,” said Carol Weyman, executive vice president of the Maureen Connolly Brinker Foundation, the founder and organizer of the ‘Little Mo’ series. “We didn’t believe in rankings for the kids at that young of an age, and we wanted them to be focused on having fun as the top priority. You’re going to keep doing something that’s fun, so that was our benchmark, to make sure the kids enjoyed their tennis experience. This will be our 20th anniversary of the ‘Road to Little Mo Nationals.’”
Maureen Connolly won the calendar Grand Slam in 1953, winning the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the United States Open, becoming the first woman to complete this magnificent feat. She was only 18-years-old and is still the only American to have won all four majors in the same year.
From then on, the San Diego-native, known as “Little Mo,” seemed destined for a lengthy and successful career. But in 1954, she injured her leg in a horseback riding accident which subsequently brought an end to her tennis career. After marrying Norman Brinker, the two moved to Dallas and made a commitment to giving back to the sport that had given so much to her.
“When Maureen was starting out as a junior player, the San Diego Tennis Patrons Association saw she had potential and they were able to help her out financially to travel to tournaments outside of San Diego,” said Weyman. “She started doing very well and the patrons association continued to support her for many years. Eventually, they financed her travel to the USTA Girls 18s National Grass Court Championships in Philadelphia, and that was really the beginning of her successful tennis career.”
Maureen knew from that point that if she ever had the chance to help out young players the way she was helped out in her early years, she would do so. When she was tragically diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer in 1966, she turned that dream into a reality with her friend Nancy Jeffett to found the Maureen Connolly Brinker Tennis Foundation (MCBTF) in 1968.
“It was originally a girls’ foundation with the mission of helping junior tennis development. There were plenty of opportunities for boys, but girls were just starting to be accepted into sports as this was before Title IX,” said Weyman. “To offer an opportunity for girls to play sports was perfect, especially the sport of a lifetime like tennis.”
Maureen would pass away six months later, but her spirit and mission remains the core of the foundation. The foundation began raising money by doing some charity mixed doubles tournaments around Dallas. The first tournaments raised around $700, which helped fund the travel expenses for the top girls from Texas to play in the Philadelphia tournament.
The Foundation organized a charity tournament in her honor and Billie Jean King and Virginia Wade and other top players came to the event, and the following year Virginia Slims became the title sponsor. The Virginia Slims of Dallas was the major fundraiser of the foundation for 20 years and attracted top players such as Chris Evert, Tracy Austin and Martina Navratilova. The Virginia Slims of Dallas, benefitting the MCBTF, became a fixture in the professional tennis world.
The foundation ran the tournament until 1990, when it sold the rights, and began looking ahead to its next chapter. Weyman, who came on board to be the Tournament Director of the Virginia Slims of Dallas and had not had experience in organizing junior tournaments, wanted to expand the “Little Mo” tournament, realizing that other young players around the country could benefit from the “Little Mo” experience.
“I was hoping to create something that would be goal-oriented, where players would advance first locally, then regionally, then nationally,” Weyman said. “So that was the year-long three-level circuit that we built. And then, we added the Internationals about 10 years ago to allow U.S. players to experience international competition.”
The “Little Mo” would grow to having tournaments in 17 different sections around the United States, where the top kids would advance to regionals, and from there the winners would advance to nationals.
Over the years, Weyman would continue to add new ideas to the tournaments to create excitement and make the tournaments stand out from the rest.
“One of the things we emulated from pro tennis was having Opening Ceremonies. I thought it was great to see the flags from all the different countries, and have someone singing the national anthem,” Weyman said. “We also added player parties, player gift exchanges, a player welcome packet and goodie bags with t-shirts and other items.”
While the tournaments brought the best junior players in the world together, at the heart of its mission was still sportsmanship and kindness, two character traits for which Maureen Connolly Brinker was known.
“Sportsmanship is way more important than wins or losses. It is how you carry yourself on the court, your attitude, kindness, character, being fair on the court … this is what matters,” said Weyman. “It comes down to being the best person you can be, not only on the court, but off the court in life as well.”
Today, players at the “Little Mo” tournaments are given “Mo Coins” by the umpires for good sportsmanship and kindness as a way to incentivize good behavior, which they can exchange for prizes during the event.
The “Little Mo” Internationals are played in California, Florida and New York, and if a player is able to win all three tournaments, they win the “Little Mo” Slam and receive a six-foot trophy, the tallest in junior tennis. This special trophy was created in honor of Maureen’s Grand Slam win in 1953.
“We thought giving out the trophy would be a one-year award, but it became so popular we decided to continue the tradition.”
There have been six winners so far.
And that is really what the “Little Mo” is all about: Continuing to add new components to keep the tournaments exciting and make sure the junior players are enjoying the sport.
Over the years, the tournament has seen its fair share of players go on to successful pro careers, including Andy Roddick, Madison Keys, CiCi Bellis, Ryan Harrison and Belinda Bencic. The “Little Mo” Internationals has become one of the favorite tournaments for junior players, and it returns to New York once again later this summer for the sixth time at The West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills from August 21-26.
“It’s great for the kids to be a part of the Forest Hills history, and being right before the U.S. Open, the kids can go see the qualifying rounds and Arthur Ashe Kids Day,” said Weyman.
What started as a means to get kids on the court and take part in the sport of a lifetime has turned into an event that teaches lessons which can be brought far beyond the court. Through the sport of tennis, the “Little Mo” aims to continually shape youngsters beyond the net, instilling traits such as kindness and sportsmanship that can be carried for the rest of their lives.
For more information and to register for the “Little Mo” Internationals in New York, please visit MCBTennis.org.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org