Long faded now from world view, Pauline Betz Addie
once paved the way for women’s tennis as a professional sport
and understood the secret of transforming her losses into triumph, too
By Rob Arner
In the late 1940s, the world’s best woman tennis player was not allowed to play tennis.
On the newswires they called her “Pretty Pauline Betz.” She knew the rich and the famous. She competed on the tennis circuit in Monaco, visited with the likes of heiress Barbara Hutton in Switzerland, and drew press notices in Paris. But she hailed from more humble circumstances, having learned to play tennis in public parks, not country clubs. Within days of winning her first American championship at Forest Hills in 1942, she had been back waiting tables in her college town. Now, five years later, as an amateur – the only real venue for female tennis stars at the time – she could still play for no more than glory and her expenses. And for merely speaking out about earning a fair wage, for entertaining the notion of making some money on an exhibition tour of the United States, she was banned from play by the United States Lawn Tennis Association.
But Pauline Betz Addie – soon to be her married name – was never one to shrink from difficulty. Her string of firsts was far from over in 1947, and she turned that turbulent period into a pioneering one for women in professional sports.
In her heyday, Pauline captured 19 national titles. She played in six consecutive Forest Hills tournament finals – now called the U.S. Open. She starred in four U.S. Indoor Finals, and she won in singles, doubles and mixed doubles at tournaments in 1941 and 1943. In the years when she could have been playing at Wimbledon, World War II kept the world’s most celebrated tennis tournament from taking place. In the meantime, she caused a sensation in 1943 by winning 48 straight points – a perfect match – in the Tri-State Championship Singles Final. She finally did get her chance to play at Wimbledon after the war, in 1946. She won that, too, not losing a single set.
That was the same year she captured her last U.S. Open and appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. But then in 1947, because of her unwavering stance that she would tour as a paid professional, she was kicked out of the existing world of tournament tennis altogether.
What was so different back then was the difficulty faced by players who lacked deep pockets of their own. Six decades ago, there was no prize money in tennis. There were no lucrative product endorsements. And there were no clothing allowances, just free hotel rooms, handshakes and trophies. If Pauline bought a pair of tennis shoes on the road, she might have to sleep in the car that night to balance her lean finances. The day after winning Wimbledon in 1946, she was paid $12 dollars for room and board and given a $5-dollar per diem by the United States Lawn and Tennis Association to go play in Sweden.
Not to be stopped by her expulsion from the world of amateur tennis, she would eventually go on to become the top-ranked female professional tennis player and barnstorm the country along with such male stars as Bobby Riggs, Don Budge, and Jack Kramer. And while other female competitors on the tour would arrive on the day of play in a limousine, Pauline would show up earlier, riding hundreds of miles in the equipment truck to arrive early enough to get in a round of golf before playing tennis for the crowds. She was an undefeated woman’s professional from 1947-1960.
She would also make headlines during that time as the first female pro at one of the Washington, D.C., area’s oldest tennis clubs – in Bethesda’s Edgemoor neighborhood. And while she taught tennis to prominent celebrities in her day – including Spencer Tracy, whom she had once dated – she also taught thousands of ordinary people to play. In fact, she taught tennis at schools and clubs throughout the Washington area for almost a half a century.
The qualities that would make her a great teacher were evident from her years as a star, and even before.
When she was nine years old, she received her first tennis racket, purchased at a second-hand shop. The next morning, her neighbors were awakened at dawn by the thwack of a tennis ball against a garage door. Even though that first racket was hardly first class, Pauline went on to become a first-class champion through a combination of talent and true grit. Along the way she had to deal with a high school coach who thought she wasn’t good enough for the team, citing a cramped forehand. By the time she got to college – Rollins, in Florida – she as not only playing for the school, but playing with the men’s team.
She did not let stardom interfere with a deep kindness and genuine humility that balanced her fierce desire to win. Often on tour she would share her better class of quarters with some of the lesser players. And while working as tennis pro, she held on just as fiercely to her roles as wife and mother. Her routine years back was to get up before dawn to do the laundry and ironing and then complete a few other chores around her home before heading off to teach five hours of tennis lessons. Then she might be off to play 18 holes of golf, and there could be several rounds of bridge in the evening.
I have known Pauline since I was a boy – almost 40 years now – and her energy and tireless grace have been a constant theme. When she was teaching me to play tennis, I never imagined that she would be my dear friend as an adult or that I would also serve, for a time, as the tennis pro at the Edgemoor Club. And as time has passed, she has continued to teach by example.
Years ago when I worked as tennis pro at the Palm Beach Polo Club, she came to visit me there one day. We played tennis and golf, took polo and croquet lessons, and finished the day with a swim, dinner and movie. And in the middle of that, she even subbed for me on the tennis court, teaching my private lessons – over the objections of the other pros.
I have played a lot of tennis in the last four decades, but two of my most memorable doubles matches were with Pauline. The first was at the White House. We played in the middle of one of those blistering summer days for which Washington is so famous. Across the net from us were two formidable players, one a top administration official and the other a ranked college player. We won, easily, but I was drenched with sweat and so were the other two men. But Pauline, then almost 70, finished the match with her attire still dry.
A year latter I had an even greater tennis experience with Pauline – my most memorable, in fact. We played the then-current Edgemoor club pro and a friend, winning 24 straight points – a perfect set.
Her love of a game seemed to know no bounds. She used to play ping pong exhibitions, effortlessly, with the male world champion table tennis player. As a Grand Master bridge player, she possesses a power of concentration that still amazes me.
We have worked together at soup kitchens. I have watched her work on cars. She even did tax returns part time for H&R Block, including mine. I have lived, traveled and been part of her family. She has always been modest, and she reflects how grateful she is for all that life and tennis have blessed her with.
Pauline helped blaze the trail for woman’s professional tennis. She has influenced literally thousands of tennis players through her example and set a standard that all tennis players can emulate. She taught me, too, about embracing life with tireless passion, kindness and poise. Billy Jean King said years back, when both were being honored, “Give the best to the world you can!” Pauline Betz did just that. She went beyond winning and losing, fully engaging in whatever she did.
Many times Pauline would say to me, “You never know what good is and what bad is.” Her example has allowed me to learn that my defeats also serve to teach. I have come to appreciate the benefits that come from loss. I see now that real grace involves overcoming life’s adversity, pushing past failure until you succeed.
Pauline’s focus has always been a quest for excellence, and in that spirit she has promoted tennis as a wonderful game for life. No matter what the odds, she would make the difficult seem effortless, and even more so when the chips were down. And all the while, her fierce competitive spirit has been partnered with a humble, self-deprecating humor. Largely forgotten now in the blaze of attention focused on today’s tennis celebrities, Pauline deserves tribute as a trail blazer in tennis, a role model for modern women, and a teacher in the truest sense of the word. I always call Pauline by her nickname, Champ, which suits her so well. She embodies what I hold most dear about tennis, and life.