Margaret Osborne duPont won 37 Grand Slam titles, a total bettered among women only by Margaret Court, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and Serena Williams. How many more might she have won if she had not lost some of her best years to the Second World War, been a more regular visitor to The Championships and Roland Garros and made even the occasional appearance in Australia?
DuPont, who was born 100 years ago this week, won six Grand Slam singles titles, including Wimbledon in 1947, but her forte was doubles. The American won five ladies’ doubles titles at The Championships, three in Paris and a remarkable 13 at her home Grand Slam event. One of the few players to win Grand Slam tournaments as a mother, she claimed the last of her 10 mixed doubles titles at The Championships in 1962 at the age of 44.
The post-war years were a period of domination by American women. With DuPont, Louise Brough, Doris Hart and Maureen Connolly leading the way, each of the first 10 post-war finals at The Championships were all-American affairs. When Brazil’s Maria Bueno triumphed in 1959 she was the first non-American ladies’ singles champion at the All England Club for 22 years.
Brough, who won 20 doubles Grand Slam titles alongside DuPont, was probably the better singles player, but her partner was one of the all-time greats in doubles. Like many of the best Americans of her era, DuPont was an attacking player who loved to get into the net, though there was much more to her game than her sweetly struck volleys.
She was a great tactician with a wonderful touch, which helped her to outmanoeuvre opponents with her clever lobs and variations of spin and pace. She was also a fine athlete who was admired throughout the sport for her grace and sportsmanship, though that did not get in the way of her competitive spirit. She won two of her Grand Slam singles titles after saving match points in finals, against Pauline Betz in Paris in 1946 and against Brough in New York two years later.
Margaret Osborne was born in Joseph, Oregon into a farming family. She enjoyed sport from an early age but did not take up tennis until she was nine after the family moved to Washington and then to San Francisco. She was US junior champion in 1936 and won her first Grand Slam title in 1941 at the age of 23 when she partnered Sarah Palfrey Cooke to victory in the doubles at the US Nationals.
The war years, during which she worked in a munitions factory, limited DuPont’s playing opportunities but were still the launchpad for a remarkable run of Grand Slam success. From 1941 she won the US doubles title 10 years in a row, the last nine of them in partnership with Brough, with whom she won the championship three more times between 1955 and 1957 after her return to competition following the birth of her only child in 1952. In total she won 25 titles at the US Nationals, more than any other man or woman in history.
She married William duPont, a wealthy businessman and banker, in 1947. They lived at Wilmington, Delaware, where there were nine tennis courts – grass, hard, clay and indoors – on the family estate. Her husband’s poor health was the reason why she never played in Australia as he insisted that they spent the winter in California because of his breathing problems.
DuPont played at The Championships a total of nine times and at Roland Garros on six occasions. She was 28 by the time she made her Wimbledon debut as The Championships resumed in 1946 after a seven-year break. She quickly made her mark, winning the doubles title with Brough, who beat her in the semi-finals of the singles.
Twelve months later DuPont won the Wimbledon singles title in emphatic fashion, winning all her matches in straight sets and beating Hart 6-2, 6-4 in the final. It might have been the first of a hat-trick of title triumphs but for the hold her doubles partner had over her in singles. The 1948 final was a particularly memorable scrap, Brough eventually winning 10-8, 1-6, 10-8. In 1949 Brough came out on top again, beating DuPont 6-1, 3-6, 6-1 in the final. Brough and DuPont took their tally of doubles titles at The Championships to five with their victories in 1948, 1949, 1950 and 1954.
In 1950 DuPont won the last of her Grand Slam singles titles when she beat Hart in the final in New York. After the birth of her son, DuPont was less of a force in singles but won eight more Grand Slam titles in doubles and mixed. Her last was at The Championships in 1962, four months after her 44th birthday. DuPont and 18-year-old Neale Fraser beat Dennis Ralston and Ann Haydon (later Ann Jones) 2-6, 6-3, 13-11 in the final. She was the oldest woman in history to win a Grand Slam title until Navratilova won the mixed event in Melbourne in 2003 at the age of 46.
After divorcing in 1964, DuPont moved to El Paso in Texas, where she lived for the rest of her life with Margaret Varner Bloss, with whom she had reached the 1958 Wimbledon doubles final before losing to Bueno and Althea Gibson. She died at the age of 94 in 2012. Upon her death King described DuPont as “a great influence on my life” and “one of my she-roes”.