Local legend provides inspiration for Windsor’s Zoe Brook

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Windsor senior Zoe Brook was inspired by local tennis legend Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman to launch an effort to build more tennis courts in Windsor for her senior project. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Windsor senior Zoe Brook was inspired by local tennis legend Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman to launch an effort to build more tennis courts in Windsor for her senior project. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

WINDSOR – In January of 1978, Sports Illustrated ran a first-person account by Janice Kaplan titled “A Teen-ager Inspired an 87-year-old Tennis Champ to Play One More Game.” The matron was Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman and now, 39 years after her death, Hotchkiss Wightman is inspiring a local teenager to increase the number of games played where she grew up.

“She’s the reason I started the project,” said Zoe Brook, a senior at Windsor High School. “Of course there’s a little selfish aspect, because I was just about to start the season.”

Selfish might not be the right word, seeing as how Brook will be graduating and moving on to college in the next few months. She is hoping that a future generation of Windsor tennis players will have an easier time finding an open court.

Windsor High has a sparkling stadium that is used for football, soccer and track, but it has no tennis courts. In fact, the town of 27,144 — the 2012 U.S. government estimate based on 2010 census data — has four public courts. Four. They’re in Hiram Lewis Park in the northeast part of town. The paucity of nets makes things hard on the high school team.

By rule, groups aren’t supposed to monopolize the Windsor courts, but the city makes an exception for the high school. Even so, it gets crowded. The Windsor girls team competed in the fall with 13 players. A handful of singles players usually took turns on one court at practice, leaving the other three nets to a multitude of doubles players. When two girls vied for position on the team, a common practice, they occupied 25 percent of the courts. It’s at least as bad for the Jaguars boys team, which currently has 15 players.

Four courts not enough

Four courts really aren’t enough to stage team competitions, either, so Windsor has to stagger matches when it hosts North Bay League rivals. Those matches frequently don’t end until 7 p.m.

Of course, that’s just the high school team. Other people in Windsor own rackets, too.

“It’s hard when you’re on the team and you see children trying to connect with their parents, and you’re like, ‘Oh, sorry, we’re trying to prepare,’ ” Brook said. “It’s hard turning away people. It just feels bad.”

She has decided to take action. As her senior project, Brook is launching a campaign to bring more tennis courts to Windsor — maybe in Keiser Community Park, maybe added to the current four. She doesn’t really care where they go.

It will be a long and frustrating process, Brook knows, but she has drawn inspiration from an unlikely source — Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman. It was Brook’s father, Michael, a history major at the University of Cambridge, who first exposed Zoe to the tennis legend.

“He showed me Hazel in the summer when I was doing all three sports. I was just going crazy with sports,” said Zoe, who also plays basketball and softball. “He was like, ‘I want you to read this about this woman.’ I was like, ‘Really, Dad? Honestly, I just want to go to the beach.’”

But Brook became transfixed by Hotchkiss Wightman’s story. She couldn’t believe she had never heard of this local girl whom some view as the single most important force in women’s tennis.

A simple country girl

Hazel Hotchkiss grew up on the family farm, a 375-acre property near Healdsburg. Her father, Healdsburg High graduate W.J. Hotchkiss, created the largest canning company in California and later merged it with a competitor’s to become the Del Monte Corporation, with Hotchkiss serving as its first president. He became a key advocate in construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

“I think it was a very happy place to grow up for her,” said Baysie Wightman, Hotchkiss Wightman’s granddaughter. “She moved east and married into a fairly wealthy family, but at heart I think she was always a pioneer girl from California.”

Hazel was prone to headaches as a child. Her doctors prescribed outdoor time. She also had four brothers to push her, and the girl became a versatile athlete.

She saw her first tennis match in 1900, just after the family moved to Berkeley, and immediately took interest. But Hotchkiss really fell in love with the game when she saw a men’s match and noted the way they charged the net and swatted the ball out of mid-air.

“People say I was the first woman to come to the net, and someone asked me once how I learned to volley,” Hotchkiss Wightman reflected in that Sports Illustrated story. “I said, ‘What’s volleying?’ I didn’t know what I was doing. I just did it.”

Started at UC Berkeley

Hotchkiss started practicing at UC Berkeley, getting up at 5:30 a.m. to hit balls with her brothers because females were prohibited on the courts after 8 a.m. She enrolled at Cal and became a tennis sensation. After her sophomore, junior and senior seasons, Hotchkiss traveled to Philadelphia with her father to compete at the U.S. Open. She won the women’s singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles all three years. In 1911, having just graduated college, she won all three on the same day.

Got married, kept winning

U.S. team captain Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman, left, dominated the women's tennis scene in the early part of the 20th century. (Associated Press, 1931)

U.S. team captain Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman, left, dominated the women’s tennis scene in the early part of the 20th century. (Associated Press, 1931)

If Hotchkiss had been a conventional woman of her day, that would have marked the end of her tennis career. She married Harvard law student and tennis player George Wightman in 1912, moved to Massachusetts and had two children in the next two years. But Hazel returned to the U.S. Open in 1915 and won both doubles titles, finishing second in singles. She was back in 1919 despite having given birth to a third child, and captured all three championships.

“What caught my eye was that she continued playing tennis after having children,” Brook said.

“That shocked the world. When she had children, everyone just kind of thought, ‘OK, well, she’s had her spot in the spotlight. She’s done. She can go to the kitchen now.’”

Barely 5 feet tall, Hotchkiss Wightman would prove to be one of the most enduring champions in American sports, winning 44 major titles, 17 Grand Slams and two Olympic gold medals during a career that spanned decades.

She won in women’s doubles at the U.S. Indoor Championships at 57, made the finals there at 60 and reached the finals of the U.S. Grass Court Championship for seniors at 70.

Hotchkiss Wightman also won a national women’s singles title in squash and a Massachusetts state championship in table tennis, and made the national finals on a mixed-doubles badminton team in 1927.

Started team competition

And yet Hotchkiss Wightman’s most sweeping contributions had nothing to do with her racket skills. She hatched the first major team competition between American and British women and even donated the silver cup to present to the winner; it became known as the Wightman Cup, and it was a big deal in the sport.

Hotchkiss Wightman wrote an instructional book, “Better Tennis,” and was a fashion maverick, too, introducing sleeveless dresses that allowed more freedom to smash the ball.

Even more important, she became a tireless teacher, coach, advocate and mentor to young tennis hopefuls.

Hotchkiss Wightman gave free lessons at Longwood Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill, Mass., and welcomed an endless parade of girls to her home in nearby Brookline, where they would hit balls against a piece of unpainted plywood in her garage. After she divorced George Wightman in 1940, she would convert her home into a flophouse for tennis players during tournaments, getting up early each day to bake cookies and do the ladies’ laundry.

“Hazel Wightman’s name is woven into the tapestry of women’s tennis like a shining golden thread,” famed champion Billie Jean King wrote. “… In a statistic not recognized by the record books, ‘Mrs. Wightie’ will be remembered as the most beloved tennis figure of all time.”

In Tennis Hall of Fame

Hotchkiss Wightman was inducted into the National Tennis Hall of Fame in 1957, and was made an honorary Commander of the British Empire in 1973. She was the first tennis player pictured on a postage stamp, in 1990 — a remarkable circuit for a girl who grew up on a Sonoma County prune farm.

If Zoe Brook gets her way, Hotchkiss Wightman will receive another honor: The new Windsor courts will bear her name.

“She had this amazing determination. She wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Baysie Wightman, who lives in Boston, said of her grandmother.

“So I think it’s grand. She’d be absolutely tickled pink to think a girl was fighting for courts in her name. She was a complete maverick.”

Brook’s original plan was to raise money for the courts. But the city of Windsor rejected the idea of a dedicated fund, noting that it has already prioritized other recreation-based projects.

“If you approach the public, like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna start building tennis courts … in five years,’ they’re not really motivated to give a donation,” Brook said.

Raising awareness of issue

So for now the scope of her project is to raise awareness of the issue. Brook’s first step was to assess the views of Windsor residents on building new tennis courts.

She distributed surveys and has gotten about 85 responses back, most of them highly supportive of the notion. Her big splash will be an all-ages tournament she is organizing for this summer.

The idea behind the event will be twofold — have some fun playing tennis, and show everyone that, yeah, it’s kind of hard to stage a tournament on four courts.

Brook turned in her senior project on March 10. Her cause remains active.

“For me, I want to see this thing go as far as it can, until I see new tennis courts in Windsor,” she said. “I’m riding this thing to the end.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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