Brazilian tennis legend Maria Esther Bueno passed away on June 8 at age 78. Bolstered by innate natural talent, a stunningly elegant style of play, and the unmistakable drive of a champion, Bueno won 19 major titles- seven in singles, 11 in women's doubles, and one in mixed doubles.
She was the year-end world No. 1 four times (1959, 1960, 1964, 1966). In recognition of her extraordinary career, Bueno was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1979. She was the first Brazilian, and first from all of South America to receive the honor.
"I know of many players - women and men - who admired Maria's game and took inspiration from her beautiful style of play and her relentless drive to be a champion," stated Stan Smith, President of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. "Her passion for the sport has never wavered, and it was always a delight to see her out and about at tournaments. She had tremendous grace on and off the court. She will be greatly missed. However, her legacy as a trailblazer for women's tennis, South American tennis, and as one of our sport's all-time great champions will never be forgotten."
Hall of Famer Billie Jean King, who competed against Bueno and also partnered with her in doubles, stated, "I always look forward to seeing Maria at Wimbledon and some of the other major tournaments. She was the first superstar of South America and is so revered there. She was a huge influence in my career and for many of the players from my generation she was the one we all looked up to. I had the privilege of winning a Wimbledon doubles title with her in 1965. She was very elegant on the court - the way she looked and especially the way she played. She had fans all over the world and will be missed."
One of the sport's early international tennis stars, Bueno was raised in Sao Paolo, Brazil, across the street from a tennis club. Without any real formal training and largely self-taught, Bueno quickly rose up through local tournaments to be Brazil's top junior player.
Bueno developed an elegant, artistic playing style that would lead to a worldwide following of fans and often saw her likened to a ballet dancer on the court. She expertly blended her graceful approach with aggressive net play and controlled, powerful shots.
In 1957, at age 17, she went on her own to Florida to compete in the prestigious Orange Bowl tournament, which she won. Bueno made a splash nearly immediately when she began competing on the international circuit. She traveled to Europe for the first time in 1958, winning the Italian Championships and her first major title - Wimbledon doubles - that year.
Bueno returned to Wimbledon the following year to win her first of three Wimbledon singles titles. Later in the same year, she won the singles title at the U.S. Nationals. She was the first and only South American woman to capture both Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships in the same calendar year.
In 1960, Bueno achieved a doubles Grand Slam, winning all four majors that calendar year. She partnered with Darlene Hard at the French Nationals, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Nationals, and with Christine Truman for the Australian Championships. In two short years, she had become a national hero and when she returned to Brazil at the end of the 1960 season, she was honored by the country's president and given a ticker-tape parade on the streets of São Paulo. Her accomplishments generated interest and a following for the sport in South American that had not previously existed.
In all, Bueno would go on to win three singles titles at Wimbledon and four at the U.S. Championships, in addition to 11 major doubles titles and one mixed doubles title. She was also a singles finalist at both the Australian and the French Championships.
In addition to generating intrigue and interest in the sport, Bueno's graceful play served as inspiration of another type - that of a muse for famed tennis dress designer Ted Tinling. Although Bueno was being dressed by another brand when they first met, Tinling, enchanted by her exotic looks and on court panache, refused to take no for an answer. He quickly became Bueno's sole dress designer, and she became one of his premier clients. The custom pieces that he made for Bueno are among some of Tinling's most iconic work. In 1964, Bueno boldly wore a Tinling dress with a layer of pink fabric on the underskirt, which shocked the audience and resulted in a strict tennis whites policy for the following year.
Bueno retired due to an arm injury in 1969. She made a comeback in the 1970's, winning the title at the Japan Open in 1974. Bueno stayed active in doubles competition, last competing at Wimbledon in women's doubles in 1980 - 21 years after her first appearance.
Read more about Maria's life and career on MariaBueno.org