‘Scottish senorita’ Anita Lizana took US by storm

On the day Venezuela-born Garbine Muguruza attempts to overcome the considerable challenge of Serena Williams in their Wimbledon women’s final, there is a corner of Scotland where there still stands a reminder of the first South American to win a tennis grand slam.

Anita Lizana plays a backhand in a match in the mid1930s before she won the US Championships in 1937. Picture: Getty

When the coal merchant Ronald Ellis built a house in Dundee’s west end, he named it after the venue where his new wife had made her name just a year earlier: Forest Hills. It was in this New York neighbourhood, where the US Open – then known as the US Championships – was hosted before the switch to Flushing Meadows, that Chile’s Anita Lizana created history.

But it was in Dundee and then later Broughty Ferry where she lived most of her life, learning to excel at such curious Scottish customs as golf, to the extent she became a single-figure handicapper. But she continued to play the sport that helped take her from the sensuous streets of Santiago and deposit her among the baronial townhouses and villas of Broughty Ferry, the Dundee suburb thriving due to the prosperous thrum of the jute mills in the city.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Lizana was her own cottage industry, a pocket dynamo from a modest background in Santiago. At the age of six, she was said to have slept with a tennis racket by her side. Just 5ft nothing in size, she was nicknamed “Ratita” – the little mouse.

Lizana's daughter Ruth Weston, pictured at Wimbledon. Picture: Ian Rutherford

She was known as a ferocious competitor. However, overcome with a combination of exhaustion and elation at her 6-4, 6-2 US Championships victory over Poland’s Jadwija Jerdzejowska in 1937, she fainted.

Writing later that year in the Sydney Morning Herald, fellow competitor Dorothy Bundy, recalled it being “frightfully hot – she had a wearying day and, with it all, she fainted, and had to be carried from the stadium to the club, an exhausted little girl, or so she seemed and looked”. But, Bundy added, “no-one was more popular in America than the gay and laughing little senorita from Chile”.

Following her US Championships triumph, Lizana was ranked the No 1 female tennis player in the world. In July of the following year, she married Ellis, whom she had first met at a tennis tournament in Peebles, at the Brompton Oratory in London. With the acclaim following her Forest Hills success still fresh, they settled in Dundee, Ellis’ hometown. By the end of the decade, a career already set to be interrupted by the birth of her first daughter, Ruth, in 1940 was almost de-railed completely by the onset of war. But she continued to coach others into her later years.

“She was a one-off,” said David Gordon, remembering someone he knew as “Mrs Ellis”, wife of the cravat-wearing Ronald. Lizana was not the type to broadcast her exploits. If there was any clue at all to her celebrity it was when she drew up outside Dundee’s Morgan Academy to pick up Gordon, whose potential she had spotted at a tennis tournament in Carnoustie, in a grey baby Austin.

“I can remember the glamorous vision to this day,” said Gordon, a former tennis and squash coach who still lives in Broughty Ferry.

He jumped at the chance to make these trips in a car belonging to such a distinguished sports star, even if she tended to hide her light under a bushel. They travelled to the drill hall in Arbroath, the nearest indoor facility, and where a makeshift tennis court was devised by placing a canvas mat bearing the required markings down on top of the wooden floor. There was another reason for his enthusiasm. “I wanted to win the affections of her daughter, Ruth,” recalled Gordon.

Even at Wimbledon, Lizana is remembered. In the same year as she won the US Open, she reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon for the second time. Lizana is therefore a member of a club that this week welcomed six new members. CoCo Vandeweghe, Garbine Muguruza, Timea Bacsinszky, Madison Keys, Vasek Pospisil and Gilles Simon are all now members of the Last 8 club, an exclusive band of brothers and sisters to have reached the quarter-finals in SW19.

It means trips to the All England Club are all the more poignant for Ruth Weston, the one-time object of Gordon’s affections. Now based in Sutton, where a replica of her mother’s US Championships trophy sits on a sideboard, she returns to Wimbledon each year. It was here that she recalled her mother’s incredible story earlier this week.

“When mum told her family in Chile that she wanted to marry dad and move to Scotland, they said: ‘Well, have another stab at winning Wimbledon’,” she said. “They were expecting her to do better than she did. She was annoyed she never won Wimbledon.”

Lizana did compete once more at Wimbledon after the Second World War. In 1946, she was knocked out in the second round while reigning Scottish champion. This disappointment shook her confidence and she returned to Dundee, where she gave birth to two more daughters, Carmen and Carol. Although she won more local titles and played mixed-doubles with her husband, her top-class career was over.

“She was entering a new world,” said Ruth, of her mother’s relocation, from Santiago. “My father had a house built and named it Forest Hills in Hazel Avenue in Dundee. I think dad won £1,000 in the football pools, which was helpful when we moved to Seafield Road, Broughty Ferry.

“When she and dad met they were like a film star couple. I can remember a picture of her with a fur cape on. Her wedding dress was designed by Teddy Tinling, the famous clothes designer and tennis player. And mum knew people like Fred Perry, although he was slightly older. If she was alive today, she would have turned 100 this year.”

Ruth continues to carry the torch for her mother. Born in Dundee, she attended Dundee High School and won the Scottish Open at age 17, beating fellow Dundonian Alison Barclay, Joyce Williams’ sister, in the final. At the age of 75, Ruth is preparing to represent Great Britain at the super-seniors world championships in Croatia later this summer.

During a recent holiday in the south of Spain, she learned the news she was ranked No 1 in her age-group in Britain. On this same holiday, in a supermarket, Ruth got talking to a Chilean who nearly dropped her shopping when she discovered the identity of her mother.

In the shadow of the Estadio Nacional in Santagio, where Chile won their first Copa America football title against Argentina last weekend, there is the Complejo Deportivo Anita Lizana – a multi-court tennis arena named after the country’s greatest female tennis player.

There are also streets bearing her name in both Santiago and Coquimbo, 400kms north of the capital. But there is no great tennis legacy inspired by Lizana’s achievements. Macelo Rios became the first Latin American man to reach the No 1 spot in the ATP singles rankings in 1998.

But no Chilean female has got anywhere near emulating Lizana, the country’s “Scottish senorita”. There is not a single competitor from Chile at Wimbledon this year. Indeed, there is not even a Chilean sports writer accredited to cover the tournament.

So Lizana’s deeds need to be celebrated, and they are – in Chile, if not in Dundee, where her ashes were scattered next to her husband’s after she died in 1994, at the age of 78.

Lizana visited her homeland with her husband in 1966, when she was presented to the then president, Eduardo Frei Montalva, who would become such a vocal critic of the General Pinochet-led military dictatorship that took power in 1973. This development made return visits trickier but Lizana embarked on one final, emotional visit in 1989, where she was guest of honour at an international seniors tournament in Vina del Mar. Because Ellis passed away in 1978, Ruth invoked her status as eldest daughter to ensure she was given the role of chaperone.

“When mum got to Santiago she was absolutely elated,” she recalled. “We were called forward to be first off the plane, because the red carpet was out and the television cameras were there. There were bouquets of flowers and 
police escorts. It was like a different world to me. She was being treated like a celebrity. I was so proud of her.

“In Scotland, she was a bit closed up, because she was known primarily as a mother first, I suppose. She didn’t talk much about having once won a tennis grand slam. But when she went back home to Chile that one last time, she bloomed.

“She was like one of those flowers that suddenly bursts into blossom when returned to their natural environment.”