Cilly Aussem – The Cheerful Champion
By Dieter Koditek
“In her tender, fragile-looking, but very agile body there dwelled a
strong will. And with this will she was able to move mountains when
playing tennis. Thus did Cilly Aussem, the high-spirited Rhinelander,
become the first German Wimbledon champion. However, before she achieved
this goal, the photogenic lady with the big dark eyes had had to
overcome many obstacles. She was not born with talent, she had to
acquire it during many hard hours of training prescribed by her mother.
‘Mummy’ Aussem was not only as pretty as her daughter, she was also
exceptionally ambitious where her tennis career was concerned.
“Cilly Aussem, who was born in Cologne on April 4, 1909, had her first
experience with a tennis racket and tennis balls at a very early age. At
the oldest club in her native city, the Rot-Weiss Köln, she found in
Willy Hannemann a renowned coach who helped her make rapid progress. At
the age of 15 she became German Junior Champion, at 17 she won the
senior title for the first time, and at 19 she was number in the German
ranking list. In those years she also had her international breakthrough
– she won the women’s single title at the International German
Championships at the Hamburger Rothenbaum club in 1927, 1930 and 1931.
“One of her most important fellow travellers and helpers was the great
Bill Tilden, who was not only the best player of his era, but is still
today considered one of the greatest players of all time. The American,
who was worshipped in tennis circles, but in those days was also
controversial because of his homosexuality, made no secret of his liking
for the dainty Rhinelander. In his book ‘Aces, Places and Faults’, he
wrote the following flattering words about her: ‘Together with the
Englishwoman Kay Stammers, Cilly was the most exciting girl who has ever
played tennis. She was my best mixed doubles partner.’ From this one can
conclude that in Tilden’s era the mixed doubles was also an important
event for the top players.
“However, Tilden was more to the young German woman than just a partner
and admirer. He was also the person who probably set her on the most
important course of her career. He recognised that Cilly had to free
herself from her dependence on her domineering mother if she wanted to
become a real champion. Her respect for her mother had resulted in some
questionable reactions, for example, after a defeat against Paula
Heimann, the future Paula Stuck, Cilly Aussem burst into tears,
explaining: ‘I’m not crying because I lost, but because I’ve
disappointed my mother.’
“During one of the then very popular series of tournaments on the Côte
d’Azur, Bill Tilden grasped the opportunity to take the decisive step.
When Frau Aussem asked how her daughter could be made into a really
great player, the champion answered: ‘By you getting on the next train
and beginning the journey home.’ Those words sunk in. Frau Aussem did
what was right, and her little daughter had her free space at last.
“As early as 1930 the Rhinelander, who later switched to the Rot-Weiss
Club in Berlin and was coached by Roman Najuch, had announced her
intentions with regard to the most coveted of all titles at Wimbledon.
She reached the semi-finals by defeating the world number two, the
American Helen Jacobs. But there she lost in very unfortunate
circumstances to another American, Elizabeth Ryan who, with 19 titles in
singles [?], doubles and mixed doubles set a Wimbledon record surpassed
only by Martina Navratilova more than half a century later [?]. In her
semi-final against Elizabeth Ryan, Cilly Aussem fell so heavily that she
temporarily fainted from the pain and had to be stretchered off court.
“However, one year later there was no stopping her at Wimbledon. When
the semi-finals were over it was clear that there would be a German
champion because, in addition to the player from Cologne, the tall Essen
native, Hilde Krahwinkel, had also qualified for the final. Cilly Aussem
won the match against her compatriot, 6-2, 7-5, making herself immortal
with this triumph. A few weeks earlier she had also won the women’s
singles title at the International French Championships, held on clay in
Paris – proof of her all-court game.
“By this time the cheerful woman, the star with no airs and graces, had
been experiencing problems with her eyesight. She often spent the time
before her sporting endeavours in darkened rooms. She wanted to protect
her eyes in this way. The sunshade she wore during the latter stage of
her career and which became her trademark was also used to this end.
“Her eye problems signalled an early end to her great career because she
was always in delicate health anyway. After a long break from taking
part in tournaments, caused by an appendix operation and an exhausting
South American trip, Cilly Aussem featured in the world rankings for the
last time in 1934. Then she disappeared from the tennis scene and found
her happiness in her marriage to an Italian aristocrat, Count Murari
della Corte Brà, with whom she spent the rest of her short life in his
homeland. She had met the aristocrat while skiing in Garmisch Partenkirchen.
“When Cilly Aussem died in 1963, nothing had been heard of her for a
long time. Almost completely blind, she had withdrawn from the public
eye. Her death would probably have gone unnoticed in Germany if, when
reading the daily newspapers, a German journalist had not seen an
obituary notice with the sad news about someone with the name of Murari
dalla Corte Brà.
“Cilly Aussem’s final resting place is the San Giorgio graveyard in