It’s the summer of 1956, Grand Rapids is having a Summer Open, and who makes her first appearance in Topics, losing a well-played –18, -16, -20 match to Doris Chmielewski, but Grand Rapids Club President Bob Stace’s daughter, already a little local star, Connie Stace. That fall, Connie, only 9, on participating in the Chicago Lake States Open was named “Queen” of the tournament—though I think “Princess” would have been more appropriate. Even now, in her first season of competitive play, she was being touted as an upcoming (maybe even the next?) Grand Rapids’ “Women’s City Champ.”
For the 1957-58 season, Connie, reportedly an All-American division winner, was ranked Michigan #4 in Girls’ Singles, then in 1959 (and again in ’60) Michigan Recreation State Girls’ Champ. During the Jan. 2-3, 1960 weekend. Connie, not yet turned teenager, celebrated her school break at the South Bend St. Joe Valley tournament by winning both the Women’s Doubles (with Sharlene Krizman) and the Junior Miss. In the Mixed, playing with her brother Bob, they give the winning Krizman brother/sister combo their toughest match. (Connie would echo these achievements at the ’61 St. Joe.)
At the May 28-29, 1960 American Masters Open, in losing to another sibling twosome, Barbara and Donna Chaimson, Connie at least had the honor of playing Women’s Doubles with 1956 World Mixed Doubles Champion Leah Neuberger.
It was the Chaimsons who’d stop Connie, by then Grand Rapids City Champ, at the 1961 Detroit National’s—Barbara beat her in the semi’s in the 17’s; Donna beat her in the semi’s of the Girl’s.
In the 1961 Michigan Closed, had not #1 seed Phyllis Stern rallied in the final, Connie, runner-up in the Mixed, would have been State Champion. However, in the 1962 Michigan Spring tourney she defeated Phyllis, and was on her way to stardom. Eager to come to New York City for the 1962 U.S. Open, 14-year-old Connie, an All-A student at Grand Rapids’ Kellogsville High, at least did in part what she set out to do—although she lost the Girls’ final to Donna Chaimson, she won the Junior Miss, her first National title, from the young California sensation Patty Martinez.
Connie, however, could not win the Junior Miss at the prestigious Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) tournament that Sept. in Toronto—Helen Sabaliauskas retained her 1961 title. Nor could she win the Junior Miss at the ‘63 Detroit National’s, for Chaimson was again too good for her. Of course if they paired together in the Junior Doubles, they’d each win, right? Right.
Naturally, 15-year-old Connie had won the Michigan State Championships—the Singles, Women’s Doubles with Barbara Essebagger, and the Mixed with Ralph “Pete” Childs, the State’s 7-event Men’s, Junior’s, and Boys’ Singles and Doubles Champion.
Connie started the 1963-64 season as a member of the U.S. Women’s Team that played Canada in the International Tie at the Toronto CNE. She split her Singles matches, beat 1962 Canadian Closed Champ Velta Adminis but lost to ‘63 Canadian Closed Champ Denise Hunnius, 23-21 in the 3rd, then with Chaimson took the closing Doubles match to give the U.S. a 6-2 win. In Singles, she was a terror, finishing with three great 5-game matches. She avenged her loss to Hunnius and took down Chaimson before losing to 20-year-old Barbara Kaminsky. Able now to beat the best in Canada, she had already established herself at 16 as one of the top players in America.
At the 1963 NTC’s, Connie’s outstanding 21-1 play included a win over Kaminsky—she lost only to Most Valuable Player Award winner Chaimson.
Sweden’s European Champion, Hans “Hasse” Alser, came to Cobo Hall, Feb. 1-2, 1964 to play in the Central Open and it must have been quite a thrill for Connie to win the Mixed Doubles with him. Connie also took the Women’s Doubles with Pat Havlick (soon to be Danny Pecora’s wife). In the Singles final, Connie was leading 2-time U.S. Champion Millie Shahian 2-1, but, well, Champions are tough to beat. Connie did win the Junior Miss, though—from Sabaliauskas, only a few years away from being the Canadian National Champion. And she did have fun getting to the final of the B Doubles.
Best players go where the action is, so naturally Connie went out to Inglewood, California for the ’64 U.S. Open. In the Women’s semi’s she lost 18 in the 4th to Val Bellini (formerly Smith) who’d go on to beat Chaimson in the final. For 8 straight years now, Bellini had been in the Women’s Doubles final, winning 4 times with Sharon Acton and in ’62 and ’63 with Barbara Kaminsky. This year, in Barbara’s absence, she teamed with Shahian…and what happened? Last year’s U.S. Open Junior Miss Doubles winners, Stace and Chaimson, took the National Women’s Doubles Championship. (See them smiling, holding their huge trophies, on the cover of the June/July Topics.) Nor could Bellini paired with Dave Froehlich win the Mixed, for who stopped them in the semi’s (after surviving a wild 19, -29, 19, -12, 19 quarter’s match with the ’59 Champs Sol Schiff/Tiny Eller) but Connie and her fellow Grand Rapids partner Dell Sweeris.
Thanks to Rufford Harrison, who received the Jimmy McClure Award “for the most outstanding official of the year,” highlights from “two or three” Finals-Night matches here at Inglewood would be shown on national TV for the first time (on CBS’s 90-minute Sports Spectacular). Hopefully, Connie had already gotten some TV time—for she’d also been runner-up with “Pete” Childs in the Junior Mixed, had lost in a 19-in-the-5th thriller to Chaimson/Mark Radom. But if none of her other matches had been selected for showing, the Mixed final sure would have been a popular one. She and Dell didn’t win, but they were on the verge of winning—lost to Chaimson (what a National’s she was having!) and Bobby Fields, 12, -20, -22, -16. That season Connie was U.S. Women’s #4.
At the 1964 Toronto CNE International Matches—with singles wins over Canadian National Champ Denise Hunnius and Helen Sabaliauskas (22-20, 22-20), and with Donna Chaimson a doubles win over Hunnius/Jenny Marinko—Connie led the U.S. Team to a 6-0 victory over Canada. In individual play, however, she lost in the Women’s Open to the fast-improving Sabaliauskas, who’ll be a member of Canada’s Corbillon Cup Team to the ’65 Ljubljana, Yugoslavia World’s, and in Doubles she and Donna could do no better than runner-up to Hunnius and her partner, Leah Neuberger, Open Singles winner here for the 11th and last time (her first being 23 years earlier).
Connie didn’t go east to Newark, Delaware for the NTC’s. But she did enter the Rochester, N.Y. Eastern’s, and did well. In the Women’s final, she crushed Hunnius; won the Women’s Doubles with Chaimson over Hunnius/Priscilla Hirschkowitz; and with Sweeris almost completed the hat trick, but, after leading 2-0, lost 25-23 in the 5th to Harry Hirschkowitz/Hunnius.
At the 1965 Detroit U.S. Open, Connie beat 1963 Champ Bernice Chotras, then fell in the semi’s to Leah Neuberger who, up 20-15 match point in the 5th in the final against 13-year-old Patty Martinez, seemed destined to be a winner…then lost 7 straight points. A disaster of course for her, reminding us of her lament in years past, “I don’t have a killer instinct.” Doubles, however, couldn’t have been more fun for Connie. Partnered by Donna Chaimson she won the Women’s over Bellini/Brooke Williams. And with Dell Sweeris she and he particularly came to fame with their win in the Mixed—for, after surviving a –13, -9, 15, 12, 18 precarious match with Canadians Martin Ivakitsch and Barbara DeAbreu, they went on to down Marty Doss/Neuberger in the final. Yes, Sweeris and Stace were proving to be quite a combination.
The U.S. prevailed over Canada 6-4 at the CNE International Matches. Two-time U.S. Doubles Champions, Stace and Donna Chaimson dropped a 19-in-the-3rd thriller to Denise Hunnius/Barbara DeAbreu, but Connie rebounded—downed Canada’s #1 DeAbreu, took the other doubles with Leah, then won the 10th and final match of the tie against 14-year-old Violetta Nesukaitis, fast becoming the best player in Canada. Alas, however, in the Individual’s, Connie fared no better than her friend Sweeris. She was the only seed not to advance as expected—she lost to DeAbreu whom she’d beaten 18 in the 3rd in the Team’s; lost with Chaimson in the final of the Women’s Doubles, deuce in the 4th, to Defending Champions Neuberger and Hunnius; and lost in the final of the Mixed, deuce in the 5th, to Bukiet/Kaminsky.
At the Detroit NTC’s, the men were playing on Sico tables and the women on Detroiters, so to make sure there wasn’t any mix of the two, the women were relegated to play at the far end of the hall; no need to worry about any mix of spectators there either. Connie was a perfect 15-0, but her Michigan team of Andrea Gerber and Janice Martin came runner-up to the Canadians, 5-4, when Connie could only get help from 12-year-old Janice who stunned Hunnius with a deuce-in-the-3rd upset.
More than a few surprises at the 1966 Eastern’s, held at Hyatsville’s Prince Georges Club that Carl and Yvonne Kronlage were trying to keep going. In the quarter’s Connie met an unknown named Usha Mukunda playing in her first U.S. tournament (turns out, coached by Barna, she was India #3 in 1962). After losing the 1st game to Connie at 7, she proceeded to beat her 3 straight. Good news for Barbara Kaminsky who’d play Mukunda and not Stace in the semi’s, eh? Uh, maybe not. Down 2-0, Barbara made a gutsy rally, but in this expedited match she was lucky to win the 4th and 5th at 19. The Champ, though, was Priscilla Hirschkowitz who hit through Nesukaitis in 5, then beat Barbara with straight-game ease. Stace/Chaimson again went down in the Women’s Doubles—to Nesukaitis/Kaminsky, deuce in the 4th. Fortunately for Connie, it was Dell’s day—he was the hat-trick winner, all center-stage in the Men’s Singles, rallying against Jerry Kruskie from down 17-7 in the 5th.
Of course Connie was triumphant at the 1966 Michigan State Closed. In the Singles she beat Andrea “Andy” Gerber, won the Women’s Doubles, and with Dell both the Men’s Doubles (sic: over Eddie Brennan/Leo Griner, 25-23 in the 4th) and the Mixed (over Gerber/Paul Potter).
At the Detroit U.S. Open, in the Women’s 8th’s, Connie was 24-22 in the 4th threatened by CA’s Heather Angelinetta, whose ranking would improve from #12 last season to #8 this one. Then in the quarter’s, Connie, whose ranking for the second straight year would be U.S. #4, would be beaten in 4 by 1963 Champ Bernice Chotras. Bernice, who’d also won the U.S. Open 17 years earlier, would be able to withstand one 15-year-old prodigy but not two. In the semi’s she downed Defending Champion Patty Martinez, but in the final lost to Toronto’s Violetta Nesukaitis, the first Canadian to win one of the Big 5 major titles (MS, WS, MD, WD, XD) in the U.S. Open.
Nor could Connie successfully defend either her Women’s Doubles with Donna Chaimson (lost 3-0 in the semi’s to Nesukaitis/Kaminsky who stopped Neuberger/Hunnius in 5 in the final) or her Mixed with Dell (lost 17 in the 5th in the final to Bukiet/Kaminsky). So, something of a bummer here for Stace. Think she’ll ever win anything again? Wish her luck….