Lottie Dod humiliated top male players, became an Olympic archer and sang for George V

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With the Wimbledon fortnight fast approaching, no one can predict who will win the women’s title this year.

But, no matter how good the contenders – Serena Williams, Simona Halep or even our own British number one Johanna Konta – none will arguably be as impressive as teenage tennis sensation Lottie Dod, who won her first Wimbledon at the jubilee. of Queen Victoria in 1887. – only 15 years old.

The following year she wins again and, perhaps fueled by success, has a pretty amazing idea.

Miss Lottie Dod, tennis player and winner of the women’s title in 1887

Her last athletic hurray won silver in the women's archer at the 1908 London Olympics

Her last athletic hurray was to win silver in the women’s archer at the 1908 Olympics in London.

Lottie Dod takes the skating test in St. Moritz.  Beyond sport, her vigor for new challenges never ceased and after volunteering as a nurse during World War I

Lottie Dod takes the skating test in St. Moritz. Beyond sport, her vigor for new challenges never ceased and after volunteering as a nurse during World War I

Eighty-five years before tennis’s most famous battle of the sexes, which saw Billie Jean King defeat aging American legend Bobby Riggs in 1973, Lottie challenged the top three male players of his time to singles matches.

They accepted the challenge, confident that they would win with a minimum of fuss.

As Lottie recalled, it was a time when it was said that “no woman could understand the score in tennis”, and women waited until 1884 – seven years after the first men’s competition at Wimbledon. – for the women’s championships to begin. One newspaper said their best chance was to flirt with the referees so their athletic flaws were overlooked.

It didn’t suit the “little wonder” as Lottie became known. She refused to accept the inferiority of women.

Despite one commentator’s opinion that women’s gatherings were generally so tedious that onlookers could “take a country walk after the start and come back in time to see the end,” Lottie left his opponents in tatters.

She served underarm, as was customary for the ladies, but – a powerful player decades before it became the norm – she did so with such speed and so low on the net that she has changed the pace of women’s play forever.

In August 1888, Lottie faced the first of his three male opponents, 26-year-old Ernest Renshaw.

He had won four doubles titles at Wimbledon – he won a fifth the following year – and had just become the men’s singles champion for the first time. Still, Lottie seemed more sure of herself than ever.

Tall and muscular, with blue-gray eyes and brown hair tucked under her iconic cricket cap, Lottie exuded what one commentator described as “a freshness that made it almost impossible for her opponents to piss her off.”

While Renshaw wore comfy flannel pants, Lottie was, as modesty demanded, in a white ankle-length gown, with sleeves to the cuffs, a high neckline, and a tightening corset underneath.

Many years later, she thought to herself that “it was difficult to step back to throw a high ball because there was a fear of stepping on her skirt,” and her bulky leather shoes didn’t make it any easier.

Wary of appearing little gentlemanly, the men had only agreed to play against Lottie if she started each game with a 30-0 advantage.

And after playing forward for England in 1899, she became an expert rider and rower, and then, if that wasn't enough, in 1904 she even triumphed as the British National Women's Golf Champion.

And after playing forward for England in 1899, she became an expert rider and rower, and then – if that wasn’t enough – in 1904 she even triumphed as the British National Women’s Golf Champion.

Accepting this condition, she set to work, crushing Renshaw 6-2 in the first set.

Renshaw quickly realized that “he didn’t have an ordinary female opponent and from that point on, every move was hotly contested, with both players doing their best to secure the victory,” a correspondent recalled. newspaper.

Taking the next two sets 7-5, Renshaw ultimately won – but narrowly. Indeed, the next two hard-fought matches against star male players had to be different. First, Lottie beat Scottish champion Harry Grove, who was nine years his senior, comfortably beating him 1-6, 6-0, 6-4.

Then, four days later, she faced Renshaw’s twin, William, six-time Wimbledon singles champion. And, to the delight and amazement of the crowd, she also demolished it (6-2, 6-4).

It was by no means the peak of his career, however.

In a short time on the women’s circuit, she has won an extraordinary 41 tournaments in singles and 20 more in doubles – as close to perfection as any record in the long history of lawn tennis.

But in 1893, she made a most unexpected decision.

At just 21 and despite winning her fifth Wimbledon title that year, Lottie left competitive tennis, moving away from the sporting world she had dominated.

Even if you wouldn’t have guessed it, she was increasingly hampered by sciatica that sometimes put her off for months.

But, fixing his eyes on larger targets, his absence from the public eye did not last long.

And, sure, Lottie was tailor-made for stardom.

She had learned to play tennis on courts built by her parents, Margaret and Joseph (who had made their fortunes in the cotton trade), on their sprawling country estate in Bebington on the Wirral Peninsula in Cheshire.

The youngest of four remarkably accomplished children, one of whom won Olympic gold in archery and another who loved to play blindfolded chess, she was only 11 when she won her first prize in doubles with her third sister, Ann.

So, aged 21 and having exhausted the tennis world, she continued to perform internationally in a dizzying array of other disciplines, baffling critics of women’s sport and her fans.

A virulent opponent of women in sport was President of the International Olympic Committee Pierre de Coubertin, who believed that women could never serve as a source of arousal, while medical experts at the time argued that too much strenuous exercise could “turn” women into lesbians or damage their uteri, leaving them unable to bear children.

But Lottie felt that there was no greater bastion of prejudice than the St Moritz Tobogganing Club of Switzerland, which frowned upon women running the incredibly dangerous Cresta Run due to ridiculous fears that their petticoats would fail. tangled in the equipment.

So, hell with petticoats, Lottie decided, and in the winter of 1896 she was the first woman to finish the race, hurtling down the descent at a speed of 70 mph – at a time when trains were only reaching 60 mph – to become the fastest woman in the world.

Never satisfied that same winter, Lottie also trained to be a figure skater, standing up to the best men of the time, before embarking on mountaineering the following year.

Then she turned to hockey. And after playing forward for England in 1899, she became an expert rider and rower, and then – if that wasn’t enough – in 1904 she even triumphed as the British National Women’s Golf Champion.

Her last athletic hurray was winning silver in women’s archer at the 1908 Olympics in London, one of only 44 women competing alongside some 2,000 men – and the same Games her brother William won. his gold in the men’s archery event.

Nor ever married, their obsession with sports leaving little time for relationships, even though Lottie’s sciatica meant that as she approached her forties she was more and more a spectator rather than a participant.

Beyond sport, her vigor for new challenges never ceased and after volunteering as a nurse during World War I, she taught music and singing to poor children in the East End of London – two skills she had also found the time to learn.

And in 1927, as a member of a renowned choir, she sang the King George V and Queen Mary serenade in a private chapel in Buckingham Palace.

In between all this, she continued her annual visits to Wimbledon – during which she made scathing critiques of the new generation of tennis stars. In the late 1920s, she wrote to the editor of The Times to bemoan the modern “ill-behaved” players who had the temerity to try to “take the referee in hand.”

There the trends were more welcome, however. In her heyday, she wondered how female gamers “can hope to play a sound game when their dresses hinder the free movement of each limb.”

In the 1950s hemming was increasing, but those changes came too late for Lottie – then an old lady and, after William’s death in 1954, living alone in the apartment they had shared at Earl’s Court, in the West London.

When she couldn’t make it to Wimbledon every June, she sat alone in her apartment, religiously following the action on the radio.

It was a ritual that continued even after she moved to a Hampshire nursing home, where she died at the age of 88 on June 27, 1960, listening to commentary from that year’s Wimbledon fortnight -the.

Adapted from Little Wonder: The Extraordinary Story Of Lottie Dod, The World’s First Female Sports Superstar by Sasha Abramsky, published by Birlinn at £ 14.99. © Sasha Abramsky 2021. To order a copy for £ 12.74 (offer valid until 4/7/21; UK P&P for orders over £ 20), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.


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