With Wimbledon just around the corner, there is no prediction of who will win this year’s women’s title.
But no matter how tall the contenders – Serena Williams, Simona Halep or even our own British number one Johanna Konta – may be – none will be as impressive as teen tennis sensation Lottie Dod, who did her first Wimbledon in Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee year of 1887 won – only 15 years old.
The following year she won again and, perhaps fueled by success, came up with a rather amazing idea.
Miss Lottie Dod, tennis player and winner of the women’s singles title in 1887
Her last athletic hurray was winning the silver medal in women’s archery at the 1908 London Olympics
Lottie Dod at the skating test in St. Moritz. Beyond sport, her drive for new challenges never stopped, and after she volunteered as a nurse during the First World War
85 years before the most famous battle of the sexes in tennis, in which Billie Jean King defeated aging US legend Bobby Riggs in 1973, Lottie challenged the three best male players of their day to individual games.
They accepted the challenge and were confident of winning with minimal effort.
As Lottie recalled, this was an era when it was said “no woman could understand tennis scoring,” and women had waited for the women’s championship to begin until 1884, seven years after the first men’s Wimbledon competition. One newspaper said her best chance was flirting with the referees so that her athletic shortcomings would be overlooked.
That didn’t go well with the “Little Miracle,” as Lottie was called. She refused to accept the inferiority of women.
Despite the opinion of one commentator that women’s rallies are usually so arduous that viewers can “take a stroll through the country after they start and come back in time to see the end,” Lottie left her opponent in ruins.
She served under the arms as was the custom for women, but – a power player decades before it became the norm – she did so at such a rate and so low over the net that she changed the pace of female game forever.
In August 1888, Lottie faced the first of her three male opponents, 26-year-old Ernest Renshaw.
He had won four double titles at Wimbledon – he won a fifth the following year – and had just become a men’s singles champion for the first time. But Lottie was as confident as ever.
Tall and muscular, with blue-gray eyes and auburn hair that was bundled under her signature cricket hat, Lottie exuded what one commentator described as “a coolness that made it almost impossible for her opponents to unsettle them.”
While Renshaw wore comfortable flannel pants, Lottie wore, as modesty required, an ankle-length white dress with sleeves to the wrists, a high neckline and a constricting corset underneath.
Many years later she considered that “it was difficult to walk backwards to volley a high ball because you were afraid to step on the skirt,” and her chunky leather shoes didn’t make things any easier.
The men had been careful not to appear rude and had agreed to only play Lottie if she started every game with a 30-0 lead.
And after playing forward for England in 1899, she became an experienced rider and rower and then – as if that weren’t enough – in 1904 she even triumphed as the British national champion in women’s golf
She accepted this condition and got to work, defeating Renshaw 6-2 in the first set.
Renshaw quickly realized that “he was no ordinary opponent, and from that moment on every stroke was fiercely fought and both players went out of their way to win,” recalled a newspaper correspondent.
With the following two sets 7-5, Renshaw finally won – but only barely. In fact, the next two highly competitive matches against male star players should be different. First, Lottie beat Scottish champion Harry Grove, nine years her senior, comfortably beating him 1-6, 6-0, 6-4.
Then, four days later, she met Renshaw’s twin, William, a six-time Wimbledon individual champion. And to the joy and amazement of the crowd, she destroyed him too (6-2, 6-4).
However, this was by no means the high point of her career.
In her short time with the women, she won an extraordinary 41 individual tournaments and 20 more in doubles – as perfect as any record in the long annals of lawn tennis.
But in 1893 she made a most unexpected decision.
Just 21 years old and despite winning her fifth Wimbledon title that year, Lottie gave up competitive tennis and slipped out of the sporting world that had dominated her.
Although no one could have known it, she was more and more hampered by sciatica, which sometimes incapacitated her for months.
But with her eyes on bigger goals, her absence from the public did not last long.
And certainly Lottie was made for stardom.
She had learned tennis on the tennis courts built by parents Margaret and Joseph (who had made his fortune 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 loved to play chess blindfolded, she was only 11 when she won her first double prize with her third sister Ann.
So, at the age of 21 and after exhausting the world of tennis, she was performing internationally in a dizzying variety of other disciplines, confusing critics of the female sport and her fans alike.
A vocal opponent of women in sport was the chairman of the International Olympic Committee, Pierre de Coubertin, who believed that women could only serve as a source of stimulation, while medical experts at the time argued that too much strenuous exercise could “turn” women into lesbians or harm them their uterus so that they can no longer bear children.
But Lottie felt that there was no bigger bastion of prejudice than the Swiss toboggan club St. Moritz, which disapproved of the women who take on the incredibly dangerous Cresta Run for worrying about their petticoats getting tangled in their gear could.
So, petticoats, damn it, Lottie decided, and in the winter of 1896 she was the first woman to complete the run and hurtle downhill at a speed of 70 mph – at a time when trains were only getting at 60 mph – um to become the fastest woman in the world.
Never satisfied, that same winter Lottie also trained as a figure skater and stood her ground with the best men of the era before starting mountaineering the following year.
Next she turned to hockey. And after playing forward for England in 1899, she became an experienced rider and rower and – as if that weren’t enough – in 1904 she even triumphed as the British national champion in women’s golf.
Her last athletic hurray was winning silver in women’s archery at the 1908 London Olympics, one of only 44 women who competed alongside about 2,000 men – and the same games where her brother William won his gold in men’s archery won.
Both were never married, their obsession with sports left little time for relationships, even if Lottie’s sciatica led her to increasingly emerge as a spectator rather than a participant as she entered her 40s.
Beyond sport, her drive for new challenges never stopped, and after volunteering as a nurse during World War I, she taught music and singing to impoverished children in London’s East End – both skills she somehow found time to too learn.
And in 1927 she serenaded King George V and Queen Mary in a private chapel at Buckingham Palace as a member of a renowned choir.
In between, she kept up her annual visits to Wimbledon – during which she sharply criticized the new generation of tennis stars. In the late 1920s, she wrote to the editor of The Times, complaining of “naughty” modern day players who had the audacity to try “to take charge of the referee”.
However, other trends were more welcome. In its heyday, she had asked how female players “can ever hope to play a sensible game when their clothes prevent the free movement of all limbs”.
The seams increased in the 1950s, but those changes came too late for Lottie – an old lady at the time and living alone in their shared apartment in Earl’s Court, West London after Williams’ death in 1954.
When she could no longer travel to Wimbledon every June, she would still sit alone in her apartment and watch religiously the events on the radio.
It was a ritual that continued after she moved to a nursing home in Hampshire, where she died on June 27, 1960 at the age of 88 while listening to commentary at this year’s Wimbledon a fortnight.
Adapted from Little Wonder: The Extraordinary Story Of Lottie Dod, The World’s First Female Sports Superstar by Sasha Abramsky, published by Birlinn for £ 14.99. © Sasha Abramsky 2021. To order a copy for £ 12.74 (offer expires 4/7/21; UK P&P on orders over £ 20) visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 .