Lottie Dod in front of the Wimbledon crowd in 1887
A year before Maud Watson, the daughter of a vicar from the London borough of Harrow, won the first ever two ladies’ championships at Wimbledon, in 1884 and 1885, schoolgirl Charlotte “Lottie” Dod had started entering doubles tournaments around England.
Lottie had learnt the game on courts that her parents, Joseph and Margaret, erected on the grounds of Edgeworth House – their sprawling estate, a few miles outside Liverpool, bought with the profits from Joseph’s cotton brokerage business. In those early tournaments, Lottie partnered with her older sister, Ann, nearly nine years her senior.
Ann was good; but her kid sister, only 11 years old when they entered their first competitions, was in another league entirely. Newspapers reported on the child sensation in tones of amazement. “Miss L. Dod, who is only 11 years old, played from the back of the court with both skill and judgment,” wrote one reporter after watching Ann and Lottie reach the ladies’ doubles final in Manchester in 1883, an achievement that won them two pounds and ten shillings in prize money.
The young girl ran down balls that most of her female contemporaries – who played while wearing ornate, skin-concealing outfits that wrapped their torsos tightly and swaddled their bodies from the top of the neck down to just above the feet in layers of underclothes, bodices, dresses, blouses – couldn’t, or wouldn’t, chase down.
Lottie, far younger than most of her opponents, could get away with wearing dresses that stopped a few inches above the ankles. As a result, in her first few years on the circuit she had a built-in advantage, her clothing not constricting her mobility quite as much as did the couture of her opponents. But none of that would have mattered a whit had she not also possessed vast wells of talent.
The teenage sensation knew how to work the angles, when to hit a drop shot, when to rush the net for a devastating volley, when to pound a ball into the far corner of the court. She played not like a “garden party” player, the society hobbyists for whom she showed considerable contempt in her spoken and written comments on the game, but like an athlete. The ladies’ championships had only begun in 1884, seven years after the first men’s competition.
In 1887, during Queen Victoria’s Jubilee year, when Lottie was only 15 years and 285 days, she won her first Wimbledon. She repeated the feat again in 1888. She took a break from the tournament for the following two years, but when she returned, still a teenager, she was once more unbeatable.
The championship was hers in 1891, in 1892 and once more in 1893. In these years, Lottie, who would bicycle over to the courts from the nearby houses in which she stayed during the competition, quite simply made ladies’ tennis a one-woman show.
“Though young in years, she is ripe in judgment,” wrote the commentator W. Methven Brownlee in 1889, in his sweeping overview of the state of tennis. The “Little Wonder” exhibited, he continued, “the temperament that is best described as ‘that sweet calm which is just between’. Dod’s tennis career was remarkable.
In the seven years that she would play on the embryonic women’s circuit – mainly matches around England and Ireland – she would win 41 singles tournaments; seven of these garnered Dod championship trophies from the biggest events. She came second in 11, and third in one. Most of her losses occurred before she turned 15. Indeed, from 1887 onwards, she lost only one tournament match to another woman.
Not surprisingly, for the rest of her life she remained a firm favourite with the powers-that-be at Wimbledon. Frequently, in the decades after she retired, Dod would bring her young nephews and nieces with her to sit in the front-row seats the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club allotted her, just behind the umpire’s chair. When the weather heated up, she would take out her fan – black crenellated paper topping a metal skeleton, decorated with gold floral arrangements and slightly racy portraits of three fleshy women, a bearded man with two devil-like horns watching them from off to their left – and gently fan herself.
In 1922, after years of discussions, the championships finally moved to larger grounds on Church Road, a few miles from the original location, where the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club and its famous tournament have remained ever since.
Dod was always welcomed back to this new venue, to tennis’s self-proclaimed cathedral. After all, she had won the prestigious tournament five times before retiring at the age of 21 and moving on to other triumphs. To play hockey for the English team. To become the British ladies’ golf champion. To train in Switzerland as one of Europe’s top ice skaters, reaching a level never before achieved by a woman. To master the most dangerous of toboggan runs, including the Swiss town of St Moritz’s notorious Cresta Run. To summit a number of Norway’s toughest mountains. And finally to win a silver medal for England in archery at the 1908 London Olympics. These were the larger-than-life achievements of the Little Wonder, that most out-of-the-ordinary Victorian lady.
This is an extract from the book Little Wonder: The Extraordinary Story of Lottie Dod, The World’s First Female Sports Superstar, written by Sasha Abramsky and published by Arena Sport