With Wimbledon fortnight just around the corner, there’s no predicting who will take this year’s women’s title.
But, no matter how great the contenders — Serena Williams, Simona Halep or even our own British number one Johanna Konta — arguably none will be as impressive as teenage tennis sensation Lottie Dod, who won her first Wimbledon in Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year of 1887 — aged just 15.
The following year she won again and, perhaps fuelled by success, came up with a rather astonishing idea.
Miss Lottie Dod, tennis player, and winner of the women’s singles title in 1887
Her final sporting hurrah was winning silver in women’s archer at the 1908 Olympics in London
Lottie Dod taking the skating test at St. Moritz. Beyond sport, her vigour 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 ageing U.S. legend Bobby Riggs in 1973, Lottie challenged the three best male players of her day to singles games.
They accepted the challenge, confident of winning with the minimum of fuss.
As Lottie recalled, this was an era when it was said ‘no lady could understand tennis scoring’, and women had waited until 1884 — seven years after the first men’s Wimbledon contest — for the ladies’ championships to start. One newspaper said their best chances lay in flirting with the umpires so their sporting flaws would be overlooked.
This did not sit well with the ‘Little Wonder’, as Lottie became known. She refused to accept women’s inferiority.
Despite one commentator’s opinion that women’s rallies were usually so tedious spectators could ‘take a country walk after one began and get back in time to see the end of it’, Lottie left her opponents in tatters.
She served underarm, as was customary for ladies, but — a power player decades before it became the norm — she did so with such speed and so low over the net that she changed the pace of the female game for ever.
In August 1888, Lottie faced the first of her three male opponents, 26-year-old Ernest Renshaw.
He had won four Wimbledon doubles titles — he won a fifth the following year — and had just become men’s singles champion for the first time. Yet Lottie appeared self-confident as ever.
Tall and muscular, with blue-grey eyes and chestnut-brown hair bunched under her signature cricket cap, Lottie exuded what one commentator described as ‘a coolness that made it almost impossible for her opponents to unnerve her’.
While Renshaw sported comfortable flannel trousers, Lottie was, as modesty required, dressed in an ankle-length white dress, with sleeves down to her wrists, a high neckline and a constricting corset underneath.
Many years later she reflected that ‘it was difficult to run backward to volley a high ball as one feared treading on one’s skirt,’ and her clunky leather shoes made things no easier.
Wary of appearing ungentlemanly, the men had agreed to play Lottie only if she started each game with a 30-0 advantage.
And after playing forward for England in 1899, she became an expert horsewoman and rower and then — if that wasn’t enough — in 1904, she even triumphed as the British national ladies’ golf champion
Accepting this condition, she set to work, crushing Renshaw 6-2 in the first set.
Renshaw swiftly realised ‘he had no ordinary lady opponent and from that moment every stroke was keenly contested, both players doing their utmost to gain the victory’, one newspaper correspondent recalled.
Taking the following two sets 7-5, Renshaw eventually won — but only just. Indeed, the next two hard-fought matches against male star players were to be different. First, Lottie trounced Scottish champion Harry Grove, who was nine years her senior, comfortably beating him 1-6, 6-0, 6-4.
Then four days later, she faced Renshaw’s twin William, a six-time Wimbledon singles champion. And, to the delight and astonishment of the crowd, she demolished him, too (6-2, 6-4).
This was by no means the pinnacle of her career, however.
In her short time on the women’s circuit she won an extraordinary 41 singles tournaments, and 20 more in doubles — as near to perfection as any record in the long annals of lawn tennis.
But in 1893 she made a most unexpected decision.
Just 21 and despite winning her fifth Wimbledon title that year, Lottie quit competitive tennis, slipping away from the sporting world that she had dominated.
Though you wouldn’t have guessed it, she had become increasingly hobbled by sciatica which sometimes put her out of commission for months at a time.
But, setting her eyes on bigger targets, her absence from the public eye didn’t last long.
And, certainly, Lottie was tailor-made for stardom.
She’d learned to play tennis on courts built by her parents, Margaret and Joseph (who had made his fortune in the cotton trade), at their sprawling country estate at Bebington on the Wirral peninsula in Cheshire.
The youngest of four remarkably accomplished children, one of whom won Olympic gold for archery and another who enjoyed playing chess blindfolded, she was only 11 years old when she won her first doubles prize with her third sibling, Ann.
So, aged 21 and having exhausted the world of tennis, she went on to perform at an international level in a dizzying array of other disciplines, confounding critics of female sport and her fans alike.
One vociferous opponent of women in sport was International Olympic Committee chairman Pierre de Coubertin, who believed that women could only ever serve as sources of titillation, while medical experts at the time argued that too much strenuous exercise could ‘turn’ women into lesbians or damage their wombs, leaving them unable to bear children.
But Lottie felt there was no greater bastion of prejudice than Switzerland’s St Moritz Tobogganing Club, which frowned on women racing the incredibly dangerous Cresta Run because of ludicrous worries that their petticoats would get tangled in the equipment.
So, petticoats be damned, Lottie decided, and in the winter of 1896 she was the first woman to complete the run, hurtling downhill at speeds of 70mph — at a time when trains only reached 60mph — to become the fastest woman on earth.
Never content, that same winter Lottie also trained to become a figure skater, holding her own with the best men of the era, before taking up mountaineering the following year.
Next, she turned to hockey. And after playing forward for England in 1899, she became an expert horsewoman and rower and then — if that wasn’t enough — in 1904, she even triumphed as the British national ladies’ golf champion.
Her final sporting hurrah was winning silver in women’s archer at the 1908 Olympics in London, one of only 44 women taking part alongside some 2,000 men — and the same Games where her brother William won his gold in the men’s archery event.
Neither ever married, their obsession with sports leaving little time for relationships, even if Lottie’s sciatica meant that, as she approached her 40s, she was increasingly a spectator rather than a participant.
Beyond sport, her vigour for new challenges never ceased 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 had also somehow found time to learn.
And in 1927, as a member of a renowned choir, she serenaded King George V and Queen Mary in a private chapel at Buckingham Palace.
Between all this she kept up her annual visits to Wimbledon — during which she gave trenchant criticism of the new generation of tennis stars. By the late 1920s, she wrote to the editor of The Times bemoaning ‘ill-mannered’ modern players who had the temerity to try ‘taking the umpiring into their own hands’.
O there trends were more welcome, though. In her heyday she had questioned how women players ‘can ever hope to play a sound game when their dresses impede the free movement of every limb’.
By the 1950s, hemlines were rising but these changes came too late for Lottie — then an old lady and, after William’s death in 1954, living alone in the flat they had shared in Earl’s Court, West London.
When she could no longer travel to Wimbledon each June, she still sat alone in her flat religiously following the action on the wireless.
It was a ritual which continued even after she’d moved to a Hampshire nursing home, where she died aged 88 on June 27, 1960, while listening to commentary from that year’s Wimbledon fortnight.
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 to 4/7/21; UK P&P on orders over £20), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.