If there is one record which will not be broken easily at Wimbledon, it’s the one for the youngest female champion at the tournament. In 1887, aged 15 years and 285 days old, Charlotte « Lottie » Dod won her first Wimbledon. At that time, she probably couldn’t imagine that she would go on to become one of sport’s greatest figures, managing to reach the highest level in no less than five disciplines.
If the Guinness Book of Records gathers the most insane records every year, it sometimes offers some of the most prestigious medals. Among these, one has only been awarded twice. The one for the most versatile athlete of all time. The first one was awarded to Charlotte « Lottie » Dod, a woman like no other. These days, we can applaud the feats of great players like the Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters, Justine Hénin, Anna Kournikova, or Amélie Mauresmo, but which player can pride herself of having shone in other sports than tennis ? None. Lottie can. And five different times. Entering the tennis history books not being enough for her, the Bebington-born player put her mark on archery, winter sports, field hockey and golf. Nicknamed « Little Wonder », she was indeed one of the wonders of her time. The second one ? Babe Zaharias, american, tennis, athletics, baseball, and golf champion, she also tried her luck in gymnastics, skiing, and American football.
A school uniform
According to a famous saying, the apple never falls far from the tree. Born close to Liverpool in 1871 in a rich cotton-traders family, Lottie grew up with sports enthusiasts. As herself like her three siblings (Ann, William, and Anthony) never had to work for a living, they could all enjoy practicing their favorite sports : golf, archery, snooker, bowling and croquet. But Lottie quickly embraces tennis. In 1887, as she is only 15, Lottie takes part in Wimbledon for the first time, boosted by the countless titles she has won in the previous months. In the final, she crushes the title holder, Blanche Bingley, 6-0 : 6-2. The second set only lasts ten minutes. On the court, Lottie is recognizable at first glance. Her young age allows her to play in a very particular outfit. Forget the long dresses, the mandatory outfit for women at the time, Little Wonder plays in what truely looks like a school uniform. A simple question of aesthetics or a considerable advantage ? Elizabeth Wilson, a tennis historian, thought she might have the answer, in The Canberra Times : « Dod always fought for the right for women to play in an outfit which wouldn’t constrain their movements. »
Quite tall for the time (5,5 ft), Charlotte is mainly recognizable for her powerful game. Gifted with an incredible forehand, she’s particularly the first female player on the circuit to step to the net and use an underarm serve. Feminist before her time, she blames the other players, which she accuses of being lazy : « Women don’t put in enough efforts. They should give their maximum. They would then see that some balls are easy to hit back. Instead of this, they make two steps forward and quit. » The youngest player to ever have won Wimbledon - Martina Hingis was a little younger when she won the doubles with Helena Sukova in 1996 - Lottie retained her title in 1888 and won again in 1891, 1892 and 1893. What about 1889 and 1890 ? The first year, Lottie was on the family’s yacht during the tournament. The year after that, she simply didn’t want to go. Finally, she retired from tennis at the age of 21, explaining that the eternal quest of winning titles didn’t seem interesting to her. Lottie wanted challenge, real challenge, and she focused on finding it elsewhere.
Piano and…banjo player
Excellent golf player, she won the British Ladies’ Amateur Golf Championships in 1904, becoming the first women to win a major tournament in two different sports. Insatiable, Lottie also excels at field hockey. In addition to being the Cheshire County’s team captain - where Lewis Carroll’s famous cat is from - she played for England in 1899 and 1900. In 1906, 1907 and 1908, Charlotte finally became passionate about archery. Dexterity being one of her numerous qualities, she won, in 1908, a silver medal at the Olympic Games in London. Knowing that, before this olympic title, she had become the first woman to go down the famous skeleton track of Cresta Run, in Switzerland. In 1896, she also featured on magazine covers for having managed to climb up two summits higher than 4000 meters and mastering all the ice-skating figures imposed to women. And men ! If all of that wasn’t enough, Lottie was also an excellent musician - she played the piano and the banjo - and a devoted nurse. During the first world war, she received the Red Cross golden medal after having served more than 1000 hours for her country. In the end, no one summed up her life better than the English righter Rudyard Kipling when he wrote : « I suppose what is good enough for God is good enough for Dod. »
By Gabriel Cnudde
For more information, read Lottie Dod – Champion of Champions – Story of an Athlete by Jeffrey Pearson (1988)