Lena Rice (1866-1907) - Ireland's only Wimbledon women's singles champion
This short biography is based on a biographical piece written by one Eileen Bell for the "Tipperary Historical Journal" and original research by me. I combined information from the various sources to write this piece.
Helena Bertha Grace Rice, known as “Lena”, was born on 21 June 1866 at Marlhill, a two-storied Georgian mansion half a mile from New Inn, County Tipperary, Ireland. Her parents were Spring Rice and Anna Rice, née Gorde. Lena was the second-youngest child of eight children. Lena’s siblings were Spring Robert, Samuel Pollock, Henry, Elizabeth, Constance, Annie and Lucy. Their father died when Lena was very young and the family’s financial situation took a gradual downturn thereafter.
The Rice family home was surrounded by a well-kept garden and the grounds contained a tennis court and a duck pond. Like many gentry homes at that time, Marlhill was the venue for regular tennis parties. Lena, who often partnered her sister Annie at tennis, learnt the game at home. The two girls also frequently played at Cahir Lawn Tennis Club in Tipperary, about five miles away from where they lived, which then had four tennis courts as well as two croquet lawns.
One of Lena’s first sporting appearances outside County Tipperary was at the Irish Championships at Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin, in 1883. Lena, who was then just 16 years of age, lost early in the singles event but, partnering her countryman Peter Aungier, reached the final of the mixed doubles, where they lost a best-of-five-set match to their compatriots Ernest Browne and May Langrishe, 6-3, 6-2, 6-0.
Lena had better luck at the Irish Championships six years later, in 1889. She lost narrowly to Blanche Hillyard in the semi-final of the singles event, but won the mixed doubles title with her countryman Willoughby Hamilton. In the final they defeated the English pairing of Harold Stone and Mrs Hillyard, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4.
After competing in the Lansdowne meeting in Dublin in June 1889, Lena travelled to England to compete at Wimbledon. Reaching the All-Comers’ Final, which was effectively the last match (Lottie Dod, the champion, was not defending her title that year), Lena found that Blanche Hillyard, who had beaten Annie Rice in an earlier round, was her opponent. Although at one stage Lena led by a set and 5-3, 40-15, Mrs Hillyard made a characteristically gritty comeback and went on to win 4-6, 8-6, 6-4, eventually saving a total of three match points.
Years later Blanche Hillyard was to write the following revealing account of this 1889 Wimbledon final against Lena:
“One of the most exciting matches I remember was the final for the Championship at Wimbledon, played on the centre court on July 6, 1889, between Miss Rice and me. I started very nervously, as Miss Rice had given me rather a fright in the Irish Championship the month before, when she appeared in Dublin as a ‘dark horse’. On that occasion I had only scraped through 7-5, 7-5. I began the match at Wimbledon by serving a double fault, and lost several games by doing the same thing in the first set. My length was awful, and Miss Rice was playing well from the start. She had a very fine forehand drive but, like myself, a bad backhand.
“She led at 3 games to 1, and took the first set at 6-4. In the second set I regained my confidence a little, winning three love games out of the first four; but Miss Rice won the next four games in succession, the score being called 5-3 and 40-15 against me. At this point, in my despair, I said to Mr. [Herbert] Chipp, who was umpiring the match, ‘What can I do?’ His grim answer was, ‘Play better, I should think.’ I then fully realized that I had not been playing my best game, and that to win I must hit harder. This I did, with the result that my length improved and I snatched this game from the fire although Miss Rice was three times within a stroke of the match, and I eventually won the set at 8-6.
“The last set was well fought out, for, although I began well and led at 3-1, Miss Rice won the next three games in succession and reached 40-30 in the following game. This was her last effort, as I ran out at 6-4, winning the Championship for the second time. I think it was one of the closest matches I ever played, and I see by ‘Pastime’ that I only won 18 games to her 16, and 110 strokes to her 100, and I felt I was most lucky to win at all.”
That match makes Lena one of four women to have lost the ladies’ singles final at Wimbledon after having match points (Dorothea Lambert Chambers had two in her 1919 final against Suzanne Lenglen; Helen Jacobs had one in her 1935 final against Helen Wills Moody; and Lindsay Davenport had one against Venus Williams in their 2005 final). Lena Rice is the only player to have lost the ladies’ singles final after having as many three match points.
At the same meeting in 1889, Lena became the first Irishwoman to officiate at Wimbledon. She “took a line” in the All-Comers’ Final between William Renshaw, six times the singles champion, and Herbert Lawford. At the 1890 Irish Championships Lena lost the singles final 9-7, 6-4 to Louisa Martin. However, she won the handicap singles at the Lansdowne event, also held in Dublin.
At Wimbledon in 1890, only four women entered the ladies’ singles event. Lena beat Englishwoman Mary Steedman 7-5, 6-2 to reach the All-Comers’ Final, where her opponent was May Jacks, also of England. The match took place on Friday, 4 July, in fine weather. According to contemporary accounts, Lena Rice wore a two-piece costume, comprising an ankle-length, floral-patterned skirt and a blouse tightly clinched at the waist. The following report on the All-Comers’ Final (Blanche Hillyard was not defending her title, so there would be no Challenge Round) is taken from the 1891 “Lawn Tennis Calendar”, an annual published by “The Field” sports journal:
“Friday, July 4. The weather was fine when Miss Rice and Miss Jacks commenced their match in the final round of the Ladies’ Singles. It was known beforehand that Mrs Hillyard would not defend her position as lady champion, so that the match was invested with a great deal of interest. Miss Rice gained the opening game, but lost the next three, and also the sixth. From that point Miss Rice played better and better, returning the ball more severely, and placing well. She took the next four games and thus gained the set.
“Following this up, Miss Rice also won another four games, and then, after losing the fifth, gained two love-games, and so the set and match. The last four were all love games and there were only two games at deuce during the whole match. Miss Rice played well throughout, and thoroughly deserved her victory.”
Thus did Lena Rice become the champion. After her victory Lena was presented with the 50-guinea challenge trophy, together with a cash prize of 20 guineas. This was only the second season that Lena had played a significant amount of competitive tennis but, curiously, there is no record of her ever doing so again.
In “Lawn Tennis at Home and Abroad” (first published in 1903), Harry Scrivener wrote of Lena: “A wonderful player with a terrible ‘Irish’ drive and a powerful service, she had one weakness, an inability, or a disinclination, to play a backhander down the line. She almost invariably crossed her backhand returns, and lovely strokes they were; but her opponents got to know of this and were thus able to ‘get there’ in time. If she had stuck to the game, she would, with more experience, have made a dangerous rival to Miss [Lottie] Dod.”
It is surmised that family ill-health may have forced Lena to end her tennis career at the age of just 24. Her mother died in 1891, after struggling to manage the household since the death of her husband 23 years earlier. Lena herself is said to have lived a reclusive existence in later life.
On 21 June 1907, just 17 years after her Wimbledon triumph, Lena Rice died on her forty-first birthday after a long struggle with tuberculosis. She was buried close to her parents in the local Protestant cemetery in Downey’s Field, County Tipperary.
Last edited by newmark401; Nov 2nd, 2011 at 12:00 PM.