Lottie Dod (1871-1960) - The first teenage tennis prodigy
This piece is a combination of the entry on Lottie Dod in the 2004 "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography" and original research by me.
Charlotte “Lottie” Dod was born on 24 September 1871 at Lower Bebington, Cheshire, England, the fourth and youngest child of the two sons and two daughters of Joseph Dod (died 1879), a Liverpool cotton broker and banker, and his wife, Margaret, née Aspinall (died 1901). By the time of Lottie’s birth, her father was wealthy enough to retire from business, and on his death in November 1879 he left his family well provided for, so that Lottie enjoyed an independent income throughout her life. Like her brothers and sister, she was educated by governesses and private tutors at the family home, Edgeworth, at Bebington.
The Dods were an engaging band of enthusiasts for the types of sports which were gaining favour in late Victorian country houses: croquet, archery, golf, bowls, billiards and skating. Lottie’s elder sister, Ann (born 1864), an accomplished skater, was considered one of the best woman billiards players in England; her eldest brother, William (born 1868), won a gold medal for archery at the 1908 Olympic Games in London; and her second brother, Anthony (born 1870), was chess champion of Cheshire and Lancashire.
At the age of nine Lottie was introduced to the recently invented game of lawn tennis on the grass court at Edgeworth. In 1883 she won a consolation doubles competition with her sister, Ann, at the Northern Championships held at Manchester Lawn Tennis Club, impressing many judges with the consistency of her groundstrokes. When she was still only thirteen, in 1885, she won all three open events at the Waterloo tournament and gave the Wimbledon champion Maud Watson a close contest in the All-Comers’ Final of the Northern Championships before losing 8-6, 7-5, exploits which gained Lottie the title of “the little wonder”.
She entered Wimbledon for the first time in July 1887, aged fifteen years and ten months. After beating two opponents in the opening rounds, she met Blanche Bingley in the Challenge Round. The match became a rout as Lottie took the title for the loss of only two games, 6-2, 6-0; the second set was completed in ten minutes. (Lottie Dod remains the youngest ladies’ singles champion to this day; Martina Hingis was three days younger when she won the ladies’ doubles title in 1996.) Easy victories in the Irish, North of England and West of England Championships in the same year confirmed her position as the unrivalled women’s champion. She defeated Maud Watson in each of the three finals.
Lottie was less dominant in 1888, but again defeated Blanche Bingley at Wimbledon, in the Challenge Round, 6-3, 6-3. in a match which lasted under half an hour. Unwilling to disrupt a yachting holiday, she declined to defend her title in 1899 and played no championship tennis in 1890. But she returned to Wimbledon in 1891 and 1892. By then her powerful volleying and overheads were untouchable. In the 1893 competition she was hard pushed by Bingley’s tireless retrieving, and she lost the first set, but recovered to win her fifth Wimbledon title by exposing a weakness in her opponent’s backhand. The final score was 6-8, 6-1, 6-4. Lottie retired from competition in 1893 partly, it was said, through boredom and partly through a desire to try her hand at other sports.
Lottie Dod hit the ball fiercely but with little spin. She was not particularly tall – at five foot, six inches, she was slightly above medium height – nor obviously muscular, though she had powerful biceps, but her groundstrokes had the pace and authority of her male contemporaries. Her game was based on superb anticipation and footwork. To allow her greater mobility around the court, she wore shorter skirts than were fashionable. These, worn with black stockings and black shoes, and a white cricket cap, which emphasized her jet black hair and oval face, gave the initial impression of a tomboy, but off the court she dressed with elegance.
Lottie’s main “heresies” were adamant counselling that groundstrokes should be taken just before the top of the bounce and that players should switch from a “western” forehand grip to a pronounced backhand grip when switching wings. Six decades later her techniques became the norm. As a doubles player, she and her sister were among the first players to attack the net in tandem. In eleven years of tournament tennis she was defeated only five times in singles matches played on level terms (i.e. without a handicap).
Lottie’s interests widened in the early 1890s and she received much press attention as a cyclist. She began playing golf and entered the 1894 British Ladies’ Championship, but was defeated in an early round. It was one of the few sports for which she did not possess prodigious talent; her swing was mechanical and often involved contortions to avoid a slice. In the winter of 1895-6 she participated in a variety of sports at Saint Moritz. She negotiated the Cresta run and showed ability as a mountaineer; making an ascent of Piz Zupo (4,002 metres), a mountain in the Bernina Range in Switzerland and Italy, in February 1896 with Elizabeth Main, a pioneer alpinist and photographer, and a Swiss guide. Extending her European tour to Italy, she and some friends covered considerable distances by bicycle in a trip which took in Genoa, Florence and Rome.
In 1898, Lottie was defeated in the semi-final of the British Ladies’ Golf Championship at Great Yarmouth, England. While her play was immaculate from tee to green, erratic putting resulted in defeat by one hole. In the following year she lost again at the semi-final stage but recovered a few days later to defeat the leading Irish player, Elaine Magill, in an international match between England and Ireland. In 1904, at Troon, she won the Ladies’ Championship, defeating May Hezlet on the final green before a raucous crowd of 5,000, including hundreds of dock workers who had deserted the Clyde. She became an unofficial ambassador for British golf and competed in the American Championship of the same year but lost in the first round. However, she succeeded in persuading many of the top American players, including the Curtis sisters, to visit Britain in 1905. In so doing she laid the foundations for the Curtis Cup.
At the turn of the century Lottie underlined her versatility by making two appearances for the England hockey team. In March 1899 she played at inside right against Ireland on the Richmond athletic ground in London, where her adroit dribbling contributed to a 3-1 victory for the home side. In March 1900 at Ballsbridge, Dublin, she scored twice and impressed many with her reverse stickwork during an England victory by two goals to one.
In 1906, Lottie began to concentrate on archery and competed at the White City for the women’s Olympic archery title in July 1908. She won a silver medal, losing narrowly to Sybil Newall. The event was debased by the absence of Alice Legh, and Lottie can be counted as only the third strongest archer of her time.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Lottie gained nursing qualifications and made repeated applications to be stationed in France, but was rejected for such duties because of her sciatica. However, her work at a military hospital near Newbury resulted in a Red Cross gold medal. In 1921 she settled in London, where she was active in musical circles. As a contralto she sang for many years with the London Oriana Madrigal Society and became its honorary secretary. In the late 1920s she became a member of the Bach Cantata Club under the baton of her close friend Charles Kennedy Scott.
In the mid-1930s, Lottie Dod did much youth work. She taught piano and part singing to a group of Girl Guides in Whitechapel, London, and assisted at many youth clubs in the East End. She was reluctant to leave London during the Blitz, but eventually settled at Westward Ho! a seaside village near Bideford in Devon, with her unmarried brother William and served as lady president of the Royal North Devon Gold Club in 1949. She returned to live in Earl’s Court, London, in 1950. As her health declined she spent much time in nursing homes on the south coast of England. She died (unmarried), following a fall, at Birch Hill Nursing Home, Sway, Hampshire, on 27 June 1960. Her attendant reported that she was listening to radio commentary from Wimbledon at the time. She was 88.