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CHARLOTTE COOPER - A BIOGRAPHY
by Mark Ryan

 

Charlotte Cooper was born in Ealing, Middlesex, on 22 September 1870, the daughter of Henry Cooper of Caversham, a miller, and his wife, Teresa Georgiana, née Miller. Charlotte was the youngest of six children. She learned her tennis at the Ealing Lawn Tennis Club, where she was coached, first by H. Lawrence, then by C.H. Martin and H.S. Mahony. In those days there was no winter play and she kept fit in the winter by skipping, running, walking and playing hockey, at which sport she became a county player for Surrey. She played tennis in long skirts, an inch or two above the ground, and only kept two rackets, an old one for wet weather, and a good one for the best.

Charlotte won her first open singles title at Ilkley in 1893. During the eight years from 1894 to 1901, following the retirement of Lottie Dod, Blanche Bingley (Hillyard) and Charlotte Cooper led the field of women’s tennis and each of them won the women’s singles title at Wimbledon four times during that period, Charlotte’s victories coming in 1895, 1896 and 1898 as Miss Cooper, and in 1901 and 1908 as Mrs Sterry.

Charlotte had married her husband, Alfred Sterry, a solicitor, in 1901. They had two children: Rex (b. 1903), for many years a committee member of the All England Club at Wimbledon, and Gwynneth, known as “Gwen” (b. 1905), who also went on to compete at Wimbledon and represented Great Britain in the Wightman Cup. Charlotte is the second and one of only four women to have won the ladies’ singles titles at Wimbledon after becoming mothers, the other three being Blanche Hillyard (the first woman to win as a mother, in 1897), Dorothea Lambert Chambers and Evonne Goolagong Cawley (the most recent winner as a mother, in 1980).

When Charlotte won her fifth and final Wimbledon singles title in 1908, beating Agnes (“Agatha”) Morton 6-4, 6-4 in the final match, she was thirty-seven at the time and the mother of two children. It was a remarkable performance to regain the title for a fifth time after an interval of seven years and in doing so Charlotte inflicted the only defeat sustained by the great Dorothea Lambert Chambers at Wimbledon, at the hands of a British player, between 1903 and 1919 (during which time the war years of course intervened). At 37 years and 296 days old Charlotte still remains Wimbledon’s oldest ladies’ singles champion.

Slim, active and always ready to play for her life, Charlotte was one of the most popular players of her day and no champion has ever enjoyed the game of lawn tennis more than she did. Her game was all attack. She was one of the very few top women players before 1914 who served overhead. Mrs Lambert Chambers served underhand and only changed to overhead after the war. Charlotte came to the net at every opportunity but it was her supreme steadiness, her equable temperament and her great tactical ability which were the main reasons for her success – rather than any brilliance of stroke. She “had a go” at everyone and everything, and her smiling good temper and great sportsmanship made her as popular in her heyday as did her invincible spirit and irrepressible joie de vivre in her old age when she came back to Wimbledon to cheer on the younger generations.

Charlotte was also an extremely good doubles player. She won the All England mixed doubles with H.S. Mahony for five successive years from 1894 to 1898 and then with H.L. Doherty in 1900 and X.E. Casdagli in 1908. As in this latter year she won the All England ladies’ doubles with Maud Garfit, besides being singles champion, she became a treble Wimbledon champion in one year – a very rare achievement. (A ladies’ doubles event was held at Wimbledon for the first time in 1899, but was discontinued in 1907 before being restarted in 1913. A mixed doubles event was held at Wimbledon for the first time in 1900. Neither event received official championship status at Wimbledon until 1913 and neither event ever featured a Challenge Round when played at Wimbledon. In years before 1899, both the ladies’ doubles and mixed doubles events were held at different venues but still had the “All England” title attached. These two separate “All England” doubles events continued at their original venues for several years after 1913.)

Charlotte also won the triple crown at the Irish Championships of 1895, when, in addition to the singles, she won the ladies’ doubles with Miss E. Cooper and the mixed with H.S. Mahony. She won the Irish mixed again with Mahony in 1896 and with R.F. Doherty in 1899 and 1900, and the ladies’ doubles at the Irish Championships twice more, in 1897 with Mrs Hillyard and in 1900 with Miss E. Cooper. She won the British Covered Court mixed doubles in 1898, 1899 and 1900, each time with R.F. Doherty. In addition, she won the singles at the Scottish Championships in 1899 and numerous other championships and challenge cups. These included the singles title at the London Championships (five times), Middlesex (seven times), the Northern Championships (twice) and the Northumberland County Championships (three times).

Charlotte also played in other tournaments on the Continent, including what was then known as the Ladies’ Championship of Germany (effectively the German Open of the time). In 1897, when it was held in Hamburg, Charlotte was runner-up at this event to Blanche Hillyard, one of her main rivals. Nevertheless, she made a deep impression, the journal “Lawn Tennis” reporting that Charlotte “captivated the lawn tennis world at Hamburg by her style of play. An occasional volley from middle court the German ladies will venture on, but to see a lady go up to the net volleying and smacking balls has not fallen to the lot of players in the Fatherland before. Certainly, no better lawn tennis has ever before been witnessed in Germany”.

In 1899, Charlotte returned to Germany and won the same tournament (it was held in Bad Homburg that year), beating the top German player, Countess Clara von der Schulenburg, in the final.

In 1900, at the Olympics Games in Paris, Charlotte became the first woman to take the title of Olympic tennis champion by beating Hélène Prévost of France 6-1, 7-5 in the ladies’ singles final. She also won the mixed titled with R.F. Doherty, 6-2, 6-4, over H.S. Mahony and Mlle Prevost. Most of the winners in 1900, including the tennis champions, did not receive medals, but were given cups or trophies instead. Gold, silver, and bronze medals were retroactively awarded by the International Olympic Committee to reflect the later practice of awarding such medals to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place competitors, respectively. Early Olympic Games, such as the 1900 Summer Olympics, had no set schedule of awards.

One of Charlotte’s greatest triumphs came in 1907, the year when one of the greatest champions of all time, May Sutton, a naturalized American, aged only twenty, came back to challenge for the Wimbledon title she had won two years earlier and lost in the previous year’s Challenge Round match against Dorothea Douglass. During her tournaments in Great Britain in that year May Sutton lost only one match – to Charlotte at Old Trafford. Charlotte did not defend her Wimbledon singles title in 1909, but was runner-up to Ethel Larcombe in 1912, two months before her forty-second birthday, and reached the ladies’ double final in 1913, eighteen years after gaining her first Wimbledon title.

Charlotte had been deaf since she was twenty-six and in later years lost most of her sight, but her mind and memory remained razor sharp and her morale was excellent. For many years it had been her ambition to beat the oldest living Wimbledon champion – both in actual age and in the date of her first championship; and when Lottie Dod, who had won the first of her five championships in 1887 when only fifteen, died at the age of eighty-eight during the 1960 Wimbledon, Charlotte was out on her own. She was only three months short of ninety-first birthday when she flew down from Scotland during the 1961 Wimbledon to attend the champions’ luncheon, presided over by the president of the club, Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, to mark the seventy-fifth year of the championships. She lived happily for another five years before she died at Helensburgh, Dunbartonshire, Scotland, on 10 October 1966 at the age of ninety-six.

This biography is based on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) together with original research by Mark Ryan.