Tennis: Hingis in a class of her own

Lottie Dod was the youngest champion, but she has been eclipsed, says John Roberts

Do not believe everything you read in the record books. There is a dubious tennis entry proclaiming Charlotte "Lottie" Dod to be the youngest Grand Slam singles champion in history on the strength of a victory at Wimbledon in 1887 at the age of 15 years and 285 days.

While our Lottie was indubitably the sporting prodigy of the Victorian era, when fashion and decorum decreed bustles and no hustle, what she achieved cannot compare with the 16-year-old Martina Hingis's triumph at the Australian Open.

To put things in perspective, it could even be argued that Hingis's feat in winning the Wimbledon junior singles championship at the age of 13 in 1994 eclipsed Lottie Dod's performance, never mind the Swiss player's startling entrance, aged 12, clasping the French Open junior title.

There was no international competition in 1887, when lawn tennis was in its infancy. It was not until 1900 that the first woman from overseas competed at Wimbledon, the American Marion Jones losing in the second round. The first overseas champion, in 1905, was May Sutton, an American born in Plymouth, the daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy.

The term "Grand Slam" was first applied to tennis in 1938 by an American journalist, Allison Danzig, in describing Donald Budge's accomplishment in winning the four major singles championships of France, Wimbledon, the United States and Australia in a calendar year.

In Lottie Dod's time even the domestic competition was sparse. She was required to play only three matches in 1887, including her victory in the Challenge Round against the title holder, Blanche Bingley. By 1893, Lottie had won the title five times, winning nine matches, losing none and only once dropping a set.

Taking stock of the general standard, Lottie was not impressed by the level of fitness. "Ladies should learn to run, and run their hardest, too, not merely stride. They would find (if they tried) that many a ball, seemingly out of reach, could be returned with ease; but, instead of running hard, they go a few steps and exclaim, `Oh, I can't!' and stop."

The restrictive clothing did not help. Lottie's one advantage in 1887 was that being a schoolgirl she was allowed to play in a calf-length dress. Later on she wore a loose, long-sleeved blouse and a dark blue skirt, and in 1905 she appealed for "a suitable attire for women's tennis which does not impede breathing."

By then, this daughter of a wealthy Cheshire cotton broker had long abandoned Dod's little acre at Wimbledon for fresh sporting fields. Lottie became a champion golfer, a hockey international, an Olympic silver medalist at archery, a rower, a rider, a mountaineer, a skater and a tobogganist on the Cresta Run. She also sang contralto, played the piano, and was reputed to play a good hand of bridge.

Although many of the older tennis enthusiasts in the 1930s still contended that Lottie was the greatest, whatever claims to the contrary made on behalf of Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills Moody, the game had moved on.

Lenglen, the balletic French sensation of the 1920s, was only 15 when she won the World Hard Court Championship at St Cloud in 1914, but, with war looming, her father would not risk bringing her to Wimbledon that year.

In 1919 Lenglen won the first of her six Wimbledon singles titles, and her popularity was one of the reasons why the Wimbledon championships outgrew Worple Road and were moved to new grounds at Church Road.

Helen Wills, 17 when winning the first of seven United States singles titles in 1923, was Wimbledon's most prolific singles champion with eight titles until surpassed by Martina Navratilova.

Maureen Connolly's career in the 1950s was brief but brilliant. Nicknamed "Little Mo" (an allusion to "Big Mo", the US battleship Missouri), she was the youngest winner of the United States championships, 16 years and 11 months, until Tracy Austin succeeded her by two months in 1979.

In 1953 "Little Mo" became the first woman to accomplish the Grand Slam, losing only one set in the process. She was 20 when her career was ended by an accident while horse riding. She had won Wimbledon three times, the United States title three times, the French twice and the Australian once.

Steffi Graf was still only 19 when she became the only player of either sex to win the Grand Slam on four different surfaces - grass, clay, concrete and rubberised concrete - and added a gold medal from the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Monica Seles was only 16 years and six months when she won the first of nine Grand Slam singles titles at the 1990 French Open.

As the sport has grown, so styles and attitudes have altered. Television viewers saw Martina Hingis's mother and coach, Melanie, scramble over the perimeter wall and fall to the court in her eagerness to embrace her daughter in the moment of triumph.

One evening in 1895, according to legend, Charlotte Cooper rode her bicycle to her parents' home in Surbiton to find her father clipping the hedge.

"Where have you been, dear?" he asked, failing to notice the racket clipped to a bracket on the front fork.

"Oh, to Wimbledon of course, father," she replied.

"Ah, yes. You mentioned it, I remember. You were playing the final, weren't you. Did you win?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact I did."

"I'm so glad," said father.

Charlotte Cooper-Sterry went on to win the title on four subsequent occasions, becoming Wimbledon's oldest women's singles champion (37 years and 282 days in 1908). Best consult Martina Navratilova on that one.

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