Extract from LITTLE WONDER by Sasha Abramsky

  23 Jun '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Battle of the Sexes

The summer of her second Wimbledon win, in 1888, Lottie Dod, now aged sixteen, invited three of the best male tennis players of her age to a series of sporting duels. This was a full eighty-five years before sports’ most famous battle of the sexes, when, in 1973, an ageing Bobby Riggs challenged Billie Jean King to a tennis match and had his head very publicly handed to him on a plate in a bling-filled, $100,000, winner-take-all, globally televised match in the Houston Astrodome. The sporting world of the 1880s, the fans, the reporters, none had ever seen anything quite like what Dod was proposing. In the Victorian imagination, such a matchup was almost inconceivable, a pairing that was fundamentally against the natural order – but the Little Wonder, flush with her string of victories, supremely confident as to her abilities, believed that she could triumph.

Harry Grove, a Londoner nine years Dod’s senior, had won the Scottish championships in 1887 and reached the finals again the next year. As for the Renshaw brothers, the twins William and Ernest, they had utterly dominated Wimbledon since the start of the decade. William had won the tournament six times in a row, from 1881, six months after the twins celebrated their twentieth birthdays, to 1886, and would win one more championship in 1889. In his first win, William had demolished the reigning champion, Reverend J.T. Hartley, 6–0, 6–1, 6–1, in a match that lasted only thirty-seven minutes. It would establish a speed record for a Wimbledon men’s final that has never since been beaten. Ernest had lost to his brother in several of the Wimbledon finals, though would partially redeem himself by winning the tournament in 1888. And the pair had combined into a formidable team that had won five Wimbledon men’s doubles titles. Their matches routinely drew huge crowds and ecstatic commentary from sports reporters.

“The match was of a most obstinate character, both brothers playing the hard volleys known as the Renshaw smashes to perfection,” reported a Morning Post writer of the 1883 Wimbledon final, watched by an estimated 2,000 people, which William eventually won in five sets. “Considerable excitement prevailed, as both were in excellent condition and playing in fine form, hard volleying and rapid service being the order of the day.” Three years later, the Derby Mercury waxed rhapsodic about the “immense concourse of spectators” who came to watch William Renshaw play.

All three men knew that their female opponent, Dod, was a skilled player; indeed, Ernest Renshaw had partnered with her over the previous year to win several major mixed doubles events. They had a good, friendly rapport. And Grove had also, at times, played mixed doubles with the teenager. In Exmouth that summer, after Ernest and Lottie won a tournament together, a friend’s camera had caught them sitting on a bench, casually talking. Ernest was wearing white trousers, spats, a white shirt, a checkered jacket and a matching cravat. His face was dominated by a delicate moustache and intense, soulful eyes. Lottie was smiling; a rarity in her photos from the period, she looked relaxed, happy.

The men Dod challenged probably figured that the unorthodox contests could only bolster their already high profiles in the rapidly growing sports culture of the era. And so they eagerly accepted her throw down.

Despite Miss Dod’s already remarkable résumé, the three gentlemen were confident that they could dispatch her with a minimum of fuss. After all, Lottie had two strikes against her: she was, quite obviously, a girl; and, following on from that, she would have to wear long skirts and all the other clothing that made it so difficult for women athletes to move fast. Ernest Renshaw knew, from first-hand experience, that this was a hindrance, since he had once, on a dare, dressed up in women’s clothing to play a friendly few games against Blanche Bingley. In fact, so bullish were they that, in an age in which many matches were played with handicaps, much like golf is today, they offered the girl what they assumed would be a sporting chance, something to keep the attendees a bit on edge before they put the girl in the awkward cricket cap back in her rightful, subservient place.

Each game would, Grove and the Renshaws stated in accepting the dare, begin with Dod ahead 30–0. (William had boasted that against any other woman he would even offer 40–0 head starts, essentially meaning he’d have to win at least the first three points of every game in order to thread a path to victory.) They also offered her “bisques”, a sort of second chance then in vogue in handicapped tennis matches, in which the weaker player could request two or three point replays each set, allowing them to scrub a few poorly played points at vital interludes in a game.

Since in tennis the scoring was 15, 30, 40, game, the Wimbledon ladies’ champion would need only two points to win each game; her opponent, by contrast, would need four. Dod accepted the conditions. Dressed in an ankle-length white dress, the sleeves down to her wrists, the body of the dress up to the middle of her neck, with a corset underneath, her legs covered in thick black stockings, her feet clad in the sort of clunky black leather shoes worn by washerwomen, her head protected from the sun by a delicate white cricket cap, she set to work. The Little Wonder employed her powerful forehand to the full, chasing down balls in the far corners of the court, charging the net whenever possible to end the rally with one of her signature devastating volleys. For tennis cognoscenti, her game was something to marvel at. The tennis chronicler A. Wallis Myer called her simply “the incomparable Miss Dod”.

In the first match, played in northern England on the Monday following the end of a draining weeklong tournament,

the girl took on Ernest Renshaw. Local papers had heavily publicised the event, which was billed as a charity exhibition with ticket proceeds going to the regional dispensary, and with additional mixed doubles matches featuring the two stars thrown in as a bonus. Dod won the first set at a dash, crushing her mixed doubles partner 6–2. But then, according to the reports from the grounds, she flagged. Perhaps the week of tennis had caught up with her; perhaps Renshaw, realising he had a real match on his hands, simply raised his game one vital notch. He perceived, a commentator acerbically reported, “that he had no ordinary lady opponent, and from that moment every stroke was keenly contested, both players doing their utmost to gain the victory”. Whatever the reason, he won, but only just. The final score was 2–6, 7–5, 7–5. Newspapers noted the “brilliancy” of Dod’s play, the astounding hand-eye coordination she showed at the net. She ran her opponent around the court so hard that it almost seemed, they wrote, as if Renshaw’s opponent were a man.

Later that summer, in between regular matches at a tournament in Scarborough, the exhibitions resumed.

First, the teenager wiped the floor with Grove, beating him 1–6, 6–0, 6–3. Then she took on the six-time Wimbledon champion – a man who for years had been the fiercest player on the lawn tennis circuit, a hero who travelled throughout the British Isles from one tournament to the next, routinely humbling his opponents. By the end of that match, Dod had proven her point. In demolishing William Renshaw 6–2, 6–4, she had shown that women, those delicate, fragile flowers of the Victorian imagination, were more than capable of holding their own in the most physical of domains. The newspapers gushed about her “remarkable feats” in taking down the best male players of her era.

‘Masterfully captures the life of this little-known sportswoman, a versatile female athlete … In an eloquently written narrative, spiced with vivid descriptions of the Victorian era and the early twentieth century, he shines a light on Dod’

Booklist, STARRED Review

Sasha Abramsky grew up in London and now lives in Sacramento with dual UK-US citizenship. He is a freelance journalist, writer, public speaker and university lecturer at U.C. Davis. He has written thousands of articles and is the author of eight published books including Inside Obama’s Brain (Penguin, 2009), The American Way of Poverty (Nation Books, 2013) and The House of Twenty Thousand Books (Halban, 2014).

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