1908 Olympics Games: Britain takes the medals

Extract from Tennis’s strangest matches by Peter Seddon:

Since the Modern Olympic Games began in 1896, the number of occasions on which British competitors have made a clean sweep of the medals in one event has been, let’s admit it, rather fewer than they would have liked. So hats off to the British ladies’ tennis squad at the 1908 London Olympics who saw off all opposition to take gold, silver and bronze.

What a proud moment it must have been as the long-skirted heroines ran down every ball and rallied to the cause, pink cheeks all aglow, with true British spirit. But alas, behind this most agreeable 1-2-3 is a rather different story.

What could possibly be insinuated? Might it have been a hollow victory? Who were the opposition? In truth, a more appropriate question is ‘Where was the opposition?’ Let the farce commence.
Matters began only mildly strangely when it was decided there would be two Olympic tennis titles that year, a covered court tournament staged at Queen’s Club in May, followed by a contest on grass at Wimbledon in July.

Gladys Eastlake Smith served notice of Britain’s triumphal intentions by taking the indoor gold and two months later the grass court Olympics sprang into action at Wimbledon’s Worple Road ground.
‘Sprang’ may be too strong a word. Teetered proved to be about right. Thirteen ladies put their names forward for entry into the singles, among them six overseas players willing to mix it with the seven-strong British field. But things started to go pear-shaped early on.

Officials in charge of the draw squirmed uneasily as none of the overseas players turned up! They comforted themselves with the thought that it could still be a cracking contest even though Britain was guaranteed the medals. It was, after all, a strong field.

There was Charlotte Sterry, fresh from winning her fifth Wimbledon crown the month before, and six-times champion Blanche Hillyard; what a battle that might be. ‘Might’ proved to be the operative word as both of them scratched. The officials, meanwhile, merely began to itch a little.
That still left fine five players chasing those three elusive medals. It was fighting talk but nothing more as the destination of gold, silver and bronze was decided by playing just four matches in four rounds.

In a ludicrous draw, which included all eight phantom players, walkovers were the order of the day. Madame Fenwick, the French hope, was entirely conspicuous by her absence but still progressed to the semi-final draw by first ‘defeating’ the equally invisible Austrian torchbearer Miss Matouch and following this walkover with another over fellow truant Charlotte Sterry.

While Madame Fenwick might have read of her disembodied Olympic progress with not a little astonishment from the comfort of a sun-drenched terrace somewhere on the French Riviera, Dorothy Chambers Lambert seized gold by winning three matches comfortably. Her opponent in the final was Dora Boothby, who just about made a game of it by losing 6-1 7-5 after getting there without striking a ball, courtesy of two walkovers. Thus she became the honoured recipient of an Olympic silver medal without winning a match and by taking only six games.

Even that performance was heroic compared to the one that captured the bronze; that coveted gong went to Ruth Winch whose only match was her semi-final defeat againt Chambers Lambert in which she took the meastly total of two games.

No matter! It was a triple triumph for the British who had steadfastly overcome the absentee Austain, French and Hungarian entants by adhering to the most important principle of lawn tennis competition. The cynics may chorus ‘It’s a lottery’ and that’s precisely the point.

Those British girls weren’t daft. They knew the first rule of any competition. If you’re not in it you can’t win it.

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