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.

Six times Wimbledon champion Blanche Bingley Hillyard recalls her second Wimbledon victory in 1889. Extract from Lawn Tennis for Ladies by Dorothy Chambers Lambert.

“One of the most exciting matches I remember was the final for the championships at Wimbledon, played on the Centre Court on July 6, 1889, between Miss Rice and me.

I started very nervously, as Miss Rice had given me rather a fright in the Irish Championship the month before, when she appeared in Dublin as a “dark horse”. On that occasion I had only scraped through 7-5 7-5. I began the match at Wimbledon by serving a double fault, and lost several games by doing the same thing in the first set. My length was awful and Miss Rice was playing well from the start. She had a very fine forehand drive, but, like myself, a bad backhand. She led a 3 games to 1, and took the first set at 6-4.

In the second set I regained my confidence a little, winning three love games out of the first four; but Miss Rice won the next four games in succession, the score being called 5-3 and 40-15 against me.
At this point, in my despair, I said th Mr. Chipp, who was umpiring the match, “What can I do?”. His grim answer was, “Play better, I should think.”
I then fully realized that I had not been playing my best game and that to win I must hit harder. This I did, with the result that my length improved and I snatched this game from the fire -although Miss Rice was three times within a stroke of the match- and I eventually won the set at 8-6.

The last set was well fought out, for, although I began well and led at 3-1, Miss Rice won the next three games in succession and rached 40-30 in the following game. This was her last effort, as I ran out at 6-4, winning the Championship for the second time. I think it was one of the closest matches I ever played, and I see that I only won 18 games to her 16, and 110 strokes to her 100, and I felt I was most lucky to win at all.”

Extract from Lawn Tennis for Ladies by Dorothy Chambers Lambert:

“Without doubt my most exciting match was the final last year (1909) at Wimbledon. In every player’s heart there must be a faint hope that one day she may win the All England Championship. At least it has always been mine.

From Christmas and all through the spring my family and friends had dinned into my ears that now was my chance, and if I did not win this year I never would. Only when I was leading one set up and 2-love in the second did all these things flash across my mind. I suddenly got nervous. Oh, the misery of it!
I served double fault after double fault (I learnt afterwards that I gave sixteen points in this way), and my friends told me that it was a relief for them when my service went over the net at all, however slowly.

My opponent Miss Morton, caught up, won the set 6-4 and led me 4-2 in the final set. All this time I had been fighting hard to regain confidence. At last my nerve came back – I was determined to win, and, only after a very great effort, just succeeded in capturing the Championship with the narrow margin of 8-6 in the final set.

It was not until I had finished and ow had come off the court that I realized how very excited I had been, and how relieved I was when it was all over. Only those who have had experience can know how exhausting it is to concentrate one’s whole thoughts and efforts, without cessation, for an hour or more.
Fortunately you do not feel the strain until afterwards, when it does not matter, and then you can look back with very great pleasure and satisfaction on a hard-won fight.”

5 times Wimbledon champion (1895, 1896, 1898, 1901, 1908), 6 times runner-up (at that time the winner was automatically qualified for the final the year after) and first woman ever to become an Olympic Champion, Charlotte Cooper recalls her best Wimbledon memories in the book Lawn Tennis for Ladies by Dorothy Chambers Lambert, published in 1910.

“Of course it goes without saying that my most memorable and exciting matches will all be those in which I have excelled or been the most distinguished person at the immediate moment! Let me just say that I am not going to give details of any match, as that is beyond my power and, I assume, of little interest to the reader.
Winning my first championship of the Ealing Lawn Tennis Club at the age of 14 was a very important moment in my life. How well I remember, bedecked by my proud mother in my best clothes, running off to the Club on the Saturday afternoon to play in the final without a vestige of nerve (would that I had none now!), and winning – that was the first really important match of my life.

Another great game will always be imprinted on my memory, and that was in 1894, the first year that the late Mr. H.S. Mahony and I won the All England Mixed Championship. We beat Mrs. Hillyard and Mr. W. Baddeley in the final. The excitement of the onlookers was intense, and never shall I forget the overpowering sensation I felt as we walked, after our win, past the Aigburth Cricket Ground Stand, packed to its limit. How the people clapped and cheered us! It was tremendous.

Another memory – the year 1895. Certainly I must be honest and say it wasn’t exactly a good championship win, for Miss Dod, Mrs. Hillyard, and Miss Martin were all standing out. Any of these could have beaten me. Nevertheless it was a delightful feeling to win the blue ribbon of England, especially as my opponent in the final, Miss Jackson, had led 5-love in both sets! By some good fortune I was able to win seven games off the reel in each case.

One more match – in 1907. I had heard a great deal about Miss May Sutton (who made her first appearance in England in 1905) beating everybody without the loss of a set. I had also heard she was a giant of strength, and that the harder one hit the more she liked it. The first time I met her was at Liverpool in 1907 – I did not play the previous season. I was determined to introduce unfamiliar tactics, giving her short balls in order to entice her up to the net. The result was that many of her terrific drives went out, and I think this was primarily the reason why I was the first lady in England to take a set from her. I recollect her telling me, after the match was over, that my game was very different to any other she had ever played, and that she was not anxious to meet me again–remarks I took as a great
compliment.

There are scores of games just the reverse of pleasant which are imprinted on my memory, but I am not going to revive them at my own expense, hoping they have been forgotten and forgiven to my account, by any unfortunate partners I have ever let down.”