In the early 2000s, while researching for my college’s annual quiz fest, I stumbled upon a book that mentioned the first individual female Olympic champion – Charlotte Cooper.
Charlotte, a British born was a Victorian woman first and then a tennis player, evident from the outfits that were worn by the ladies playing tennis at that time in and around England. Interestingly, it was the sport tennis which was very popular among women in the late 19th century, though elitist. Ms. Cooper took a liking for tennis at an early age and earned her first victory at the age of 14, a very key moment of her life – she claimed.
At the age of 23, Charlotte Cooper would win her first title at the senior’s level which propelled her to the Wimbledon championships, where she would leave an ever-lasting impression on those famous green lawns.
It was the year 1893 when Cooper first appeared on the famous grass courts of Wimbledon – a partnership which would remain till 1919. In those 26 years, a lot of events took place in her life. She won five-singles titles, appeared in eleven finals, won two Olympic medals (singles and mixed-doubles), got married to a solicitor, was a mother of two kids and also the oldest lady singles player to win the coveted Wimbledon trophy – a record which stands to this date (37 years and 296 days). In addition, she was also the runner-up at the inaugural women’s doubles event in 1913.
The inclusion of women at the 1900 Olympics coincided with Charlotte Cooper’s peak play. She was a three-time Wimbledon champion by the time she represented Great Britain at the Olympics.
Six players from four nations (Great Britain, USA, France and Bohemia) participated in the debut programme of women’s tennis. Three matches and three straight wins – and by virtue of those victories, Charlotte Cooper became Olympic’s first female individual gold medallist. She defeated France’s Hélènè Prévost 6-1, 6-4 in the finals.
The dextrous Brit went on to add another medal. Teaming up with Reginald Doherty, the duo won the mixed doubles gold medal on the red clay courts of Il Puteaux.
Until 1904, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) did not have the practice to award podium finishers with medals. The winners of the 1896 and 1900 edition were retrospectively awarded and added to the medals tally.
After becoming a two-time Olympic champion, Charlotte married a solicitor Alfred Sterry (six years younger) and raised two children Rex and Gwyneth. Marital life with children did not deter her from playing tennis. She continued playing tennis against top players well into her 50’s.
Apart from being the oldest Wimbledon champ till date, Charlotte won her final title after being a mother of two. Since 1908 only two women have managed to win a Wimbledon title post giving birth – Dorthea Lambert Chambers and Evonne Goolagong Cawley.
Ms. Cooper held the record for most Wimbledon consecutive finals appearances (eight) before that record was broken in 1990 by Martina Navratilova when the Czechoslovakia born player made her ninth consecutive finals appearance against Zina Garrison.
Upon retirement, Charlotte took a lot of interest to help the next generation of tennis players come to the fore. She was seen regularly at the Wimbledon championships right in to her 90’s. Her son Rex served as a committee member of the All-England Lawn Tennis club for many years while his sister, Gwyneth represented Great Britain in Wightman Cup and also played at the Wimbledon.
If it was Wimbledon on one side, there was also the Olympics which brought Charlotte Cooper fame and recognition to this day.
The women’s chapter of Olympic movement starts with Charlotte’s story and rightly so.