Charlotte Cooper: The original trailblazer of women’s tennis

By Adam Addicott

Charlotte Cooper, the first ever female Olympic champion, never let a devastating diagnosis at the age of 26 stand in the way of dominating her era of women’s tennis.

Born on 22 September 1870, Cooper started her journey into the sport by training at the Ealing Lawn Tennis Club which is still in operation this present day. There she was coached by H. Lawrence followed by Charles Martin and Harold Mahony who worked on her mental game, as well as the physical side.

Taking to the courts wearing a dress that went down to her ankles, Cooper won her first senior title in 1893 at a tournament in Ilkley before going on to become one of the most successful Wimbledon players in history.

Just two years on from her maiden triumph she began her dominance at SW19. Over a seven-year period, Cooper featured in eight consecutive finals where she would win the title four times. A milestone that wasn’t broken until Martina Navratilova’s run between 1982-1990. She would also go on to win the title again in 1908 to become the oldest woman in history to do so at the age of 37. A record that still remains today.

A century ago the celebrations relating to winning the grass-court major couldn’t have been more different to 2021. Cooper’s nephew Bob Beausire once recounted what his auntie, who was known to her loved ones as Chattie, did the first time she won.

"She biked home from Wimbledon and found her brother at home pruning the roses. When he asked what she'd been doing she replied, 'I've just won the Championship', at which point he said nothing, turned and went back to pruning his roses." Beasusire told the New Zealand Herald in 2012.

Cooper was also a pioneer in the Olympics where she became the first woman in history to win a gold medal, doing so at Paris 1900. At the time medals were not included at the Games but were issued at a later date as Cooper won the women’s singles as well as the mixed doubles titles along with Reginald Doherty.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Cooper’s tennis career was the fact the majority of her successes were achieved after she was declared completely deaf at the age of 26. The last time she could hear the balls at Wimbledon was the year she first won the title in 1895. Not only was she the first Women to triumph at the Olympics, she was the first with a disability to do so some 60 years before the birth of the Paralympic Games.

“In a sport where the sound of a ball coming off the strings (is) such an integral part of playing, Cooper captured all but one of her (Wimbledon) titles without the benefit of sound, paramount in recognising the pace of an opponent shot,” said the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

As for her style of play, renowned tennis journalist Arthur Wallis once wrote that Cooper’s volleying abilities at the time were so great that she could rival most male players on the court. In his 1903 book titled ‘Lawn tennis at home and abroad’ he hailed her doubles skills.

“Constant practice with members of her own family, especially with her elder sister, brought her to perfection at a very early date, but it was as a volleyer then quite a rarity among ladies — that Miss Cooper sprang into fame and made such an impression on the public. Especially was this the case in a Mixed Double; at the net Mrs. Sterry quickly began to prove herself as formidable as most men and certainly the superior of many.”

In her personal life Cooper also managed to balance life as a tennis player with family commitments. She married Alfred Sterry in 1901, who later became president of the Lawn Tennis Association, and together they had two children. Their daughter Gwen also became an accomplished player who represented Great Britain in the Wightman Cup (a team tennis competition for women contested between Great Britain and the United States of America). Until this day Cooper remains one of only four women to have ever won a Wimbledon title after giving birth.

Cooper died on 10 October 1966 at the age of 96, in Helensburgh, Scotland. It would take another 47 years before she was posthumously inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2013.