With their skirts in their hands and stars in their eyes, the year 1900 witnessed the advent of women into the most historic series – the Olympics – for the first time. Today the world cheers on the efforts of Serena Williams, Mary Kom, Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal and more revered sportswomen across the world. But there was a time when they couldn’t even step into the field.
The Olympic Games were widely considered to be the world of men, as women were yet to even receive their voting rights. They were also deemed too ‘delicate’ to take part in any of the athletic events as the word ‘Olympics’ was synonymous with ‘rough’ and ‘manly’ back then. However, even back in the 1900s, some great visionary thought that it might be prudent to allow women to participate in the world-famous event for the first time, and somehow, he ended up creating a turning point in the history of womankind that sunny day.
Women were delighted at the chance to prove their worth on the field, and dozens pooled in eagerly to take part in the various events that were held newly that year. These included archery, sailing, equestrianism, croquet, boules, life-saving, fishing, golf and tennis. Among all of them, one stood out. She would be remembered through time as the first woman in the world to win a gold medal at the Olympics.
Charlotte Cooper, with her ankle-length skirt in one hand and a sturdy tennis racket in the other, did not realise that she was going to formally inculcate women-kind as potential champions of the gold when she, along with her partner R.F. Doherty, crushed the combined forces of their opponent team comprising of Hélène Prévost of France and Great Britain’s Harold Mahony, with a score of 6-2, 6-4 in the final. Her spotlight moment, however, took place in the women’s singles, where, after accounting for the USA’s Marion Jones 6-2, 7-5 in the semi-final, she got the better of Prévost once more in the final on 11 July, winning 6-1, 6-4, to become the first woman to win Olympic gold in an individual event.
Born in Ealing, England, Charlotte’s love for tennis bloomed at a fairly young age. Feeding into her passions, her parents enrolled her into tennis lessons at the Ealing Lawn Tennis Club, where she was first coached by H. Lawrence and then later by Charles Martin and Harold Mahony. Winning her first senior singles title in 1893, Charlotte proceeded to win five Ladies Singles Wimbledon Championships and reach eight consecutive finals by the time she was 32. By this time, she was already married to Alfred Sterry and had two children – Rex and Gwen. Charlotte made it to Wimbledon, where she played as a part of Britain’s Wightman Cup team. Her record was unblemished and lasted for the next ninety years, until Martina Navratilova earned her ninth finals appearance in a row between 1982 and 1990.
The reason Charlotte’s success stands out even more is because she was, technically, handicapped. By 26, Cooper had lost her hearing and had been deemed hearing-impaired by the doctors. However, she never let this get in the way of her dream of winning the gold, and barring one, she managed to win all the titles without the basic benefit of sound, an integral part of any game.
Her many victories can be attributed to the unique technique she employed, which was popularly known as an ‘attacking net-game’. Coupled with this, she was one of the few female players who served overhand and was always composed and consistent on court.
Charlotte won her fifth Wimbledon Title after a seven-year haul, where she was able to defeat the unchallenged seven-time Wimbledon Champion, Dorothea Lambert Chambers, in the quarter finals, after suffering a crushing defeat at her hands in the 1904 finals.
Other than Wimbledon, she had also dominated the stage of the Irish Lawn Championship, where she reportedly won the prestigious tournament both times – in 1895 and 1898. Charlotte Cooper, the World’s first female Olympic gold-medallist, continued to play the game she loved right through the ripe period of her seventies and took her last breath at Helensburgh, Scotland on October 10, 1966 at the age of 96.