Read: Why do tennis players wear white?
Dod’s story is all the more extraordinary because, after winning three more Wimbledon victories, she abandoned tennis in the mid-1890s, feeling that she had nothing left to prove. She went on to represent England in field hockey, win an Olympic silver medal in archery, and become an accomplished mountaineer, expert horseback rider, skilled ice-skater, champion golfer, and daredevil tobogganist.
A sensation in England at the end of the 19th century, a time of feminist ferment, Dod was all but forgotten when she died in 1960—“a Victorian relic in a nuclear age,” as the journalist Sasha Abramsky wistfully puts it. In Little Wonder: The Fabulous Story of Lottie Dod, the World’s First Female Sports Superstar, he sets out to write her back into the historical record. In doing so, he joins a well-established feminist project—the rediscovery of lost pioneers of all kinds. Researchers have not yet settled on the athletic equivalent of the playwright Aphra Behn or the mathematician Ada Lovelace. Could Lottie Dod be that figure?
Working out where Dod fits in the pantheon of sporting, and female, greatness is its own sort of feat. After all, she played against a limited pool of amateur opponents, drawn from the upper and middle classes, while wearing clothes chosen for modesty rather than performance. Taking stock of her remarkable versatility is tricky, too. Her omnicompetence now seems like dilettantism, but it might also reflect changing models of success. The current formula for athletic stardom is the “Tiger path,” mimicking Tiger Woods’s early and unwavering hyper-focus, but in his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein instead endorses the more eclectic “Roger path”—following Roger Federer, who loved skateboarding, skiing, and wrestling as a child, and settled on tennis only as a teenager.
The “Lottie path” is an extreme variation of that approach, and it has now fallen firmly out of fashion. Still, Dod’s story does shed light on women’s quest to claim their place in sports, a realm that has always been dominated by men—as players, officials, coaches, and viewers. Women were banned from competing in the ancient Olympics; in Dod’s time, the president of the International Olympic Committee pronounced women’s sports “against the laws of nature.” Sports were not, however, against Dod’s nature. Born in 1871 in the village of Lower Bebington, she had the advantage not just of upper-middle-class comforts (among them a tennis court at home) but of a physically gifted family, with three siblings who also excelled athletically. Early on, her elder sister, Ann, was her doubles partner and chaperone; later, her brothers accompanied her on outdoor adventures.
To the Victorians, the highest aspiration for women’s sports was respectability. Was it “unfeminine” to exert oneself in public? To aspire to beat the competition and seize glory for yourself? To train hard to excel, instead of resigning yourself to life as a supporting actor in someone else’s story? The answer was obvious, which didn’t stop Dod from hitting the ball with “sheer ferocity,” according to Abramsky, or from crushing more ladylike opponents, or from disdaining women who “merely frivol at garden parties” with a racket in their hands. Feminine modesty didn’t deter her from keeping a fat scrapbook of press clippings, either, though she was well aware of the patronizing spirit of plenty of the coverage—praising her for being “healthy, ruddy, and as strong as a man,” for example, while noting that she “has not lost a particle of her womanliness.”