Charlotte Cooper, the first female Olympic champion
In winning the women’s tennis singles title at Paris 1900, Charlotte Cooper became the first female athlete to win Olympic gold in an individual event.
A record breaker
Charlotte Cooper was one of the great women’s tennis champions of the late 19th-century, a time when the ladies’ game was played in long dresses. A member of the Ealing Lawn Tennis Club, Cooper won her first Wimbledon singles title in 1895, aged 25, and would go on to repeat the feat on four further occasions. She was a wife and a mother by the time she won the last of those titles, in 1908, when she became the oldest winner of the prestigious tournament at the age of 37 years and 296 days, a record that stands to this day. Her 11 singles finals between 1895 and 1912 represented another Wimbledon record, which she held outright until 1994, when it was equalled by Martina Navratilova.
Fun and games in Paris
Also known as Les concours internationaux d'exercices physiques et de sports, the 1900 Paris Olympic Games took place between mid-May and late October, and were held as part of the city’s Exposition Universelle (World Fair). Women made their first appearance on the Olympic stage, competing in archery, sailing, equestrianism, croquet, boules, life-saving, fishing, golf and tennis. Held in July, the tennis tournament took place on clay courts installed in the rural surroundings of the Ile de Puteaux, in the middle of the Seine, with Cooper entering the women’s singles and the mixed doubles.
History in the making
One of the few female players at the time to serve overarm, Cooper was a superb volleyer and played an attacking game, rushing up to the net at every opportunity. She collected her first gold medal of the Games in the mixed doubles with her compatriot R.F. Doherty, the pair beating Hélène Prévost of France and Great Britain’s Harold Mahony 6-2, 6-4 in the final.
Cooper dominated the women’s singles, winning all her matches in straight sets. 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.
A life devoted to tennis
Cooper continued to compete at the highest level for a number of years after the Paris Games, contesting her last Wimbledon singles final in 1912, by which time she had turned 42. She went on to appear in the women’s doubles final with Dorothea Douglas the following year, a full 18 years after her maiden singles triumph. The sprightly Cooper continued to play the game she loved right through to the 1950s, and died at home in Helensburgh, Scotland, on 10 October 1966 at the age of 96.