Tennis galore in London in 1908
For the first time, there were two tennis tournaments at the 1908 Games in London: the first on an indoor wooden court at the Queen's Club, from 6 to 11 May, and the second on the grass of Wimbledon exactly two months later, from 6 to 11 July, finishing today 111 years ago. While Major Ritchie occupied every step of the podium on both surfaces, and Arthur Gore won the men’s indoor singles and doubles titles, Dorothea Lambert Chambers added Olympic gold to an exceptional career on grass.
Nine women took part in the indoor tournament: seven Britons and two Swedes. A specialist on indoor wooden courts, Gwendoline Eastlake-Smith, 25, began by beating a rival she had faced on many previous occasions, her compatriot Violet Pinckney, in the quarter-final, a close two-set match where the score was five games all in each set before Eastlake-Smith went on to win 7/5, 7/5. The semi-finals saw the two Swedes play two Britons, both of whom won easily, with Eastlake-Smith beating Elsa Wallenberg 6/4, 6/4, and Alice Greene defeating Märtha Adlerstråhle 6/1 6/3.
The spectators at the final on 11 May witnessed a stunning comeback. After Eastlake-Smith won the first set thanks to her remarkable timing in her approaches to the net, Greene, initially trailing 3/1 in the second set, came back to win it 6/4. But that was her swansong. Systematically forced onto the defensive by her opponent, she was beaten 6/0 in the third set. Eastlake-Smith was the second women’s Olympic tennis champion after Charlotte Cooper at the Games in Paris in 1900. The bronze medal went to Adlerstråhle, who defeated her compatriot Wallenberg 1/6, 6/2, 6/3.
The men’s tournament on the Queen's Club wooden court attracted 10 participants, two players from the Australasian team (from Australia and New Zealand), taking part in the Games for the first time, a Swede and seven Britons. In the semi-finals, only British players were left. Arthur Gore won a tough match against Major Ritchie (4/6, 6/3, 5/7, 6/1, 6/4), while George Caridia won after Wilberforce Eaves retired, and after winning the first set 7/5. Eaves, suffering from the heat, was also feeling the effects of an exhausting quarter-final against Sweden’s Wollmar Boström, in which he had taken the third set 9/7. In a final played, according to the official report, in front of “a handful of spectators”, Gore took advantage of Caridia’s numerous errors to win the gold medal with a score of 6/3, 7/5, 6/4, For his part, Ritchie won the bronze without playing a stroke, after Eaves had dropped out of the semi-final.
Two days earlier, on 9 May, in the final of the men’s doubles tournament, Gore had won a first gold medal, partnering Herbert Roper Barrett, while Caridia had won his first silver alongside George Simond, losing 2/6, 6/2, 6/3, 6/3 to Gore and Barrett.
Dorothea Lambert Chambers and Major Ritchie victorious on the grass at Wimbledon
Two months later, the famous grass courts of Wimbledon hosted the second tennis tournament of these Games. For Wimbledon, this was a first Olympic appearance before the second in 2012. The women’s tournament attracted 13 participants from four nations (two Hungarian, three Austrian, one French and seven British).
The star of the women’s tournament was unquestionably Britain’s Dorothea Lambert Chambers. She had already played five Grand Slam finals at the same place, as the winner in 1903, 1904 and 1906, and runner-up in 1905 and 1907. She progressed through the Olympic tournament without dropping a set, beating her compatriots each time: Agnes Morton 6/2, 6/3 in the quarter-final, Ruth Winch 6/1, 6/1 in the semi-final, and Dora Boothby 6/1, 7/5 in the final. Curiously, she was the only one who had to play – and win – three matches, as players had dropped out of all three of the other quarter-finals. As a result, Ruth Winch took the bronze medal having played only one match, the semi-final in which she was roundly beaten by Lambert Chambers.
Lambert Chambers subsequently played six more Wimbledon finals, winning again in 1910, 1911, 1913 and 1914 to chalk up a total of seven victories, before losing in 1919 and 1920 against France’s Suzanne Lenglen. Today, she still ranks third in the list of female players with the most wins at Wimbledon, alongside Steffi Graf and Serena Williams, behind Martina Navratilova (nine victories) and the 1924 Olympic champion, Helen Wills-Moody (eight victories).
For his part, Ritchie was imperious in his progress through to the gold medal match. On the day of the final, the court surface had been slowed down by the overnight rain. Froitzheim was unable to play his best game against the solid Ritchie, whose excellence on the baseline helped him win 7/5, 6/3, 6/4. Wilberforce Eaves, two months after withdrawing from the indoor tournament and beaten 2/6, 6/1, 6/4, 6/1 by Ritchie in the semi-final, stepped onto the podium to receive the bronze medal. The following year, Ritchie was in the Wimbledon final again, where he was beaten by Arthur Gore.
All six London 1908 tennis titles went to British players. For the first and last time. There were indoor and outdoor tournaments again in Stockholm in 1912, and tennis remained on the Olympic programme until 1924. It made its comeback as a demonstration sport in 1984 in Los Angeles, and officially rejoined the programme in 1988 in Seoul. Major Ritchie was the last British men’s singles Olympic tennis champion until Andy Murray, on the same London grass in 2012.