Reginald Doherty, Olympic tennis trailblazer
No tennis player in history has won more Olympic medals than Great Britain’s Reginald Doherty. But he is also remembered for withdrawing from the semi-finals at Paris 1900 to give his brother Laurence a better chance of claiming the singles title.
British lawn tennis player Reginald “R.F.” Frank Doherty was born in 1872 in Wimbledon, the spiritual home of lawn tennis, and was steered towards the sport from an early age by his father, who saw it as a way of improving his son’s poor health. He was joined by his younger brother Laurie, whose equally impressive skills on the court were an additional source of motivation. Together, the pair would go on to dominate the international tennis scene from the end of the 19th century to the early years of the 20th century.
Known for his high-quality all-round game, a blistering serve, and a deft and graceful touch, the older Doherty brother won his first Wimbledon singles title in 1897 and then defended it three times in the three years that followed. He also triumphed at the 1902 US Open in New York, and with Laurie at his side, he collected eight men’s doubles titles at Wimbledon between 1897 and 1905. The talented siblings, who together wrote one of the first books related to tennis technique (R.F. and H.L. Doherty on Lawn Tennis, published in 1903), also represented Great Britain in the Davis Cup, lifting the prestigious trophy on four occasions, in 1903, 1904, 1905 and 1906.
Brothers in arms
At the Olympic tennis competition on the Ile de Puteaux courts in Paris (FRA) in 1900, the Dohertys each reached the semi-finals of the singles, where they were scheduled to play each other. However, believing that his younger brother stood a better chance of beating Harold Mahony (GBR) in the final, R.F stepped aside and settled for a bronze medal. Laurie took advantage of this act of brotherly kindness, defeating Mahoney 6-4 6-2 6-3 to become Olympic champion. R.F. enjoyed a highly successful Olympic tournament nonetheless, partnering up with compatriot Charlotte Cooper in the mixed doubles to beat Mahony and Hélène Prévost (FRA) 6-2 6-2 in the final, and picking up a second title with his brother in the men’s doubles by overwhelming Basil Spalding de Garmendia (USA) and Max Décugis (FRA) in three sets (6-1 6-1 6-0).
Ranked number one in the world between 1897 and 1902, before being replaced by his brother (who reigned from 1903 to 1906), R.F. Doherty did not compete in the St. Louis Games in 1904, but returned to the courts at London 1908. On the Wimbledon grass that he knew so well, he teamed up with countryman George Hillyard in the doubles to secure a third Olympic gold medal, overcoming another British pair, Clement Cazalet and Charles Dixon, in five sets on 11 July 1908.
R.F. Doherty had suffered from respiratory problems since childhood, and just two years after his London success, his health began to decline. The Englishman travelled to Davos, in Switzerland, to convalesce, but returned to Britain, where he died of a heart attack at the age of 38 on 29 December 1910. In 1980, both Doherty brothers were inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.