Queen of the court – An Irishwoman’s Diary on Lena Rice, Wimbledon champion from Tipperary

 

On a warm day in July 1890, a woman from Tipperary stepped onto Centre Court for her second and final bid to win the Wimbledon single’s title.

It must have been a whirlwind time for Lena Rice who just over 12 months previously found herself playing in her first ever tennis tournament, at the Irish Championships in Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin. A year later she became the only Irishwoman to ever win Wimbledon.

Her Dublin outing wasn’t too shabby a debut, reaching the semi-finals of the single’s event and winning the mixed doubles with Kildareman and future Wimbledon winner Willoughby Hamilton.

While she was described as a “dark horse” by English player Blanche Hillyard who beat her in the Dublin semi-final, Rice’s sporting prowess would have been well known at Tipperary’s Cahir Tennis Club where she and her sister Annie played.

Born to Spring and Anna Rice on June 21st, 1866, Lena was the second youngest of eight children who grew up in a Georgian mansion at Marlhill, New Inn.

In his account of Rice, Wimbledon librarian and historian Alan Little noted she “had a reputation for being a practical joker” and learned the game at home “where many fine tennis parties were held in the 1880s”.

Lena, and Annie who was three years older, found no lack of opponents at the tennis club, as an army unit stationed nearby gave them plenty of opportunity to strengthen their game. Six weeks after the Irish Championships, both Rice sisters travelled to England to take part in Wimbledon, which in 1889 attracted just six entrants. Lena made it to the final without much effort, while Annie was eliminated in the opening round by Hillyard, who already had one Wimbledon title to her name, having won in 1886.

Along with being the first Irish woman to reach the Wimbledon final, Rice also made history in 1889 as the first ever woman to officiate at the tournament

It was a closely contested match, with Lena winning the first set 6-4. She came close to winning the second set but in the heel of the hunt, Hillyard secured the title 4-6, 8-6, 6-4. Years later, Hillyard, who went on to win six titles and competed at Wimbledon into her late 40s, would describe the match as “one of the most exciting” she ever played, noting that Rice played well from the start and had “a very fine forehand drive, but like myself, a bad backhand”.

Rice’s weak backhand was well known. She was described in the book Lawn Tennis at Home and Abroad as “a wonderful player with a terrible ‘Irish’ drive and a powerful service. She had one weakness: an inability, or a disinclination, to play a backhander down the line. She almost invariably crossed her backhand returns, and lovely strokes they were; but her opponents got to know of this and were thus able to ‘get there’ in time.”

Along with being the first Irish woman to reach the Wimbledon final, Rice also made history in 1889 as the first ever woman to officiate at the tournament when she “took a line” in one of the men’s games. She had few strokes to judge, but as Little notes “her decisions were clearly and promptly given”.

That poor backhand didn’t stop her from reaching the Wimbledon final again. With only four entries for the 1890 tournament, Rice beat Mary Steadman 7-5, 6-2 to take her place at Centre Court. Her old foe Hillyard, who was expecting her first child, did not defend her title and so the 24-year-old faced May Jacks.

Despite her clear aptitude for the game, there is no record of Rice ever having played in public again

Dressed in typical tennis attire of the time, Rice stepped onto the court on July 4th in a knee-length skirt, a blouse tightly cinched at the waist, a tie, leather shoes and a straw boater hat. The cumbersome outfit didn’t hold her back. She played the game “confidently”, placing and hitting the ball “quite severely”, taking the first and second set, losing only the fifth game.

She took the trophy 6-4, 6-1 and used her prize of 20 guineas to buy an emerald and diamond ring which was later passed on to her grand-niece.

Despite her clear aptitude for the game, there is no record of Rice ever having played in public again. It is presumed that following her return to Marlhill she was forced to take on a greater role in the running of the house as her mother had taken ill and subsequently died the following March aged 63. Lena’s father had died 23 years earlier at the age of 41, and Lena died at the same age, on her birthday in 1907 from tuberculosis of hip. She was buried near her parents in the small Protestant cemetery at New Inn. Had her impressive time on the world’s tennis stage not been cut short, it is speculated she could have become one of the great stars of Wimbledon’s early years. Some 128 years later, she remains the only Irishwoman ever to make it that far, and win.

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