Abramsky, Sasha. Little Wonder: The Fabulous Story of Lottie Dod, the World’s First Female Sports Superstar. Akashic Books, 2020. Pp. 280. Acknowledgments, end notes, introduction, photographs, $25.95 hardback.
Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo.
Sasha Abramsky is not a sports historian. He is a journalist who has spent the past 25 years writing about politics, covering social justice issues and focusing on the criminal justice system and immigration. He is currently writing “like crazy,” with pieces published in The Nation and Truthout, and has written for The Atlantic Monthly, New York Magazine, The Village Voice and Rolling Stone.
Politics is one of Abramsky’s obsessions. The other is tennis. His ninth book is an absorbing, passionate look at Lottie Dod, a tennis champion and overall extraordinary athlete from the late 19th century who somehow faded into obscurity. Writing about sports “was something I treated myself to,” Abramsky said.
The book’s title, Little Wonder: The Fabulous Story of Lottie Dod, the World’s First Female Sports Superstar, is not an exaggeration. Charlotte “Lottie” Dod won the first of her five Wimbledon singles tennis titles at the precocious age of 15 in 1887. “The Little Wonder” is still the youngest player to win a singles title at the All England Club; Martina Hingis was three days younger than Dod in 1996 when she teamed with Helena Sukova to win the women’s doubles title at Wimbledon.
Dod would abruptly leave professional tennis and take up golf, winning the British Women’s Amateur title in 1904, and then earned a silver medal in archery at the 1908 Olympics. In between, Dod also skated, rode toboggans, climbed high mountain peaks in the Swiss Alps and in central Norway and cycled hundreds of miles across Europe. She also dabbled in horse riding, rowing and billiards (p. 137), and played forward for the English national hockey team for two years (p. 134). Sticking to one game, Dod believed, was “appalling,” and she never wanted to be a “pot hunter,” a person who stayed with a sport she dominated just to collect more hardware (p. 75). “Hers was a world increasingly fascinated by the sporting hero, by the unlikely accomplishment against the odds,” Abramsky writes (p. 76).
Abramsky stumbled upon Dod’s story while taking a behind-the-scenes tour at Wimbledon several years ago. Part of the admission price was a trip to a museum in Wimbledon’s basement, and tucked away in a corner was an exhibit featuring 19th century tennis. Dod was included in that exhibit, and Abramsky’s interest was piqued. “Something about her story intrigued me, not the least the fact was that I’d never encountered her name, and I thought I knew everything about the tennis greats,” Abramsky said. Abramsky decided Dod’s achievements needed to be told, so he contacted Wimbledon’s archivists (“they were incredibly generous”) and began piecing together a narrative. “I fell in love with her story,” Abramsky said. “This was a story that should have been told many, many times, but hadn’t been.”
Being smitten is one thing. Doing the research is quite another. Newspapers.com, for example, has 34,096 listings for Dod. However, more than 34,000 of those entries are merely listings of Wimbledon champions through the years. Abramsky had his work cut out for him. However, he used the tools he learned as a journalist and began to dig through archives, scrapbooks, old newspapers and magazine articles. “Piece by piece, I began to put this jigsaw puzzle together,” Abramsky said. “I found something that when you put all the pieces together, (it) produced something that looked marvelous.”
The narrative also reads marvelously. That is a product of Abramsky’s love for books, a passion he developed while growing up in London. His grandfather, Chimen Abramsky, who came to England from the Soviet Union in 1932, was a self-taught historian of socialist and Jewish literature. He also had an extensive book collection, which awed his grandson. “I’d be able to pull off the bookshelves, first editions (of) Karl Marx, or 16th-century bibles printed in Venice, or incredibly rare philosophy texts by Rene Descartes,” Abramsky said. “And for me, this was sort of normal, I’d go to this house, and I’d kind of assumed I’d be surrounded by rare books and surrounded by extraordinary intellectuals,” he shared before adding, “I think it did shape who I was. It made me realize the power of literature, and the power of books, and the power of ideas.” It also inspired his 2015 book, The House of Twenty Thousand Books, which he called “a magnificent intellectual exercise” as he wrote about the collection assembled by his grandfather before his death in 2010 at age 93.
Abramsky, who currently teaches writing part time at the University of California-Davis in addition to his writing assignments, has a gift for setting a scene. Abramsky notes, for example, that “behind the little town (of Skjolden, Norway), with its clusters of small inns and cafes ranged along the shoreline, loomed a huge narrow ridge, looking like the profiled forehead of a gigantic pachyderm.” (p. 119).
Dod’s proficiency in tennis is even more remarkable because of the restrictions placed upon women. The tennis attire of the 1880s was nothing like the garb worn today by stars such as Serena Williams; Dod, like other women tennis players, had to wear long dresses that fell to the top of their ankles. They had to play in long sleeves and dresses to the middle of their necks, while also wearing movement-restricting corsets. Still, when Dod took the court at Wimbledon in the 1887 final, she “exuded both a steely purpose and a devastating pose.” “Her eyes were blue-gray; she was tall and muscular; and she gave off a ‘coolness and presence of mind’ that made it ‘almost impossible’” for her opponents to rattle her, Abramsky writes. (p. 56). Dod was also aggressive, coming to the net to volley and put away winners.
After winning her second Wimbledon crown in 1888, Dod invited three of men’s tennis’ top players to play a series of duels, which predated the Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King “Battle of the Sexes” match by 85 years. Dod faced Harry Grove, Ernest Renshaw and William Renshaw. The men provided a handicap, giving Dod a 30-love lead in every game. After losing to Ernest Renshaw in a three-set match in the first exhibition, Dod defeated Grove in three sets and then topped William Renshaw — a six-time men’s champion at Wimbledon — in straight sets. “She had shown,” Abramsky writes, “that women, those delicate, fragile flowers of the Victorian imagination, were more than capable of holding their own in the most physical of domains.” (p. 65).
What made Dod remarkable was her thirst for competition and athletic achievement. In Switzerland, she practiced two hours a day to become a proficient skater, and in January 1896 Dod passed a women’s skating test. Not content, Dod decided to take the men’s test the following year and passed. “She would try to do a new sport because it was there,” Abramsky said. Her only peer in women’s sports was possibly Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, who won three gold medals and set three records at the 1932 Olympics and later won 10 major titles while competing in the LPGA. She also dabbled in basketball and baseball. But unlike Didrikson, Dod never sought the limelight. There are few photographs of Dod and even fewer film clips. “She didn’t relish the newspaper headlines, she tolerated them,” Abramsky said. Nevertheless, no male athlete has approached the feats of Dod or Didrikson.
Dod never married or had children. While not an active advocate for women’s suffrage, Dod was not enamored with British laws that prohibited women from voting. And when a woman married, her property legally became her husband’s. For an independent woman like Dod, that was unacceptable. “Better to excel as an athlete than fade into obscurity as a wife,” Abramsky writes (p. 143).
Fittingly, Lottie Dod died in June 1960 during the Wimbledon tournament. Her passing did not generate much publicity. The New York Times had a three-paragraph story near the bottom of Page 31. Her obituary was buried, while at the top of the page, the Times reported the death of Harry Politt, the chairman of Great Britain’s Communist Party.
In The Little Wonder, Abramsky has lifted Dod out of obscurity with a refreshing narrative that is both descriptive and informative. Dod would be an internet sensation today; she certainly was a sports pioneer in the 19th century. Dod should be honored, Abramsky said, “for breaking every glass ceiling that was put above her head, and she said. ‘Absolutely not, I will live life on my own terms.’”
Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.