May Sutton, who was born 130 years ago this week, was the first American to win the Ladies’ Singles at The Championships, but that was by no means her only claim to fame. Seventeen of Sutton’s fellow countrywomen have followed in her Wimbledon footsteps – the United States has produced more champions at the All England Club than any other country - but she is the only American Ladies’ champion who was actually born in Britain.
Sutton’s family emigrated to the United States when she was just six and went on to become one of the most successful in the history of the sport. Sutton, who triumphed at Wimbledon in 1905 and 1907 and also won the US title in 1904, married Tom Bundy, three times a US doubles champion. Their daughter, Dorothy Bundy, won an astonishing 391 national championships, the last of them at the age of 96, and claimed the Australian national title in 1938. Sutton’s nephew, John Doeg, was the US champion in 1930, while her grandson, Brian Cheney, made one appearance at The Championships in 1967.
Born in Plymouth on 25 September 1886, Sutton was the youngest of seven children. Their father, a captain in the Royal Navy, suffered respiratory problems and was advised on his retirement to live in a warmer climate. The family moved to California, where they eventually lived on a ranch near Pasadena.
Sutton’s sisters had begun playing tennis while still living in Britain and their parents built a court for them at the ranch. Four of the girls – Ethel, Violet, Florence and May – played to a high level, though it soon became clear who would be the most successful.
May was strongly built and deceptively quick around the court. Although only 5ft 4in tall, she had a very powerful forehand. She won her first tournament at the age of 13 and was soon dominating competitions in southern California. At 17 she travelled to Philadelphia to compete in the US national championships, where she won the singles and doubles titles at the first attempt.
The following year Sutton crossed the Atlantic to become only the second American woman to compete at The Championships. The 1899 US champion, Marion Jones, had reached the quarter-finals on her only appearance at the All England Club in 1900.
Given her background there was much interest in Sutton, which was only heightened by her attire. Because of the heat, she wore a shorter skirt than was customary and rolled up the sleeves of her blouse, thus exposing both her ankles and her wrists, which to British eyes was quite shocking.
If Sutton’s dress stunned the crowds at Worple Road, where The Championships were held until 1921, her tennis had a similar effect. The American won her first three matches for the loss of only eight games before being pushed hard by Ethel Thomson, whose clever touch play took her into a 5-2 lead in the first set before Sutton won 8-6, 6-1. A 6-4, 6-0 victory over Agatha Morton took Sutton into the All-Comers’ Final, in which she beat Constance Wilson 6-3, 8-6.
Until 1922 the defending champions went straight through to the Challenge Round, in which they faced the winner of the All-Comers’ Final. Dorothea Douglass, who had won the title in 1903 and 1904, took the first game against Sutton, but her opponent quickly took charge by winning the next five. Targeting Douglass’ backhand, May dominated the rallies from the back of the court, her forehand proving especially effective, and won 6-3, 6-4.
Having also claimed the title at the Northern Championships in Manchester before heading to the All England Club, Sutton went on to triumph at the Welsh Championships at Newport. She returned home having won three titles in Britain without losing a set – all at the age of 18.
The 1905 final at The Championships was the first of three in a row contested by Douglass and Sutton. Douglass earned her revenge one year later, winning a fiercely competitive contest 6-3, 9-7, but was well beaten in 1907, Sutton winning 6-1, 6-4, having again swept through her matches without dropping a set.
For the next five years, until her marriage in 1912, Sutton continued to compete regularly in the United States. Thereafter she focused on raising her four children, though she started entering tournaments again – mostly in doubles – in 1918. Three years later she made a comeback in singles and reached the semi-finals of the US national championships.
In 1925, at the age of 38, Sutton represented the United States against Britain in the Wightman Cup at Forest Hills. One of her opponents was 46-year-old Dorothea Lambert Chambers (nee Douglass), 18 years after their last meeting at The Championships.
Sutton finally retired in 1929 at the age of 42, but only after one last visit to The Championships, which by now were being staged at Church Road. Remarkably, she reached the quarter-finals by beating the No 4 seed, Eileen Bennett, who had been born 11 days after Sutton’s 1907 Wimbledon triumph. Sutton’s final match was a 3-6, 2-6 defeat to Joan Ridley.
Thereafter it was the turn of Sutton’s daughter, Dorothy, to pick up the family baton, which she did by becoming the first American to win the Australian national title in 1938. Sutton, who continued to play tennis well into her eighties, died at her home in Santa Monica at the age of 89 in 1975.