Serena Williams wants to return to competition in January, just four months after the birth of her first child, but even if the American claims her eighth ladies’ singles title at Wimbledon next summer she will still not be the oldest champion in history. Williams, who celebrated her 36th birthday this week, would actually have to win The Championships in 2020 to take the record from Charlotte “Chattie” Sterry, who claimed the title in 1908 at the age of 37 years and 282 days.
Sterry, who competed as Charlotte Cooper until her marriage to Alfred Sterry in 1901, first played at The Championships in 1893 and made her last appearance in 1919 at the age of 48. She played in eight successive finals between 1895 and 1902, which remained a record until Martina Navratilova contested nine in a row between 1982 and 1990.
Born in Ealing, London in 1870, Sterry was brought up in a tennis-playing family. She played at the Ealing Lawn Tennis Club, where she had several coaches, and started entering tournaments when she was 13. She won her first Ealing title at 14 and by the age of 15 was a regular competitor at tournaments up and down the country, though it was not until she was 22 that she made her debut at The Championships.
A fine athlete who worked hard on her fitness, Sterry was one of the few women who did not serve underarm. She was also renowned for her mental strength, though the most outstanding feature of her game was her ability at the net.
Arthur Wallis Myers, one of the most respected tennis commentators of his day, wrote in “Lawn Tennis at Home and Abroad”: “It was as a volleyer – then quite a rarity among ladies – that Miss Cooper sprang into fame and made such an impression on the public. Especially was this the case in a Mixed Double; at the net Mrs Sterry quickly began to prove herself as formidable as most men and certainly the superior of many.”
He added: “Whether she be playing alone or in partnership with one of her own sex or the other, Mrs Sterry has brought into every combat not only a level head and intense keenness, but a perfect disposition for fairness and courtesy towards her opponents.”
George Hillyard, whose wife Blanche was Sterry’s greatest rival, agreed with the assessment. In “Forty Years of Lawn Tennis” Hillyard wrote: “Mrs Sterry was a quite unusually strong and active girl, with a constitution like the proverbial ostrich, who scarcely knew what it was to be tired and was never sick or sorry. She once told me she had heard of such things but did not know what a headache was!
“Also, her temperament was ideal for lawn tennis. Nothing ever worried or put her off. In addition, she was a great match player. All these gifts are a wonderful asset at any game; and when they are combined with considerable natural ability the result is apt to be a champion.”
One of the most remarkable aspects of Sterry’s success was the fact that she was deaf from the age of 26 and therefore did not have the benefit of hearing the sound of the ball coming off her opponent’s racket, which most players find crucial.
For much of her playing days Sterry’s fortunes dovetailed with those of Blanche Hillyard (nee Bingley), who was seven years older than her. Hillyard holds the record for the most appearances (13) in the ladies’ singles final at The Championships, where she won the title six times. Her record for the number of years (14) between winning singles titles at the All England Club was equalled by Serena Williams last year.
Sterry and Hillyard were friendly rivals, with the former a regular guest at the latter’s celebrated tennis parties in the Leicestershire village of Thorpe Satchville. Sterry’s first campaign at The Championships in 1893 ended in a semi-final defeat to Hillyard, who went on to beat her again in the finals of 1897, 1899 and 1900. The latter title left Hillyard as Wimbledon’s oldest ladies’ singles champion at the age of 36, though Sterry would take that record from her seven years later.
Sterry won her first three All England Club crowns, in 1895, 1896 and 1898, only in Hillyard’s absence. Her lone Wimbledon victory over her great rival came in 1901, when she won their meeting in the Challenge Round 6-2, 6-2.
In 1895, when she won her first title, Sterry stayed with her brother and cycled each day to The Championships, her rackets strapped to the frame of her bike. Max Robertson, in his book “Wimbledon: Centre Court of the Game”, wrote: “She bicycled home to Surbiton and found her brother in the garden pruning roses. ‘What have you been doing, Chattie?’ he asked her. ‘I’ve just won the Championship,’ she replied. Her brother said nothing and went on pruning his roses.”
Runner-up in 1902 and 1904, Sterry might have thought her chances of winning her fifth Wimbledon title had gone by the time she lost in the first round for the first time in 1907, but she bounced back in impressive style the following year, less than three months before her 38th birthday. In the quarter-finals she beat Dorothea Douglass, who had been the champion in three of the previous five years, and went on to take the title without dropping a set, beating Agatha Morton 6-4, 6-4 in the final.
Sterry is one of only four mothers who have won the title. Her daughter, Gwen, was a regular competitor at The Championships between 1925 and 1932.
At the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris Sterry became the first female tennis champion. She also won the mixed doubles alongside Reggie Doherty. Sterry won the mixed doubles at Wimbledon six times but only in the years before the competition was given full championship status in 1913.
At the age of 48 Sterry was still good enough to win her opening match in her final appearance at The Championships in 1919. Forty-two years later, aged 90, Sterry was the oldest guest at a celebratory lunch at the 75th edition of The Championships in 1961. She died five years later at the age of 96.