Charlotte Reinagle Cooper was born, the youngest of six children, in Ealing, Middlesex, on 22 September 1870, the daughter of Henry Cooper of Caversham, a miller, and his wife, American born Teresa Georgiana, nee Miller.
Nicknamed “Chattie” she was a tall, slender, and elegant woman in appearance but a deceptively powerful athlete. Charlotte learned her tennis at the Ealing Lawn Tennis Club, where she was coached, first by H. Lawrence, then by Charles Martin and Harold Mahony. In those days tennis was not played during the winter months, so Charlotte kept fit by running, walking and playing hockey, a sport in which she represented Surrey. In keeping with the fashion at the time, Charlotte played tennis in long skirts and apparently only kept two rackets, an old one for wet weather and a good one for matches.
She would later comment about her first victory at Ealing: “Winning my first championship of the Ealing Lawn Tennis Club at the age of 14 was a very important moment in my life. How well I remember, bedecked by my proud mother in my best clothes, running off to the Club on the Saturday afternoon to play in the final without a vestige of nerve (would that I had none now!), and winning – that was the first really important match of my life.”
Charlotte won her first senior open singles title at Ilkley in 1893. Charlotte was a great competitor and her attack minded game won her many admirers and she quickly one of the most popular players of her day. She was one of the first woman tennis players to serve overhead, and it is often said that her supreme steadiness, her equable temperament, and her great tactical ability which were the main reasons for her success—rather than any brilliance of stroke.
Charlotte won the first of her Wimbledon Woman’s Singles Titles in 1895 at the age of 24 (and is said to have to cycled to Wimbledon with her racket clipped to a bracket on the front fork of her bicycle).
She would then repeat this success the following year (1896) and then again in 1898. What is even more remarkable about her achievements is that she lost her sense of hearing at the age of 26 and was deaf by the time she won her second title. Charlotte was also an extremely good doubles player. She won the All England mixed doubles with H.S. Mahony for five successive years from 1894 to 1898 and then with H.L. Doherty in 1900.
During this golden period, Charlotte also won the triple crown at the Irish Championships of 1895, when, in addition to the singles, she won the ladies’ doubles with Miss E. Cooper and the mixed with H.S. Mahony. She won the Irish mixed again with Mahony in 1896 and with R.F. Doherty in 1899 and 1900, and the ladies’ doubles at the Irish Championships twice more, in 1897 with Mrs Hillyard and in 1900 with Miss E. Cooper. She won the British Covered Court mixed doubles in 1898, 1899 and 1900, each time with R.F. Doherty. In addition, she won the singles at the Scottish Championships in 1899 and numerous other championships and challenge cups.
In 1900, at the Summer Olympic Games in Paris, Charlotte became the first woman to take the title of Olympic tennis champion by beating Hélène Prévost of France 6-1, 7-5 in the ladies’ singles final. She also won the mixed titled with Reggie Doherty, 6-2, 6-4, over Harold Mahony and Mlle Prévost.
Like many of the winners in 1900, including the tennis champions, Charlotte did not receive any medals, but was presented with a trophy instead. (Gold, silver, and bronze medals were retroactively awarded by the International Olympic Committee). Charlotte is generally considered to be the first woman/female competitor to win an Olympic Gold medal.
On January 12th, 1901, Charlotte married a solicitor, Alfred Sterry, at the church of St Mark, Surbiton. Alfred was six years younger than his bride, and following the marriage, Charlotte continued to compete in tennis tournaments as Charlotte Sterry. They had two children: Rex (born 1903), for many years a committee member of the All England Club at Wimbledon, and Gwyneth, known as “Gwen” (born 1905), who also went on to compete at Wimbledon and represented Great Britain in the Wightman Cup. Gwen married Max Simmers, who won twenty-eight consecutive rugby caps for Scotland between 1926 and 1932.
Charlotte was to follow up her Olympic success by winning the Wimbledon Ladies title for the fourth time in 1901. But perhaps she was to save her most impressive and greatest performance for last.
When Charlotte won her fifth and final Wimbledon singles title in 1908, beating Agnes (“Agatha”) Morton 6-4, 6-4 in the final match, she was thirty-seven at the time and obviously a mother. It was a remarkable performance to regain the title for a fifth time after an interval of seven years and in doing so Charlotte inflicted the only defeat sustained by the great Dorothea Lambert Chambers at Wimbledon, at the hands of a British player, between 1903 and 1919.
At 37 years and 296 days old Charlotte still remains Wimbledon’s oldest ladies’ singles champion.
Despite winning her fifth title, it is a match a year earlier in 1907, that Charlotte considered one of her most satisfying. This was the year when one of the greatest players of all time, Miss May Sutton of the USA, aged only 20, came back to challenge for the Wimbledon title which she had won two years earlier. During her tournaments in Great Britain that year Miss Sutton only lost one match—to Charlotte Sterry.
Commenting on the match, Charlotte stated: “I have memories of one more match – in 1907. I had heard a great deal about Miss May Sutton (who made her first appearance in England in 1905) beating everybody without the loss of a set. I had also heard she was a giant of strength, and that the harder one hit the more she liked it. The first time I met her was at Liverpool in 1907 – I did not play the previous season. I was determined to introduce unfamiliar tactics, giving her short balls in order to entice her up to the net. The result was that many of her terrific drives went out, and I think this was primarily the reason why I was the first lady in England to take a set from her. I recollect her telling me, after the match was over, that my game was very different to any other she had ever played, and that she was not anxious to meet me again–remarks I took as a great compliment.”
Charlotte was the second and is one of only four women to have won the ladies’ singles titles at Wimbledon after becoming mothers, the other three being Blanche Hillyard (the first woman to win as a mother, in 1897), Dorothea Lambert Chambers and Evonne Goolagong Cawley MBE (the most recent winner as a mother, in 1980).
Charlotte nevertheless continued to cycle to compete at Wimbledon Ladies’ Finals until 1919 –reaching the final for the last time in 1912. She remained fully committed to the sport that she had helped shape upon retirement. Even though her eye sight was failing, she kept herself immersed in the game and would often be seen cheering the following generations of players.
She was only three months short of ninety-first birthday when she flew down from Scotland during the 1961 Wimbledon to attend the champions’ luncheon to mark the seventy-fifth year of the championships.
She lived happily for another five years before she died in Helensburgh on 10 October 1966 at the age of ninety-six.
Alter she died, the gold medal that she received as the first Olympic tennis winner, nor her Wimbledon trophies, could be found. Her son Rex thought that it would have been in keeping with his Mother’s nature if she had just given them away to a gardener!