Friday, 6 October 2017

Lena Rice – Irish Ladies Wimbledon Champion

Helena Bertha Grace Rice, known as ‘Lena,' was born in 1866 and raised in Marhill, near the village of New Inn, Tipperary, Ireland. The family home, a large Georgian mansion, had a tennis court in its grounds where Lena and her sister Annie learnt to play tennis. Both girls also played regularly at Cahir Lawn Tennis Club. In May 1889, Lena played in her first tournament outside Tipperary, at the Irish Championships at Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club in Dublin. She was narrowly beaten in the semi-final, by five times Wimbledon champion, Blanche Bingley Hillyard, but she partnered with Willoughby Hamilton and won the title in the mixed doubles competition. At the Wimbledon Championships later that year, Lena reached the final where once again her opponent was Blanche Bingley. During the two-hour match, Lena won the first set and had three match points, but Blanche managed to win the next three match points, 4-6, 8-6, 6-4 and the game. Lena returned to Ireland ‘disappointed and exhausted.’

 Despite losing the singles final to Louise Martin at home in the Irish championships, Lena was backin Wimbledon on 4th July, 1890, competing in the Ladies Singles Championship finals. Only four competitors entered that year, the smallest entry for any competition at Wimbledon. As the defending champion Blanche Bingley could not compete that year because she was pregnant, Lena’s opponent was May Jacks. Lena walked onto the Centre Court wearing the acceptable attire for ladies’ tennis at the time; a floral patterned full-length skirt, a blouse with long sleeves, tightly clinched at the waist, a bustle, corset and a long petticoat, a boater hat and leather high-heeled boots on her feet. In the final game, when May Jacks lobbed the ball at her opponent, instead of waiting for the ball above her head to drop to waist height before returning it, as was expected at that time, Lena leapt into the air and smashed the ball over the net, where it bounced inside the baseline, winning the match in one stroke. The astonished spectators gasped and after a pause burst into applause. Lena had  not only introduced the forehand smash, but had also become the first Irishwoman (and remains the only one to date) ever to win Wimbledom. 

She retired following her victory at Wimbledon and after her mother’s death in 1891, having lost her father 23 years earlier, she remained unmarried and lived a quiet life alone at Marlhill, until her death from tuberculosis on 21st June, 1907, her 41st birthday. She is buried alongside her parents in the small graveyard at New Inn.      

Image credit: Wikipedia 


  1. It must have been hard work playing tennis in all that clothing! What a feat though! A shame she died so young.

    1. And sweltering too I would imagine. Thanks for dropping by. :)