Dorothy Round: Black Country girl who twice conquered Wimbledon

It was Ladies’ Final at Wimbledon, and the atmosphere was electric.

Dorothy Round in action on Wimbledon centre court against Betty Nuthall in 1936
Dorothy Round in action on Wimbledon centre court against Betty Nuthall in 1936

No more so than in the Black Country, where local lass Dorothy Round was within moments of making history. Great crowds huddled around the wireless in hushed silence, listening intently to hear the ball-by-ball commentary. The newspapers flew out of the shops, the ink barely dry.

“Members of clubs assembled not inconsiderable numbers and shouted lustily ‘Good old Dorothy’ when the final stroke made her virtually the world’s champion,” the Express & Star reported.

Sports fans were obviously very polite in the 1930s.

Emma Raducanu’s defeat to Caroline Garcia means she will have to wait at least another year before she can hope to claim the most prestigious title in world tennis. If she succeeds, she will do well to be held with the same affection as Dorothy Round, still a legend in the Black Country some 85 years after her most recent Wimbledon triumph.

Dudley-born Wimbledon champion Dorothy Round

And while the likes of John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase are remembered as much for their loud-mouthed barracking of match-officials as for their accomplishments with a racket, Dorothy Round also found fame for challenging the umpire. But unlike them, the girl from Dudley was protesting that she had been given an unfair advantage.

When Round reached the Wimbledon final for the first time in 1933, her opponent was the American Helen Wills Moody, who was already an established global star with 16 Grand Slam titles already under her belt. To add a bit of spice to the clash, Wills Moody had been Round’s opponent in the previous year’s quarter-finals, easily dispatching Dudley’s favourite daughter. Dorothy lost the first set 6-4 but then squared things by taking the second set on a controversial line call. It was the good fortune she needed, but she didn’t want to benefit from it. A committed Methodist Sunday school teacher, winning came a distant second to her sense of doing the right thing.

Politely, Dorothy argued with the officials that her point should be overturned in her opponent’s favour.

The umpire agreed to a review, but the decision was upheld, and Round was given the set. It was only the second set that the American had lost in her 16 Grand Slams. But Round appeared troubled by the perceived injustice, and struggled thereafter, losing her first Wimbledon final.

It was not the only time Dorothy’s strict moral values had caused her to clash – politely, of course – with the game’s authorities. She always refused to play on a Sunday, and for this reason she had declined to compete in the 1933 French Championship.

Dorothy Round tending to the garden at her Kinver home in 1972

And she caused more controversy during the Wightman Cup in New York when play was rained off on Saturday, and she refused to return on Sunday. Officials reluctantly rescheduled the clash for Monday, when she put in a below-par performance, prompting the New York Times to disparagingly remark: “Miss Round doesn’t play on Sundays, and doesn’t play particularly well on Mondays.”

The daughter of successful and well-known builder John Benjamin Round, and his wife Maude, Dorothy Edith Round was born on July 13, 1909, and raised in Park Road, Dudley, where her older brothers taught her to play tennis on a clay court her grandfather had built in the back garden. She began competing in school tennis tournaments at the age of 10 or 11, and attended Dudley Girls High School, where she became head girl. Round entered her first tennis tournament when she was 16 when she appeared at a competition held at Pwllheli, in Wales. In 1925 she won the junior Worcestershire championships, defeating Smethwick’s Lily Darby in straight sets. She retained her title the following year, also adding the doubles title. The following year, she reached the semi-finals of the junior championship at Wimbledon, and in June 1927 she swept the board at the Worcestershire County Lawn Tennis Tournament, taking the singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles.

Round was 18 when she made her Wimbledon debut in 1927, going out in the first round. But while lesser players might have been demoralised from defeats and setbacks, Dorothy viewed them as educational, learning from her mistakes and studying the techniques of her opponents.

In 1931, she got to the final in Beckenham at the prestigious Kent Championships, and she reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon.

Dorothy Round's statue in Priory Park, looked at by her daughter Tricia Swindell

During her break-out Wimbledon fortnight of July 1933, Round came to the attention of umpire Maurice Bryceson, who featured her in a newspaper article column about Britain’s Brightest Hopes.

He said he could not see any British player getting the better of ‘the rock of Helen Wills Moody’, but ranked Dorothy Round the nation’s best hope. He said Round had made ‘enormous strides’ and was ‘without doubt one of our most serious challengers to Miss Moody, who hates the drop shot at which Miss Round is adept’.

He praised Round’s ‘beautiful style and no apparent weakness. She chooses the right ball to follow to the net, and when there volleys and smashes with severity and accuracy’, concluding she ‘should have a great chance this year’.

She also came to the attention of commentator Eileen Bennett, who herself had won six Grand Slam doubles.

She said Dorothy Round had ‘one of the best backhands of any girl playing lawn tennis today, and the pace and rhythm of her stroke production is rarely upset by the effort of deliberate hitting, her speed being achieved by perfect timing’. The next year, in 1934, Dorothy’s hard work and dedication, which had enhanced her talent for volleying and powerful yet precise groundwork, paid off. This time Helen Wills Moody was unable to make Wimbledon because of a back injury. Dorothy again made the final to face another American, Helen Jacobs.

It seemed Jacobs would have the upper hand. She had beaten Round the year before in the semi-final of the American championships, and had won their last four encounters.

Undaunted, Round took the game to her opponent and unsettled her. She won the first set ‘with flowing backhands and volleys’, then lost the second, but dug deep to take the last set and the title. It was a special and memorable victory, all the more so because of fellow Brit Fred Perry’s triumph in the men’s singles. This was the first British ‘double’ at the championships since 1909.

The Express & Star reported at the time: “Miss Round’s father said he would not go through it all again for £50, and so excited was her mother during the match that she poured eau-de-Cologne over her hands.”

Shortly after her first triumph at Wimbledon, Round appeared in a Pathé News reel – the 1930s equivalent of a television documentary – entitled How I Play Tennis. The world No. 1 explained the characteristics which made the world’s top female tennis player: training, practice, technique, and fitness. She made no reference to her talent. Round was rewarded with a civic reception on return to her home town, and a wing at her local hospital was named in her honour.

A year after that exciting double victory for England, Dorothy was part of the first international tennis team to visit Australia, where gushing commentators described her as being ‘of medium height, slim, bronzed from her outdoor life’ and ‘an attractive figure in her dark blue suit’. She went on to become the first overseas player to win the Australian ladies’ singles title, but failed to keep her Wimbledon crown. She was also a three-time winner of the Wimbledon mixed doubles title, having won the first time with Japanese star Ryuki Miki in 1934, followed by two further victories with Fred Perry in 1935 and 1936.

By 1937, Round’s stock appeared to have fallen. She arrived at Wimbledon having lost two of three finals against Anita Lizana, and everyone, including Lizana herself, thought it would be the petite Chilean’s year. Round, who had been seeded at No. 7, looked something of an outsider. But while the South American floundered in the quarter finals, Round went all the way, seeing off reigning champion Helen Jacobs to defeat Poland’s Jadwiga Jedrzejowska in the final.

Round looked to be back at the peak of her game, having seen off her opponents with her characteristic dogged determination and unflappable concentration. “It is glorious to have won the Wimbledon title once more,” she said after victory. “The pace was very hot at times, and when it became too hot, I simply had to let the ball go.

“I went into court with a tactical plan – but in the heat of the moment I am afraid I forgot all about it.”

The same year, she married Glaswegian doctor Douglas Leigh Little in a much publicised ceremony on September 2. Pathé News turned out to cover the service at the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Wolverhampton Street, Dudley, followed by a glittering reception for more than 200 people at the town hall.

Mayor of Dudley, Alderman Joseph Hillman had presented her with silver tray the week before the wedding, and donations from townsfolk were used to buy her a walnut bathroom suite for her new marital home in St James’s Road.

And marriage pretty much marked the end of her career at the top of the game. When Helen Wills Moody retook the Wimbledon crown in 1938, Dorothy was preparing to welcome her first child into the world. She returned to competitive tennis in 1939, but the outbreak of war prompted her to move to take her young son to North America, where she spent five years coaching and playing exhibition matches in Canada and the US. She continued in the same vein when she returned to Britain in 1944, teaching tennis at her old school, and coaching players in Dudley’s Priory Park where a bronze statue now commemorates her accomplishments.

Douglas’s death in April 1958 left her a widow aged just 48, and she moved to Kinver in 1970, where she lived until her death in 1982. A bronze bust of the star was installed in front of the courts at Wimbledon in 2004, a fitting tribute to one of Britain’s all-time sporting greats.

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