NINETY years ago, tennis fans at a small tournament in Pwllheli saw a 15 year Dudley girl play an experienced Wimbledon player.
Wearing her school blazer and wielding "a very ancient racquet", the unknown teenager fought bravely against seasoned player, Joan Strawson.
The match ended in defeat for the Black Country youngster. But, the spectators saw something special that day. Eye witness reports speak of a young player, for whom Joan Strawson's "famous forehand drive" apparently "held no terrors". Strawson predicted a bright future for her opponent. Yet, like the crowd, even she was unaware they had seen a future Wimbledon champion in the making.
Born on July 13, 1909 at 25 Grange Road, Dudley, Dorothy Round Little was the daughter of builder and contractor, John Benjamin Round and Maude Helena, nee Williams. From the age of twelve, Dorothy took to tennis seriously, and was well used to hard-hitting from games with her three brothers.
It was in 1924, while she still at Dudley Girls' High School that Dorothy had made her mark on the Pwllelhi tournament. A promising junior career followed, with Dorothy winning county colours in 1927.
The following year, she made her Wimbledon debut. The 18 year old lost a closely fought match and went out in the first round. But in 1929, Dorothy survived to the second round at Wimbledon. At this stage, she was seen as a "steady rather than a mercurial player."
But, things were to change. With the help of Japanese tennis star Ryuki Miki, Dorothy worked hard on her technique and in 1932 she reached the Wimbledon quarter finals. The following year, she also reached the ladies singles semis at the American championships.
During the 1930s, ladies tennis was dominated by "the two Helens" – American arch rivals Helen Wills Moody and Helen Jacobs. At the 1933 US championships, Dorothy Round lost her semi final to Helen Jacobs. In 1934, with Helen Wills Moody absent from Wimbledon, the ladies singles title was up for grabs. This time, Dorothy reached the final – and another match against Helen Jacobs, who had beaten her in their last four encounters.
From the off, Dorothy took the game to her opponent, never letting Jacobs settle into her usual grass court rhythm. And, at 4 – 3 up in the final set, the Dudley girl "staked everything on a volleying attack". The next two games were in the bag and the championship title was hers. For the Wimbledon crowds, used to the dominance of American players, it was an epic victory – made even more momentous as with Fred Perry's victory in the men's singles it was the first British Wimbledon "double" since 1909.
In 1935, Dorothy became the first overseas player to take the Australian Ladies singles title. But, at Wimbledon, it seemed that the reigning champion had lost her nerve as she went out in the quarter finals. It was the same story the following year. But, by 1937, Dorothy had regained her form and was playing some of the best tennis of her career. Seeded seventh at Wimbledon, she went on to take the title, beating Helen Jacobs in the quarter finals. In the final, her opponent was Polish player, Jaswiga Jedrzejowska, the possessor of a formidable backhand. But, with typical grit and her renowned return of serve, Dorothy broke back from 2-4 down in the final set to take her second Ladies single title.
Contemporary accounts put Dorothy's success down to a combination of mental determination and perfect physical condition. Whatever it was, it helped her win two Wimbledon Ladies singles titles and three successive mixed doubles titles, two of them partnering Fred Perry. She also played for Britain in the Wightman Cup from 1931-36.
Following her Wimbledon titles, Dorothy turned her hand to writing, with two books: Modern Lawn Tennis (1935) and Tennis for Girls (1939). Fans needn't have worried as tennis was still her first love – but not for much longer! On September 2, 1937, Dorothy married the other love of her life, Douglas Leigh Little, a medical practitioner. The couple set up home at Cedar Gardens, Kinver, and went on to have a son and daughter.
Dorothy's last Wimbledon appearance was in 1939. By this time, she had put tennis behind family life – and her serious playing days were over. At the 1939 tournament, she was unseeded and went out in the fourth round. But she remained close to tennis as a coach and tennis journalist, presiding over the Worcestershire Lawn Tennis Association through much of the 1960s and '70s.
Throughout her life, Dorothy was a committed Christian and for many years was a Methodist Sunday School Teacher. Because of this she often found herself in the headlines as the 'Worcestershire Sunday School Teacher' who refused to play on a Sunday.
Dorothy Round was one of only two British women holders of the Wimbledon Ladies singles title between the two world wars. The other champion was Kitty Godfree, who also won the title twice. But Dorothy's achievement is, perhaps, the more remarkable, given that her success came during the era dominated by the Two Helens. With a great return of serve, athleticism, grace and determination, the girl from Dudley was a great, competitive player in her own right.
Dorothy died in Kidderminster on November 12, 1982. But, her memory lives on, especially here in the Black Country.
Fittingly, a life-size bronze statue of Dorothy returning serve now stands in Dudley's Priory Park. The statue was commissioned by Dudley MBC and sculpted by John McKenna in the A4a art foundry in Ayrshire. The piece is entitled The Return of Dorothy Round a play on words encapsulating her 'homecoming' and that fearsome return of serve.
Dorothy's graceful and athletic likeness stands next to the tennis courts – hopefully inspiring a new generation of youngsters from her home town to follow her example and get into the sport. No doubt she'd love nothing better than to see another ladies champion from the Black Country.