True story of the Tipperary tennis star who was the first Irish women to win at Wimbledon

Niamh Dillon

Reporter:

Niamh Dillon

Email:

niamh.dillon@tipperarystar.ie

Lena Rice

Lena Rice

In 1890, a young tennis player from New Inn, Tipperary made history by becoming the first ever Irish woman to win a singles championship at Wimbledon.

Helena Bertha Grace Rice was born the second-youngest of eight children of Spring Rice and Anna Gorde in Marlhill New Inn, County Tipperary in 1866.

Following her father’s death when she was just a toddler, her mother Anna took over the running of the Marlhill home while caring for her young family.

Growing up, Lena, as she was more commonly known, learned to play tennis with her sister Anne in the grand gardens of her two storey Georgian home where she regularly competed against visiting young ladies and gentlemen to Marlhill who attended popular ‘tennis parties’ hosted by the Rice’s.

Lena’s sporting ability became evident early on and she later joined Cahir Lawn Tennis Club with her sister where willing tennis opponents were in no short supply.

One of her first forays into the competitive world of tennis took place in Dublin in 1883 when she competed at the Irish Championships at Fitzwilliam Square at just 16 years of age. She competed with mixed results, losing out early on in the singles event but succeeded in reaching the final of the mixed doubles when paired with Peter Aungier.

She returned again to the Irish Championships in 1889, where following a steady start, Rice narrowly lost out in the semi-final to five time Wimbledon champion Blanche Bingley. However when partnered with Willoughby Hamilton she won the Mixed Doubles title, cementing her status as a force to be reckoned with on the court.

The following year, on July 4th, Rice traveled to Wimbledon wearing a two-piece costume, comprising an ankle-length, floral-patterned skirt and a blouse tightly cinched at the waist, along with a bustle, corset and a long petticoat, a boater hat and leather high-heeled boots on her feet - the appropriate attire for centre court at the time.

Matched against her opponent May Jacks, and with the game in full swing, Rice stunned the crowd by returning a lobbed ball with full force, leaping into the air and smashing it over the net in turn creating the “forearm smash” and earning her the title of Wimbledon champion. The audience was left monetarily stunned before erupting into applause. 

At the age of 24, Rice returned to Tipperary to care for her ailing mother. Mrs Rice passed away on St Patrick’s Day, 1891, at the age of 63.

Although Rice never returned to play competitively, historians believe she would have been a dominant force on the courts.

On June 21st 1907, Rice passed away on her birthday at the age of 41 following a long battle with tuberculosis. Having never married, she was buried in front of her parents’ graves in the small Protestant cemetery at Downeys Field, New Inn.

Following her father’s death 23 years earlier, the family’s fortune had taken a gradual decline and the Rice estate was eventually sold off.

Marlhill House was subsequently sold and later demolished in 1962. However renovations in the mid 1980’s unearthed the remains of a tennis court and pieces of tennis equipment, presumably belonging to Tipperary’s tennis ace.

In 2000, 93 years after her death, the New Inn tennis champion was awarded the Tipperary Millennium Sports Star Award for Racquet Sports in recognition of her historic Ladies Singles win in Wimbledon in 1890.

In 2007, New Inn Tennis Club, who host the annual Lena Rice trophy competition, commemorated the 100th anniversary of Rice’s death.