Hugh Lawrence Doherty (1875-1919)
Laurie Doherty sitting behind his older brother, Reggie
One of my reasons for starting this blog was to have a place where I could post brief essays on some of the greatest players in history. Tennis is peculiar among sports in that its history has been very poorly documented. Most tennis fans know very little about the sport prior to the rise of the ATP in the early 1970s and the “tennis boom” that followed in the wake of Connors, Borg, and McEnroe. While baseball fans have the utmost respect for Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, etc., tennis’s older champions are too-often wrongfully consigned to the “ash heap of history.” In truth, many of the finest players of all time made their names before the beginning of the Open Era. Though it is ultimately impossible to know how players of radically different times would have fared against one another in direct competition, I find it utterly ridiculous to assume that the best players of the past were hopelessly inferior to the current crop of stars.
I will start off, then, with the man I consider the first true international tennis champion: H.L. (“Laurie”) Doherty, or “Little Do.” Laurie Doherty was one of the two famous Doherty brothers who dominated both the singles and doubles at Wimbledon in the 1890s and 1900s. Willie Renshaw may have been the first British star to raise his country’s public awareness of the game in the 1880s, but Laurie and his older brother R.F. (“Reggie” or “Big Do”) were the ones who elevated tennis to world championship level. Their careers corresponded with the founding of the international Davis Cup competition in 1900, which pitted the top national teams against each other. The Dohertys anchored the first Davis Cup dynasty, and the British team of that time remains one of the most accomplished ever. While Reggie mostly resigned himself to doubles, Laurie compiled an astounding unbeaten record in singles and doubles. The British first won the Cup in 1903 and held onto it for four years; the Australasian team led by Norman Brookes was only finally able to wrestle the Cup away from Great Britain after the Dohertys had essentially retired.
Still, Laurie’s most significant feat was becoming the first foreign male player to win the singles at the US Championships. Reggie had attempted the same feat in 1902 but lost to defending champion Bill Larned, a great player in his own right, in the challenge round. (In those days the previous year’s winner only had to play a single match in order to defend his crown, meeting the winner of the all-comers’ final in the challenge round.) In 1903, Laurie followed in Reggie’s footsteps and succeeded where his brother had failed. By capturing both the Wimbledon and US Championships, along with the Davis Cup, Laurie was the first man to sweep all the major tournaments in his time. His feat would not be surpassed until 1921, when Big Bill Tilden won Wimbledon, the US Championships, and the World Clay Court Championships in France, which some observers argue should be properly recognized as the first true “Grand Slam.”
There was no equivalent of the Grand Slam in the Doherty era, but if there had been, Laurie certainly could have won it. In addition to his incredible achievements on grass, Laurie and his brother were the best clay-court players of their time. Laurie won the Paris Olympics in 1900 on clay, though neither he nor Reggie reportedly considered it a very important title. More impressive, Laurie won the South of France Championships at Nice–perhaps the biggest clay court event prior to the first World Clay Court Championships at St. Cloud in 1912–eight consecutive times! He also won many other tournaments throughout Europe on various surfaces, probably amassing more titles than any other pre-World War I player aside from the phenomenally prolific Anthony Wilding. The Dohertys wrote the first influential book of lawn tennis instruction, R.F. & H.L. Doherty on Lawn Tennis (1903), which is now a quite hard-to-find and expensive collector’s item.
Laurie won the Wimbledon singles five straight times (1902-1906) and the doubles a record eight straight times (1897-1905), and he retired while still at the top of his game. Along with the better-remembered Frederick J. Perry, “Little Do” remains one of the two greatest players that Great Britain, the birthplace of lawn tennis, has yet produced. It is fitting that the gates at Wimbledon bear their names.