ON July 4, 1890, a Wimbledon final was in full swing. May Jacks lobbed the ball towards her young Irish opponent and what happened next changed tennis forever. Lena Rice, with a stretch and an arch of her elbow, smashed the ball back across the court, stunning her rival and the vast crowd.
In those few seconds, Rice, a young lady from New Inn, in Co.Tipperary, had invented the forearm smash.
Rice (Helena Bertha Grace Rice), the second youngest of seven children, grew up in Marhill Manor House, Tipperary, where she learned her tennis on her home courts.
She was born on the June 21, 1866, in her father’s Georgian, two-storied mansion. She played tennis against the young ladies and gentleman who visited Marlhill.
She only played competitively for two years, yet she remains Ireland’s most successful female tennis player.
Rice took her first tentative steps into competitive tennis on the lawn courts of Fitzwilliam, Dublin. In 1889, she lost an Irish Open semi-final to Blanche Hillard. The following year, the two met in a Wimbledon final.
Having taken the lead in the final set, Rice’s nerve failed her, and she lost 4-6-8-6-6-4. It was a crushing blow for her. Rice’s three-match-point loss has been compared to Lindsey Davenport’s match-point defeat to Venus Williams in the Wimbledon final of 2005.
The following year, 1890, Rice arrived on centre court for her second Wimbledon final, and her last appearance on a tennis court. She was decked out in a two-piece costume, an ankle-length, floral-patterned skirt and a blouse tightly clasped at the waist.
In the heat of a July afternoon, one guesses how she even managed to walk, never mind win the final.
Apart from winning the right to hold the 50 guineas Challenge trophy for the year, Rice was awarded the first prize, 20 guineas, and with this she purchased an emerald-and-diamond ring later worn by her great niece, Susan Faithfull, according to the Tipperary Star.
The contemporary tennis journalist, Harry Scriveney, wrote of Rice: “She was a wonderful player with a terrible ‘Irish’ drive and a powerful serve.”
But there is no record of Rice having played competitive tennis again. She spent the the following year at Marhill, tending to her sick mother, Anna.
Anna had run Marhill, and had brought up her children alone, since 1868, after her husband died, aged just 41. Anna died a year after her daughter’s Wimbledon victory, on St Patrick’s Day, 1891, at the age of 63.
Rice’s lawn tennis career spanned just two seasons and a handful of tournaments, but tennis historians believe that if she had continued to play she would have been a strong rival to Lottie Dod and Blanche Hilliard, who dominated women’s tennis at that time.
But like her father, Lena, too, was to die aged 41. On June 21, 1907 (her birthday), Rice, who never married, succumbed to tubercular fever — just 17 years after her Wimbledon triumph.
Rice is buried with her parents in an old, windswept Protestant cemetery in New Inn, called ‘Downey’s Field.’
According to Tom Higgins’ The History of Irish Tennis, 1890 was the year of the Irish tennis player, as no fewer than five Irish tennis players won coveted international titles.
Mabel Cahill, from Tipperary, was the first and only Irish woman to win the US Open, in 1890. In that same year, Rice took the ladies’ singles title at Wimbledon and another Irish player, Willoughby Hamilton, won the men’s singles event at Wimbledon.
The men’s doubles event in Wimbledon that year was won by two Irishmen, Joshua Pim and Frank Stoker, a cousin to Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula.