Chambers, Dorothea Katharine Lambert [née Dorothea Katharine Douglass] (1878–1960), lawn tennis player
by Mark Pottle

Chambers, Dorothea Katharine Lambert [née Dorothea Katharine Douglass] (1878–1960), lawn tennis player, was born on 3 September 1878 at Ealing, Middlesex, the second daughter of the Revd Henry Charles Douglass (d. 1916), vicar of St Matthew's, Ealing Common, and his wife, Clara Collick. She learned to play tennis on the vicarage lawn, encouraged by her father, who was a constant support throughout her playing career. The game was not well catered for at her school, Princess Helena College in Ealing, but this did nothing to dampen her enthusiasm or her competitive spirit, and on one occasion she was given lines after getting into ‘a very heated argument’ with a mistress over a disputed line call (Lambert Chambers, 88). She joined the Ealing Common Lawn Tennis Club as a junior and won the club handicap singles as an eleven-year-old, the first of three successive victories. By taking every opportunity to play against the club's men, she developed into an all-rounder of ‘immense skill, energy and intelligence’ (Davidson and Jones, 10).

‘Tall, lean, and always superbly fit’ (DNB), Chambers became extremely hard to beat. Her strength lay in her forehand and in her steady and accurate driving, with the emphasis on flexibility rather than sheer pace. An excellent tactician, she could read her opponents extremely well, and her angled drop shot was a famous winner. Competing at first as Miss Douglass until her marriage (on 3 April 1907) to Robert Lambert Chambers, a merchant, of Ealing, after which she was known as Mrs Lambert Chambers, she had a long string of victories in many tournaments. She took part in her first Wimbledon in 1900 and won her first title in 1903 at the age of twenty-four, then made a successful defence in the following year. For the next three years she faced tough competition from the young American May Sutton, to whom she lost in 1905 and 1907, but whom she beat in 1906. Between 1903 and 1914 she won the Wimbledon singles title seven times and lost only once to a British player, in 1908 to Charlotte Sterry, who herself won Wimbledon five times. Her record of seven singles victories stood until the great Helen Wills-Moody won her eighth title in 1938, though it should be noted that before 1922 the holder had to defend her title only in the final ‘challenge’ round.

Chambers also won the Wimbledon ladies' doubles at the championships in 1903 and 1907, and the mixed doubles in 1906, 1908, and 1910. In 1908 she won the Olympic gold medal in the ladies' singles. At badminton, her other game, she was all-England women's doubles champion in 1903, and mixed doubles champion in 1904; she also played hockey for Middlesex.

During her enforced break from the game in 1909, when she was expecting the first of her two sons, Chambers wrote Lawn Tennis for Ladies (1910). The book reflected the increasing participation of women in sport, a much observed phenomenon which Chambers regarded as wholly beneficial to ‘the health and mind of the modern girl’ (Lambert Chambers, 1). She dismissed the arguments against female athleticism and advocated not merely exercise for women, but strenuous competition: ‘If you are skilled and well drilled in discipline and sportsmanship, you are bound to benefit in the strife of the world’ (ibid., 5). She preferred the overhead serve to the underarm, and it was an axiom with her that only by constant repetition could a stroke be perfected. She recommended to her readers the example of one English champion who always practised in this way: ‘If no friend were available for the purpose, the butler had to devote an hour a day to throwing the ball in the given direction’ (ibid., 13).

Chambers's determination to win met indignation from some of her opponents and one, who was repeatedly beaten by a short drop shot, complained afterwards: ‘I cannot admire your length’ (Lambert Chambers, 28). She did not take the reproach at all seriously and if she discovered a weakness in her opponent's game would ruthlessly exploit it. She returned to Wimbledon in 1910 and won the ladies' singles with relative ease, a feat that she repeated the following year. By this time she was probably at her peak and was acknowledged to be the best woman player in the world. Her second pregnancy prevented her from defending the Wimbledon title in 1912, but she made a triumphant return to the championships in 1913 and won her seventh, and last, title in 1914. On the latter occasion she defeated Ethel Larcombe on the centre court at the old Wimbledon, in Worple Road. In sweltering heat, which left both players exhausted, Chambers won two very hard-fought sets, 7–5, 6–4. She would certainly have added to her total of singles titles had the war not intervened.

When the championships were resumed in 1919 there was intense public interest, heightened by the appearance of the twenty-year-old Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen, who as a fifteen-year-old had won the world hard court championship in Paris before the war. From the moment that Lenglen appeared at Wimbledon crowds flocked to see her play and her wonderful progress through the opening rounds, together with her twenty years' advantage in age, made her a firm favourite to win. ‘The only concession that Mrs Lambert Chambers had made to the passing of time since 1903 was that her long-sleeved blouse was open at the neck and her long skirt just a trifle shorter’ (DNB). Lenglen won the first set 10–8 but Chambers counter-attacked strongly to take the second 6–4. In the final set Lenglen led 4–1 but Chambers fought back magnificently to take the lead. At 6–5 and 40–15 up she had two match points, but Lenglen kept her nerve and hit a lucky ‘wooden’ volley to save one match point, and then a sublime backhand to save the next. Lenglen went on to take the set 9–7 and win a brilliant and memorable victory. It was one of the finest women's matches ever seen at Wimbledon and the drama of the occasion was equalled by the high quality of the tennis. One contemporary commentator wrote: ‘Viewed from any angle the struggle was memorable. The percentage of stroke error by both players was negligible; the net was rarely shaken by a mistimed drive’ (Davidson and Jones, 13).

Chambers returned in the following year to seek revenge and reached the final comfortably, but Lenglen was now almost invincible and overwhelmed her 6–3, 6–0. This was the last singles match that Chambers played at Wimbledon, although she carried on competing in the doubles. In December 1922 she became the first woman to be elected a councillor of the Lawn Tennis Association. And in 1925 she was invited to captain the British team for the Wightman Cup match against America at Forest Hills, New York. Her victories in the singles and doubles enabled Britain to win the tie by four matches to three, and bearing in mind that she was then forty-six this must rank among her finest achievements. In the following year she again captained the British team at Wimbledon, where she lost her doubles. She made her last playing appearance at Wimbledon in 1927, when she partnered the South African Billie Tapscott in the doubles and came through one round. She had played 161 matches at the championships and was nearly forty-nine years old: only Blanche Hillyard and Martina Navratilova have played in more finals than her.

In 1928 Chambers became a professional coach and ceased to be a member of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, but after the war she was re-elected and thenceforward, until her death in London, on 7 January 1960, she was always to be seen in the members' enclosure at the championships.

MARK POTTLE

Sources  

DNB · D. Lambert Chambers, Lawn tennis for ladies (1910) · A. D. C. Macaulay and J. Smyth, Behind the scenes at Wimbledon (1965) · O. Davidson and C. M. Jones, Great women tennis players (1971) · A. Little and L. Tingay, Wimbledon ladies: a centenary record, 1884–1984, the single champions (1984) · J. Huntington-Whiteley, ed., The book of British sporting heroes (1998) [exhibition catalogue, NPG, 16 Oct 1998 – 24 Jan 1999] · H. Gilmeister, Tennis: a cultural history (1990) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1960)

Likenesses  

photograph, 1904, Hult. Arch. [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£18,215 9s. 8d.: probate, 28 April 1960, CGPLA Eng. & Wales


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Dorothea Katharine Lambert Chambers (1878–1960): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/32353