When a tennis player from Ipswich reached the Wimbledon semi-finals. Yes, really!
PUBLISHED: 06:07 09 January 2020 | UPDATED: 12:14 10 January 2020
Ex-Ipswich High School for Girls pupil beat a former Wimbledon champion to claim place in the last four
I was in our old-newspaper store, turning over fragile 90- and 100-year-old pages and trying not to tear them. With 2020 upon us, I wanted to look back at life a century earlier: finding out what we wore, what we ate, how much houses cost, what jobs our ancestors might have. Fascinating stuff - but fatal. For it's too easy to become sidetracked by articles and items you're not really after. The morning you've allocated becomes afternoon, if you're not disciplined.
Mind you, I defy anyone to ignore headlines such as "Miss Ridley's Wimbledon Triumph" when you learn Miss Ridley was from Ipswich and had reached the women's semi-finals of the 1929 Championships.
Imagine: If she'd been around 90 years later, Joan Ridley might have found herself battling seven-times champion Serena Williams for a place in the final.
Of course, the world's oldest tennis tournament was a very different animal in 1929. The players were amateurs, a TV audience of millions was the stuff of science fiction, and Joan wouldn't have been dressed by Nike or swinging a Wilson racquet.
But it was still quite some achievement.
Joan Ridley was born in Ipswich on July 11, 1903, and went to Ipswich High School for Girls.
July 3, 1929, delivered an early birthday present when she defeated May Sutton Bundy 6-3, 6-2 to reach the last four. Our report called it "Miss Joan Ridley's Great Achievement", before a 15,000-strong centre court crowd at "historic Wimbledon".
It was indeed great. May Sutton Bundy might by then have been a mother of four, but she was what we'd now call "a legend".
Born in Plymouth, England, she became an adopted Californian and played under the American flag. She wasn't even 18 when she won the 1904 US National Women's Singles Championship. It made her the youngest champion ever - a record that stood until 1979, when 16-year-old Tracy Austin was victorious.
In 1905, May took the ladies' singles championship at Wimbledon - and again in 1907. Little wonder she became the first female player honoured by the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Our 1929 report written by "Double Fault" credited Joan Ridley with a decisive victory - "the Ipswich girl was not seriously extended" - in a match that was not thrilling. ("Rather, sentiment-fired than tennis-inspired.")
Gallant May might have been on a comeback, "for the sheer love of hitting the ball", but was no pushover. She'd beaten Britain's 1928 Wightman Cup captain (Ermintrude Harvey) and the nation's young pretender (Eileen Bennett).
"Joan Ridley is a fine player," said the vanquished Mrs Bundy, but the harder-hitting Suffolk player confessed she had not expected to win so easily.
Whatever happened in the semi, said Double Fault, "the Ipswich girl has at last come into her kingdom".
And so to semi-finals day, where two women carried English hopes in a pair of Anglo-American duels.
Joan found herself under extra pressure following fellow Brit Elsie Goldsack's defeat by holder Helen Wills - who'd won in the previous two years and also had French and US Open crowns in her locker.
(Our of-its-time report, by the way, described Elsie Goldsack as a dainty and "attractive young all-court Londoner who has captivated on the Felixstowe lawns". The resort had a reputation for its quality summer tournament.)
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Joan's opponent was Helen Jacobs - born in Arizona, in her early 20s, and described rather unflatteringly as "stockily-built".
Black clouds lurked threateningly as the players waited. When they came onto the court, "and before the cheer of welcome had subsided, a shower came into the sunshine, but the persistent cameramen had their 'shot', and took the 'snap' with the players under one umbrella".
Double Fault reckoned the key question was: "Could that staggering forehand drive of Miss Ridley's, lashed diagonally and deep to her rival's backhand, sweep through the defence of this typical American hitter…?"
The match was noted for its "tremendous forehand hitting". In the end, though, the "definitely superior" Helen won well (6-2, 6-2) to set up an all-American final. It was, apparently, her more powerful backhand that proved a key factor. "So went the slender hopes of the old country…"
One of the headlines read: "The Journey's End".
The Ipswich player shouldn't have been too dispirited. She'd been knocked out in the second round in 1928, though won the Scottish Championships that year and retained them in 1929. En route to the 1929 Wimbledon semi she had beaten the Dutch champion and former German champion. So this was real progress.
"The bare, bold result did not reflect in any way generously on a loser who, making more errors of her own than in some of her great clashings, at times played soundly, but without the continuity that could bring it to the score sheet," Double Fault reflected.
"'Battling Joan' was an apt observation I heard when, towards the end of the ordeal, she battled as a fighter should when the back is to the wall."
In the penultimate game, Joan had made "a couple of forehand winners of a rousing character".
The last game, often deuce, "was a characteristic example of the fighting qualities of the Ipswich girl". She'd got herself back into it after being 0-30 down, and at one stage produced a brilliant shot to win a point.
"Miss Ridley told me afterwards that she was bothered by the wind, and her service was not responding as well as in the earlier Wimbledon moments, and these two factors undoubtedly told, whilst there were certainly occasions, which I noted, when the winner was seemingly with her, but the American girl made retrieves in desperation which turned the tables.
"On analysis of the score sheet I was told that 75 points were credited to the American, as against 54 to the loser, whilst seven of the games went to deuce." By such small margins…
While Helen Jacobs would lose to Helen Wills in the final, she'd make the last stage at five more Wimbledons - all in the 1930s. She'd take the title in 1936. Joan's defeat, then, was no disgrace.
Good days lay around the corner.
In 1930, at the Queen's Club in London, Joan claimed the singles crown at the British Covered Court Championships. In 1931 she made a Wimbledon final - being runner-up (with Ian Collins) in the mixed doubles.
That year, Joan self-funded a trip to America, competing in a number of tournaments and claiming several triumphs. In 1932, she was a semi-finalist in the US National Championships.
The following year saw Joan and Elsie Goldsack Pittman reach the semi-final of the Wimbledon women's doubles.
Life was good off-court, too. News of Joan's engagement in mid-1935 even made The West Australian newspaper in Perth.
Her fiancé was the sporty Daniel O'Meara, a gynaecologist at West Suffolk Hospital. He had been captain of Guy's Hospital football team in London. They married that autumn.
Joan died on October 4, 1983. It's a shame more of us don't know about this lawn tennis role model.
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