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Friday 17 March 2017 09:34 AM GMT
From the archive: Harold Mahony
On St Patrick's Day, remembers the last Irish singles champion at The Championships... READ MORE

Harold Mahony was a proud Irishman, and despite triumphing in the Gentlemen's Singles 121 years ago, he remains the most recent Irish singles champion at the All England Club.

Harold Segerson Mahony was the son of Richard and Mary Mahony, whose principal home was at Dromore Castle in County Kerry. However, the Mahonys, who were wealthy land-owners, also had a house at Leith and it was during one of their visits to Scotland that Harold was born on 13 February 1867. 

Most of Harold’s childhood, nevertheless, was spent at Dromore Castle, where a tennis court was laid in response to his blossoming interest in the sport. 

years since Ireland last had a Wimbledon singles champion

This was a time when tennis was very strong in Ireland, to the point where the Irish Championships were considered to be on a par with the All England Club’s event. Among many fine Irish players of that era were the four who made a clean sweep of the honours at The Championships of 1890: Willoughby Hamilton, the Gentlemen’s Singles champion, Lena Rice, the Ladies’ Singles champion, and Joshua Pim and Bram Stoker, who won the Gentlemen’s Doubles.

Mahony, who missed The Championships only once between 1890 and 1904, was the most popular player of his day. The handsome 6ft 3in Irishman had a wonderfully easy-going nature and loved playing to the crowd, who in turn enjoyed his dynamic style of play.

In “Forty Years of First-Class Lawn Tennis”, George Hillyard, Secretary of the All England Club from 1907 to 1925, said Mahony was “surely the most generous-hearted, casual, irresponsible seventy-five inches of Irish bone and muscle that ever walked on to a court”.

Hillyard described the Irishman as “the optimist of the Lawn Tennis World”, whose “lion-hearted spirit” was always undaunted. He added: “In all the years I knew him, I never once saw him the slightest bit out of temper.”

Mahony made his debut at The Championships in 1890, losing to the American Deane Miller in the first round. The next three years brought runs to the semi-finals in 1891 and 1892 and an appearance in the All-Comers’ Final of 1893, but Pim got the better of him on each occasion. In 1894 Mahony won only five games in losing to Ernest Lewis in the second round.

For all his enthusiasm, there were serious flaws in Mahony’s game. “His great weakness was his forehand drive,” Hillyard wrote. “A splendid all-round player in every other respect, he could not, and never did, acquire the right method of hitting the ball on the forehand.

“But if Mahony’s forehand was weak, his backhand was very much the reverse, and few finer have ever been seen. His great strength, of course, lay in his volleying, of which stroke he was a master, and as he simply ‘lived at the net’, had an enormous reach, and a magnificent service, it is easy to understand how he won his many victories.”

After a two-year break from The Championships, during which time he had honed his game during a spell in the United States, 29-year-old Mahony was raring to go when he returned in 1896. 

Mahony defeated Wilfred Baddeley (R) in the 1896 Challenge Round
Mahony defeated Wilfred Baddeley (R) in the 1896 Challenge Round

The Irishman never looked back after a tough five-sets victory in the first round over Reggie Doherty, who would go on to win the title in 1897, 1898, 1899 and 1900. After beating Wilberforce Eves 6-2, 6-2, 11-9 in the All-Comers’ Final, Mahony faced the defending champion, Wilfred Baddeley, in the Challenge Round. Mahony won 6-2, 6-8, 5-7, 8-6, 6-3; at 57 games it was the most played in a final until Jaroslav Drobny needed 58 games to overcome Ken Rosewall in 1954.

Mahony, who was the third and last Irishman to win the Gentlemen’s Singles at The Championships, lost 4-6, 4-6, 3-6 to Doherty in the following year’s Challenge Round. He reached one more All-Comers’ Final, losing in five sets to Doherty’s brother, Laurie, in 1898.

In the same year Mahony won the singles titles at both the Irish and the German championships and in 1900 he won three medals at the Olympic Games in Paris: silver in the men’s singles and mixed doubles and bronze in the men’s doubles.

An accomplished amateur musician and a playboy with a reputation as a “ladies’ man”, he was in great demand as a coach. He gave freely of his time to youngsters who were learning the game and was particularly successful as mentor to Charlotte Sterry, who won the Ladies’ Singles at The Championships five times.

Mahony spent time in both London, where he had a residence at Earls Court, and in Germany, but it was back in County Kerry that he met an untimely death in June 1905 when he fell from a bicycle at the foot of a steep hill near Killorglin. He was just 38 at the time.

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