Scottish Wimbledon champion that history forgot

WHEN Jamie Murray lifted the mixed doubles trophy at Wimbledon last weekend alongside his Serbian partner Jelena Jankovic, it was no exaggeration to say that he was the first Scot in living memory to win a Grand Slam title at the championships.

Ian Collins' endeavours in the men's and mixed doubles finals of 1929 and the mixed doubles in 1931 made him the closest thing to a predecessor to Murray that most avid followers of Scottish tennis could come up with. However, the Glasgow-born Collins was defeated in all three of those matches.

There have been Scottish-born champions of Junior Wimbledon, such as Norah Mackintosh (1927), Jean Nicoll (1938), Norma Steacy (1947), Willie Shaw (1964), Ken Revie (1974) and Suzi Mair (1984), yet no winner of one of the five traditional senior events - the men's singles, women's singles, men's doubles, women's doubles, or mixed doubles. But a search of the record books last week, back to the 19th century, revealed a name that had gone unnoticed up until last weekend. The Wimbledon Compendium records the place of birth and death of every champion, and the 1896 men's singles champion is detailed as follows: MAHONY, Harold Segerson, born 13 February 1867, place of birth Edinburgh, Scotland.

George Robertson, Scottish tennis historian and author of the definitive SLTA publication Tennis In Scotland, was stunned by the sudden inclusion in last week's newspaper reports of an outsider in the pantheon above Scots who have won junior titles or reached grand slam finals.

"We have certainly never claimed Harold Mahony as one of our own," confirmed the author this week. "It is 13 years since I was researching my book but I don't recall his name ever coming up. If you were to say that Jamie Murray has become the first Scotsman to win a grand slam title, I don't think anybody would contradict you."

There is no mention of Mahony in the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame, or indeed in Robertson's centenary history of Scottish tennis. But for 111 years, he has stood alone as the sole Scots-born Wimbledon champion. And his is a remarkable story.

Harold Mahony, a pioneer of serve-and-volley, was a 6ft 3in bachelor described as "a giant of a man" with a playboy reputation. Imagine the field day for the press had he played 11 decades later than he did, with a pretty Serb alongside him.

Numerous reference books and encyclopaedic websites state the plain fact that Mahony was born in Edinburgh, but others claim he was born in Ireland, in County Kerry. There is no record of him at the General Register Office for Scotland, despite there being a legal obligation from 1855 onwards for every birth in Scotland to be registered formally.

Certainly, Mahony was raised as Irish rather than Scottish, and while the labelling of a landowner from County Kerry as a Scot may be a notional exercise - he only lived in Scotland as a young child - debate over his birthplace can now be resolved.

Joyce House in Dublin accommodates the Irish registry of births, marriages and deaths. An entry made on 19 July, 1867 details that one Harald Segerson Mahony was born on 21 February of that year at 21 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh. His parents were Richard John Mahony, a barrister and justice of the peace, of Dromore Castle in the district of Kenmare, County Kerry, and his wife, Mary Harriette Mahony, nee Waller.

Two years later, presumably dividing their time between Ireland and Scotland, the couple had a second child in Edinburgh, this time registered locally. Hardress Waller Mahony was born at Dalmore Lodge in Leith - the family's residence in Scotland - on 3 July, 1869. However, the baby died 18 days later at the same address. The Mahonys only had one other child, Norah.

There is no clear indication of why the family spent so much time in Scotland in preference to their Irish castle, which Richard had inherited from his father, Rev Denis Mahony, in 1851. Harold's father ran the Dromore estate and farmed oysters in the bay, and in 1872 he was listed as the sixth-biggest landowner in Ireland. Harold, already a tennis player of some note who had a court installed in the castle grounds which remains today, inherited the deeds in 1892, aged 25.

Within four years of becoming a landed proprietor, and still shy of his 30th birthday, Mahony joined a growing list of Irish gentry to win Wimbledon, the world's most prestigious tennis tournament, at his sixth attempt. He defeated Wilfred Baddeley 6-2, 6-8, 5-7, 8-6, 6-3 in the challenge round, as the final match was known, of the men's singles. The 57-game epic was a record for the Wimbledon final and lasted until 1954 when Jaroslav Drobny beat Ken Rosewall for the title in 58 games.

And unwittingly, he set a standard that generations of Scots-born tennis enthusiasts could not emulate.

In his monumental 1,800-page, three-volume tome, The History of Irish Tennis, Tom Higgins writes that Mahony "excelled at the volleying game, his great length of limb combined with exceptional alertness and activity, making it very hard for his opponents to pass him after he has once worked his way to the net". Insight into Mahony's personality is more intriguing still, evoking comparisons with his fellow Trinity College alumni, Oscar Wilde. "He also was described as a charming, devil may care personality," writes Higgins. "He was a witty talker and accomplished musician and entertained lavishly in the house he kept at Earls Court in London.

"It is not surprising, therefore, that he played in the Wimbledon Championships more often than most, if not all, Irish men or women. His looks and charm were much sought after by ladies looking for coaching."

Indeed, pictorial evidence of Mahony's popularity with the opposite sex is carried in Heiner Gillmeister's book Tennis: A Cultural History. Mahony spoke fluent German and competed frequently in that country, and a caption in Gillmeister's book reads: "This photograph proves that Harold S. Mahony had the reputation of being a ladies' man." Mahony sits astride one lady in whites on his right, and four more on his right.

The other highlight of Mahony's tennis career came at the 1900 Olympics in Paris, when he won three medals, and in 1898 when he beat Joshua Pim in the final of the German Championships. In Paris, he began with a bronze medal alongside Britain's Arthur Norris and added a mixed-doubles silver on behalf of an International Team alongside Helene Provost, before losing the men's singles final to Hugh Doherty.

Dividing his time between Dromore, London and Germany, he continued to compete at Wimbledon but, ahead of the 1905 championships, tragedy struck. Out cycling on 27 June in the neighbouring district of Killarney, Mahony fell from his bike at the foot of Caragh Hill, near Killorglin. His death was recorded on 3 October, with the cause described as: "Fall from a bicycle. Ten minutes no medical attendant." Staff at Joyce House admitted this was a curious entry, as most registered deaths described the precise injury that proved fatal. Mahony was mourned in Ireland, London and Germany, where he made front page news and inspired a tribute in the daily Sport im Bild.

Without an heir, Dromore Castle passed to Harold's sister Norah, who in turn passed it on to her cousin. The castle remained with the family for decades but sold in the 1990s.

A century after Mahony's demise, the teenage Murray brothers were skirting around the fringes of the world tennis circuit knowing nothing of this historic figure's life story and legacy, because his achievements have never been part of the curriculum for aspiring Scottish players. The omission is understandable: the only concrete link to this country uncovered in a week-long search on his life was the simple location of birth, and he certainly learned his game elsewhere.

Jamie, who has astonished British tennis fans by triumphing at the highest level of tennis before his more gifted little brother, Andy, has confessed to being unable to grasp the historic significance of what he has accomplished. But in Scotland's tennis community, it has been noted.

"At Tennis Scotland we are delighted with Jamie's achievement and the way things are looking, and we are extremely optimistic that it will be nothing like the same length of time we have to wait for the next success," said Dave McDermid, spokesman for the governing body. "Great things are expected of Andy Murray and there is a mushrooming effect at grass-roots level. Last week at the Scottish Junior Open there was an entry of 450, which is 150 more than the previous record.

"This is all good news in terms of the bigger picture, although we know tennis is still a minority sport. The fact it has been over a century since we had a grand-slam winner underlines the magnitude of what Jamie has achieved."

• The History of Irish Tennis by Tom Higgins. Full details at www.historyofirishtennis.ie