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Page last updated at 12:28 GMT, Thursday, 30 June 2005 13:28 UK

My great aunt: Wimbledon champion

BBC Sport's Claire Stocks remembers her great aunt Kitty Godfree, who won the Wimbledon women's title twice in the 1920s.

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KITTY GODFREE's CAREER
Kathleen McKane at Wimbledon in 1923
Wimbledon singles: winner 1924 & 1926
Wimbledon mixed doubles: winner 1924 & 1926
Overall Wimbledon record: 146 matches btw 1919 & 1934
Olympics 1920 & 1924: Gold, two silver, two bronze
Wightman Cup: 1923-27, 1930, 1934
Until the Williams sisters won the women's doubles in 2000, my granny and her sister were the only siblings to appear in a women's doubles final at Wimbledon.

The year was 1922.

They lost and my granny never appeared in the final again.

But her younger sister Kathleen McKane, known to me as Great Aunt Biddy, went on to win two Wimbledon singles titles - an achievement that still ranks as one of the greatest in British women's tennis.

Kitty was skilled at lacrosse, skating and badminton (she won the All England Badminton title four times) and her natural athleticism and eye for the ball meant that she was one of the first female players to volley.

A self-taught player - and not from the upper-class elite for whom tennis was little more than a 'pat and giggle' hobby before the First World War - the guts she showed in taking her two titles inspired a popular following.

Along with the likes of her contemporaries Suzanne Lenglen (France), Helen Wills Moody and Elizabeth Ryan (both USA), she helped make tennis a box-office draw.

As Dan Maskell (BBC commentator from 1951 to 1991 who watched her in the 1920s) wrote in the introduction to her biography:

Elizabeth Ryan, Suzanne Lenglen, Didi Vlasto, Dorothea Lambert, Joan Fry, Lili de  Alvarez and eventual winner Kitty Godree in 1926
Wimbledon 1926: L to R: E Ryan, S Lenglen, D Vlasto, D Lambert, J Fry, L de Alvarez & K Godfree (nee McKane)

"Her victories sowed the seeds of (other British) Wimbledon wins. I feel she showed Britain the way in the world of tennis." *

Other players had more finesse than Kitty but she had a never-say-die enthusiasm, never more so than in her 1924 title victory over the American Wills Moody, at 18 making her first visit to Wimbledon.

A set behind and staring defeat in the face at 4-1 and 40-15 down, she produced a stirring comeback.

As Lenglen (tennis' first superstar, who pulled out from the semi-final allowing Kitty a walkover) wrote in the Daily Express:

"This is the point where the English girl is so wonderful, where the grit of her country shows in her.

"With the sixth game of the second set, it was a new Miss McKane. A girl who sprang to the stroke, who sprang to the net, who made the ball travel on her famous forehand-drive like the way it does from a cricket bat." *

Fortunate to meet Wills Moody on her debut, (the American never lost another match and went on to win eight titles) Kitty also benefited from the absence from her victorious years of the legendary Lenglen.

But like all true champions, she took her chances when they came.

Suzanne Lenglen, undated
Lenglen was a trained dancer whose graceful style, daring fashion and antics gave her film-star status

In 1926, with Lenglen missing again - this time after turning up late for a match and offending Queen Mary - Kitty (by then married to Davis Cup player Leslie Godfree) came from behind again in the final set to beat Spain's Lili de Alvarez.

Her prize was a 5 voucher from Mappin & Webb.

She later pooled her vouchers to buy enough jewellery to trade in for a bright green two-seater motor car.

She inspired a generation. And, although she died in 1992 aged 96, she still inspires me.

I only knew her in her twilight years but she was still a champion then.

She played tennis until a few years before she died, cycled everywhere and, winner of five Olympic tennis medals, she was an honoured guest at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul aged 92.

That year she also took her first trip in a helicopter.

What must that trip have felt like to a woman who in 1906, aged nine, cycled with her sister and their nanny across traffic-free pre-war Europe to Berlin?

Britain's Wightman Cup team, undated, probably 1925, sailing back from America. Kitty Godfee, 3rd from left.
Kitty hit the first ball of the inaugural Wightman Cup against America in 1923

Sadly, I never plucked up the courage to ask her.

One of the last times I saw Kitty was in 1986 when I was one of her guests at Wimbledon (one of her great delights was distributing tickets to the annual tournament to as many friends and family as possible).

It was the centenary year of play in the women's championships (play began in 1877 but years were lost due to war) and in honour of its past champions, Kitty was asked to present the trophy to the singles champion, Martina Navratilova.

Long-limbed and athletic even in her nineties, Kitty wore a light flowery dress and we shared tea and a poached salmon salad on the lawn at Wimbledon.

How I curse now not pummelling her with questions, pumping her for every last memory of those early years and the frontiers she and others forged to lay the framework for the modern game.

A teenager scornful of tradition and stuffiness, I was not mature enough to see how precious she was.

I thought I would always have a great aunt who had won Wimbledon, who knew tennis when it was young.

She and her peers discovered so much - how to grip a racket, that serving overarm was best, that a rest between changes of ends might be handy, that long dresses and corsets didn't help much on a tennis court.

She helped make tennis what it is today. She was my Great Aunt Biddy.

* Extracts from 'Kitty Godfree, Lady of a Golden Age' by Geoffrey Green (Kingswood Press, 1987)

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