Ellen C. Roosevelt: An Early Legend of Tennis

It’s Women’s History Month, so we thought we would spotlight a local lady who inspired young women to get out and play tennis in the 19th century. Even if you don’t know anything about tennis, you’ve probably heard of some of the big names of female players today, like Venus and Serena Williams, or Billie Jean King. These women are powerhouses on the court, but they have the benefit of wearing modern day shoes and light attire. Now, if you were hitting the tennis ball around in 1890, you played on grass, your shoes had a bit more of a heel, and you wore things like a corset and a long skirt. Ellen C. Roosevelt not only accomplished this feat, but she won her share of championships.

Ellen was born into wealth in 1868 as the daughter of John and Ellen Roosevelt. Ellen and her older sister Grace learned how to play tennis in the 1870s after their father had a tennis court built on their family’s estate. They lived in Rosedale, a beautiful mansion located on the border of Hyde Park and the Town of Poughkeepsie on the North Road. Both of the sisters would practice against each other on their home court before competing in local matches in the 1880s. In the second annual tournament of the Hudson River Lawn Tennis Association in 1889, Ellen had to take on her older sister Grace in the finals and ended up beating her with a score of 6-1, 6-2.

Ellen and Grace found themselves winning regularly and eventually made it to the 1890 U.S. Championships, which is now known as the U.S. Open. The first women’s championships were held at the Philadelphia Cricket Club on a grass court. The newspapers claimed that the women’s matches were far more interesting and had many more spectators than the men’s. Ellen surprised everyone when she beat out Miss Bertha Townsend, who was the first to win two championships in a row, 1888 and 1889. The sisters found that they were tough to beat when they played together in the doubles tournaments, and they proved this 1890 when they beat out the previous doubles champs, Lida Voorhees and Bertha Townsend. They remained the only sister pair to do this until the Williams sisters in 1999. As a result of her early victories, Ellen was placed in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1975.

Aside from her interest in Tennis, Ellen had a great passion for the sport of Ice Yachting, and regularly sailed vessels like Icicle, which had belonged to her father, as well as her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s yacht named Hawk. This particular sport was quite dangerous as it involved maneuvering what were essentially large ice skates with masts, and catching winds on the frozen Hudson River in high speed races. Given the risks of crashes or breaking through the ice, the sport was mostly done by men. Ellen, who loved the outdoors and clearly enjoyed proving herself to others, showed time and again that she was just as talented as any man, even outracing her father. He admitted to the Poughkeepsie Journal in 1903, “My daughter has frequently beaten me when I have been sailing the Icicle and she has had a smaller boat such as Franklin Roosevelt’s Hawk, which is not supposed to be so fast.” In another newspaper article from 1894 it claimed that “Miss Roosevelt is sometimes spoken of by her friends as a model girl. She is strong and fond of out-door sports, but is also deft with her needle, and skilled in all branches of culinary art and housekeeping.”

After Ellen’s father died in 1909 and later her mother in 1928, she continued to live and care for the estate at Rosedale and enjoyed a quiet life, having never married. Her sister Grace married a successful lawyer named Appleton Clark in 1895, and when he died in 1930, she rejoined Ellen at Rosedale. There they both remained until Grace’s death in 1945, and Ellen’s in 1954. The Roosevelt sisters had been supporters of Saint James’ Episcopal Church in Hyde Park as well as the Red Cross in both WWI and WWII. Their family home still stands today and is currently being restored.

Check out this great collection of images showing Ellen in action from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library – https://fdrlibrary.tumblr.com/post/187145752419/happy-birthday-ellen-crosby-roosevelt-winner-of


David L. Porter. Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, 1995.


Poughkeepsie Journal: 24 June 1889, 26 June 1889, 7 June 1890, 8 Feb 1892, 8 Sep 1894, 31 Aug 1895, 29 Jan 1903, 27 Sep 1954.


Grace-Ellen Roosevelt – A photograph from Vail Brother’s photography studio showing Grace and Ellen Roosevelt – LH Collection

Ellenroosevelt – Two photographs from Vail Brother’s photography studio of Ellen Roosevelt – LH Collection