Lenglen, Suzanne (1899–1938)
Lenglen, Suzanne (1899–1938)
French tennis champion, winner of the Wimbledon title six times, who was considered the greatest female player in the history of the game. Pronunciation: Lawn-GLEN. Born Suzanne Rachel Flore Lenglen in Compiègne, France, on May 24, 1899; died in Paris, France, on July 4, 1938; daughter of Charles Lenglen (a wealthy businessman) and Anais Lenglen; never married; no children.
Was coached as a championship contender in tennis from age 11; won her first Wimbledon championship (1919); won gold medals in singles and mixed doubles in the Olympic competition (1920); won six French titles; won six Wimbledon titles (1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1925); collected 269 out of 270 match titles (1919–26).
Charles Lenglen, a wealthy businessman vacationing with his family on the Riviera in the summer of 1910, bought his 11-year-old daughter a tennis racquet. That autumn, he accompanied her to a tennis club in Nice and recognized her superior athletic ability. At the beginning of the 20th century, when most athletes were casual about fitness, excelling on the basis of innate ability rather than superior training, Charles Lenglen took a different approach. He decided that his daughter would be a tennis champion.
Suzanne Lenglen practiced for hours on the tennis courts. Her father would put a French franc on the ground to use as a target for her serves. Suzanne became so adept at placing her serve that she was capable of hitting the small coin five times in succession. But her parents, watching from the sidelines, were rarely satisfied. "Stupid girl!" her father would yell. "Keep your eye on the ball!" "Move, move, move!" her mother, Anais Lenglen , would add. By early adolescence, Lenglen was one of the best tennis players in the world. Her feats would dominate the tennis world from 1919 to 1926, and she became a sports legend, known worldwide for her fantastic play and ferocious temper. She was, wrote one biographer, "athletically formidable and emotionally tattered."
Suzanne Lenglen was born in Compiègne, France, on May 24, 1899. Once her tennis training began, she spent hours each day swimming, jumping, and sprinting to improve her general physical condition; the rest of the day was used to hone her tennis skills. Intense and systematic training formed the core of her daily existence. Papa Lenglen taught Suzanne the aggressive serve-and-volley style typical of men's tennis. Her successes were praised and her failures ridiculed.
When Suzanne was 15, she won the local tournament, sponsored by the prestigious Carlton Club of Cannes, and the international competitions held at the Stade Français in St. Cloud. Papa Lenglen had planned for her to become a Wimbledon champion in 1915, but World War I intervened. In 1919, the war had ended when she faced Dorothea Lambert Chambers , 40 years old and a seven-time Wimbledon winner, on Wimbledon's courts. Half her opponent's age, Lenglen won 10-8, 4-6, and 8-6 in an era before tiebreakers. She also introduced an entirely new style of play into women's tennis, volleying and going frequently to the net. Her forehand was severe, and above all, after hours of aiming at a coin, she had exceptional control of the ball, able to place it wherever she chose. Her style of play so outshone her opponents that she rarely had to fear losing a match. After 1919, no one doubted that Suzanne Lenglen was Queen of the Courts.
Lenglen brought other changes to the tennis world in addition to her powerful style of play. Few players have had such an influence on tennis sportswear as this French athlete. Modern-day women take comfortable clothing that allows freedom of movement for granted, hardly aware that this type of freedom was not attained until the 1920s. It could also be said that the revolution in women's dress brought about other demands for social change. After World War I, the corset, the bustle, and the trailing skirt were abandoned by women in all walks of life who preferred to dress both safely and sensibly. Sports clothes "symbolized the new status of women," noted one historian. "It was the final proof of their successful assertion of the right to enjoy whatever recreation they chose, costumed according to the demands of the sport rather than the tabus of an outworn prudery."
As the sport of the affluent, tennis was especially bound by social convention. In the Victorian era, women playing lawn tennis wore garden party dresses with elaborate flounces, ornamental sleeves, high necks, and cinched waists over bustles, corsets, petticoats, and long drawers. Materials of silk or wool, and even lavish fur trim, were common; for a long time, the only concession to athletic demands was the wearing of shoes with soles of India rubber. The eventual adoption of all-white attire was actually due to Victorian prudery. In the late 19th century, society did not wish to acknowledge that ladies might perspire in public, but since players of the game often worked up a sweat, white clothes minimized the visibility of sweat stains. Hats were also common on court, for both men and women. Though the bustle gradually disappeared, corsets remained because the hour-glass figure was the rage. In 1905, May Sutton caused a stir at Wimbledon when she became so warm that she rolled back her sleeves and revealed her wrists. Wimbledon champion Elizabeth Ryan recalled that in the years leading up to World War I, when corsets hung about the dressing room after women finished playing, "It was not a pretty sight as many of them were bloodstained from the wounds they had inflicted."
Thus, in 1919, with Lenglen's first appearance at Wimbledon, it was difficult to tell which caused the greater stir: her athletic style of play or her tennis outfit. She wore a flimsy, one-piece cotton frock. The pleated skirt, which was very short for the period, reached only to mid-calf, while her short sleeves revealed her elbows, and she wore no petticoats or corsets. The costume was considered shocking and indecent, although it had to be admitted that it helped Lenglen to play her powerful game unhindered. The following year, Lenglen defeated Chambers at Wimbledon for a second time; this time, Lenglen's hair was bobbed, and around her head she wore two yards of brightly colored silk promptly labeled the "Lenglen Bandeau." Bobbed hair was still generally considered immodest, and Lenglen was said by some to dress like a prostitute; very soon, however, women both on and off the court were wearing short-sleeved frocks, bobbed hair, and colorful bandeaux. In 1923, Lenglen began wearing silk tennis dresses and hip-length silk cardigans with matching bandeaux, rarely appearing twice in the same color scheme. Sometimes she added shiny silk stockings. By then, the fashion industry was paying close attention to whatever she wore, because millions of women were quick to follow her example.
[Lenglen was] a genius on the courts with all the temperament of a great artiste.
—Robert J. Condon
For Lenglen, her clothing represented her view of herself as an athlete. After World War I, the famous Russian ballet company led by Serge Diaghilev relocated to nearby Monte Carlo, where Lenglen saw many productions. Influenced by her love of the dance, Lenglen compared her leaps on the courts to those of ballerinas onstage, and saw the freedom allowed by shorter skirts and sleeveless dresses as a means of bringing the flowing movements of ballet to the tennis court. The silk chiffons of her bandeaux and long matching neck scarves were copied from ballerinas and the modern dancer Isadora Duncan , whose avant-garde costuming was the epitome of style and freedom. Once Lenglen dominated the courts, restrictions on women's dress were considerably lessened everywhere.
If shocked at first, the public learned to adore Lenglen's spectacular leaps. It seemed as if half her time on court was spent airborne. Of her unorthodox style, she said:
My method? I don't think I have any. I just throw dignity to the winds and think of nothing but the game. I try to hit the ball with all my force and send it where my opponent is not. I say to myself, "Let the other one do the running about but run as fast as you can yourself if you have to."
After her first win at Wimbledon, Lenglen captured the title every year up to 1923, and again in 1925, missing the 1924 match due to illness. She also won six French championships. In 1921, she easily beat Molla Mallory , the veteran American champion, in the French Hard Court championships.
The Americans wanted Lenglen to play on their courts, but her parents were not particularly anxious to travel to the United States. After considerable debate, the invitation to the matches at Forest Hills was accepted. Lenglen, who had shown signs of frail health since childhood, became ill during the Atlantic crossing, but once she arrived at Forest Hills she was her usual imperious self, insisting on wine before her matches although consumption of alcoholic beverages was prohibited throughout the country by the Volstead Act. The tennis officials met her demands, willing to even break the law if it would keep the French champion happy.
Molla Mallory wanted to avenge her defeat in France, and the public went wild over the promise of a match between two female champions. The contest was of short duration, however, as Lenglen had a coughing spasm and left the court, defaulting to Mallory. On doctor's orders, the rest of the tour was canceled, and Lenglen sailed back to Europe five days later. She would not return to the United States until the end of her career.
After this setback, Lenglen continued to win game after game. From 1919 to 1926, she won 269 of 270 matches. No one rivaled her accuracy and placement. Along with her high athletic leaps to return a volley, she calculated her movements about the court as if it were a chessboard. When Lenglen met Mallory in a match following Forest Hills, she quickly disposed of her American opponent 6-2, 6-0. The popularity of her game was also the first challenge to the supremacy of male tennis. Bill Tilden, the best-known male player of the era, admitted that more people came to Lenglen's games than to his.
Fans of the game were also eager to witness Lenglen's famous outbursts, when she would quarrel with officials, stomp her foot, and sob rackingly. She sometimes also exhibited a violent spell of coughing. In 1926, her arrogance at Wimbledon became legendary after Queen Mary of Teck asked that the mixed-doubles match Lenglen was to play be rescheduled to suit royal convenience. Although many tennis players would have been thrilled that the queen wanted to be in the audience for their match, Lenglen was furious at being asked to wait. When the queen reached the royal box, Lenglen remained in the locker room until her teammate, Jacques Borota, entered the women's locker room (blindfolded) to beg her to play. Lenglen finally made her appearance, but the British were infuriated by this insult to their queen and watched the match in total silence. Unnerved, Lenglen got into an altercation with the officials and then flounced off the court, withdrawing from the tournament. The international incident forced the French government to apologize to the British government for the conduct of Mlle. Lenglen.
Such incidents only fueled Lenglen's popularity. That same year, when she was scheduled to play the American champion Helen Wills at Cannes, the event was the talk of the sports world for months in advance. The playing styles of the two women were entirely different. Helen Wills had a deep, forcing service, a strong overhead, and was a skilled volleyer; she won her matches almost entirely from the baseline. Power and court tactics were her strengths; the length and pace of her groundstrokes were incredible. Wills was not especially fast or nimble, however, and opponents who abstained from those driving exchanges could be successful. Lenglen did not have Wills' power, and she went to the net more often, but her strength was in her ability to place the ball. In emotional terms, while Lenglen was highly nervous and often burst into tears during a match, Wills was known as "Little Miss Poker Face" for her emotional control. In preparation for the match at Cannes, special grandstands were built, and 3,000 spectators poured in from around the world. When Wills lost to Lenglen 6-2, 6-0, a humiliating defeat, many felt that the American had made the fatal mistake of trying to out-think her French opponent, whose chess-like strategy could be as devastating as her athletic prowess.
Aside from Mary of Teck, royalty fawned over her, and thousands packed into arenas to watch her play. While most players had to take the train, she rode to her tournaments in limousines, and top designers vied with one another to fashion her tennis wear. But Lenglen was a complex and sometimes tragic figure, completely dominated by her parents. Plagued with poor health, she was tense and moody. She could sulk, pull out of matches, and disappoint enormous crowds. She often claimed illness in order to get out of a match only to go dancing that night. Too often, such incidents made front page news worldwide. The frequent bouts of public hysteria surely sapped her physical and emotional strength, but when Lenglen appeared on court she resented every point scored against her. In
playing, she was determined never to give an inch, and the crowds loved it.
At the height of her career, many were drawn to the idea of a match between Lenglen and Tilden, the reigning male tennis star. Lenglen once played a practice match with Tilden, in which she was reportedly beaten, but when word of her defeat was leaked to the press she was furious. Lenglen denied that she had been trying to play her best, and it became clear that there would never be a real match.
After the Wimbledon fiasco in 1926, with Lenglen at the height of her powers, she announced her withdrawal from amateur competition to play as a professional and signed with Charles C. Pyle to tour the U.S. for a series of exhibition matches. By the time she retired in the late 1920s, she had made a fortune. Meanwhile, from 1919 to 1926, the years of her amateur reign, she had redefined the role of the female athlete. Women champions were now expected to demonstrate great physical prowess, and even to defy conventional forms of social behavior and dress. On the courts, first and foremost, anemic playing had been permanently shelved.
After her withdrawal from professional competition, Lenglen founded a tennis school where she taught upcoming players. She was approaching 30, and the intensity of her career continued to take its toll. Lenglen had never been healthy, although whether this was due to emotional volatility or a weak constitution, no one could be certain. Part of her difficulties may have stemmed from never having been allowed to develop as a free and independent adult. Once, when Suzanne's mother was questioned by reporters about why the athlete had once again gone dancing shortly after withdrawing from a competition on grounds of ill health, Anais Lenglen told them, "Suzanne est coquette toujours" (Suzanne is always a tease). In retirement, her health did not improvement. Still, when she died of pernicious anemia, on July 4, 1938, at age 39, many were caught by surprise.
All of France mourned Suzanne Lenglen. Her funeral was almost a state occasion. King Gustav V of Sweden, 80 years old and a tennis enthusiast, sent the Swedish minister to represent him. France's premier Edouard Daladier attended, as did various ministers and members of government. Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Bernard Destremeau, and Christian Boussus—all famous French tennis players—attended the funeral mass at the church of Notre Dame de l'Assomption. The U.S. Lawn Tennis Association was represented by Russell Kingman, flowers poured in from around the world, and Lenglen's tennis pupils came to their teacher's funeral mass. The day before the funeral, July 5, 1938, Madame Lenglen was notified that Suzanne would be awarded the Legion of Honor, and a statue was planned in her honor at the Stade Roland Garros in Auteuil, France. She was buried in the family plot in Saint-Ouen Cemetery.
At her death, Suzanne Lenglen was considered to be the greatest woman tennis player of all time. Despite the emergence of later tennis greats such as Chris Evert, Margaret Smith Court, Steffi Graf, Althea Gibson, Martina Navratilova , and Billie Jean King , her claim to the title has rarely been challenged; no one has achieved the margin of victory that Lenglen held. In almost 300 matches, as both an amateur and a professional, she lost only five times, a record that remains unequaled. In 1974, decades after her death, she was voted the greatest woman player in tennis by an international panel of sportswriters, receiving more votes than Wills, Gibson, or King.
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"Many Tennis Stars at Lenglen Service," in The New York Times. July 7, 1938, p. 19.
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"1920's Woman Star Held Greatest Ever in Tennis," in The New York Times. March 31, 1974, section V, p. 6.
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"Suzanne Lenglen, Tennis Star, Dies," in The New York Times. July 4, 1938, p. 13.
Karin L. Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia