Suzanne Lenglen (1899-1938) was a French national hero and became royalty to a generation of admirers in both Europe and America. She dominated women's tennis from 1919 to 1926, winning both Wimbledon and French singles titles six times.
Through her parents' forceful persuasion, Langlen developed into one of the best female tennis players in the history of the game. She was a fragile woman, who lived for tennis and the good life. Lenglen expressed a joy for living that was infectious, but relied on her father's decisions when she was on the court. She had style and technique and a simplicity of form that made her tennis game seem effortless.
Suzanne Rachel Flore Lenglen was born in Compiegne, France, on May 24, 1899. Her family was said to be of French and Flemish origins. Lenglen was raised in a comfortable, middle class family by her father, Charles, and her mother, Anais. By the age of eight, Lenglen showed early signs of athletic ability. She was an excellent runner, swimmer, and bicyclist. Her father believed that her ability at diabolo, a game played with a top balanced on a string between two sticks, contributed to her later poise under pressure at tennis tournaments.
On the French Riviera, Lenglen and her father admired the tennis players both for their skill and their social stature. Her father ardently studied the tactics and maneuvers of the players. However, when Lenglen requested a racket, he bought her an inexpensive one with the idea that hers was a passing fancy. Within a month, he purchased a more expensive racket, and had a special backboard constructed for her to practice against. Since there were not many tennis instructors around, her father decided to teach her himself. After observing the women of the time playing a patient, careful placement style of game, he decided it was not right for his energetic, enthusiastic daughter. After observing the men's style of more aggressive play, he decided to teach his daughter accordingly. The unintended result was that her father revolutionized women's tennis. Having no female role model for his daughter, he taught her to play with the strength and speed of a man, but with the grace of a woman.
By the fall of 1910, Charles Lenglen had enough confidence in his daughter to apply for a membership at the famous Nice Tennis Club. She was the first child to be given a provisional membership. Her father devised a training regimen, which included not only hitting the same shot over and over again until it was perfected, but also such physical conditioning activities as jumping rope, running wind sprints, and swimming. He also found male players to hit with her. Frequently, his methods drove his daughter to exhaustion.
Both parents motivated Lenglen by means of psychological intimidation. When she performed well, they gave her love and rewards. When she did badly, they cursed at her and embarrassed her in public. The result was an emotionally battered tennis genius, dependent upon her parents for love and support. In spite of her outward portrayal of of assurance, she lacked self confidence and was desperately afraid of failure. Her only escape from her parents regimen was to get sick; so she did often.
By 1912, Lenglen was winning regional championships. In 1913, she won the Nice Tennis Club championship, and then won an Italian championship as well. Stories of the young girl's prowess on the court were beginning to spread through the Mediterranean. In 1914, after she won the Carlton Club tournament in Nice against a seasoned Wimbledon player, she was known throughout Europe. The same year, she won the World Hard Court Championships in singles and doubles. Lenglen was becoming the most popular sports hero in France.
While many thought Lenglen was ready for Wimbledon, her father had seen the English champion play, and thought she was too strong for his daughter. Shortly thereafter, World War I began and most tennis tournaments were suspended. Nevertheless, Lenglen was able to play with a number of male tennis stars who were recuperating from their wounds in Nice, and she was able to maintain her strict regimen of practice. After the war ended, the former combatants became sports fanatics. Lenglen became a national hero and an example for French women.
When Lenglen and her father decided that she was ready for Wimbledon in 1919, she carried French national pride with her. Like other women players of the time, she wore a wide brimmed bonnet for sun protection, a short sleeved white blouse, and a mid-calf white cotton skirt, but she did not wear a corset or heavy underwear. Her attire was to change dramatically.
Before the final round at Wimbledon, her only real competition was Elizabeth Ryan, an American expatriate living in England, who would eventually win 19 doubles titles at Wimbledon. In a fiercely fought contest that seemed to go first for Lenglen and then for Ryan, rain halted the match for an hour. After Lenglen's father remonstrated her, she went back on the court and won quickly. In the final match, she faced the seven-time Wimbledon champion, Lambert Chambers, in what has been called "the greatest and most exciting women's final ever played." In a match that might have gone either way, Lenglen won the first set 10-8, while Chambers rallied to win the second 6-4. In the third set, Chambers had double match point, but Lenglen fought back each time, finally beating Chambers 8-6. Their match took 44 games to play, a record that held until 1970.
After the match, both players stated that they had played extremely well. But in later years, Chambers said the match was a tragedy for both of them. It was tragic for her because she was a point away from winning the match twice; tragic for Lenglen because it made her feel invincible. Chambers stated that this invincibility brought Lenglen "a subsequent compulsion for it, which brought endless sacrifices and unnatural unhappiness, out of all proportion to the rewards of her fame." After Lenglen's success, the British press loved her.
In the 1920 Wimbledon finals, Lenglen easily beat Chambers. But the big news was her change in appearance. She now wore full makeup, a full length coat of ermine or mink, and a scandalously short skirt with a tight-fitting top. The American tennis star Bill Tilden said of her in 1921, "her costume struck me as a cross between a prima donna's and a streetwalker."
For the next three years, Lenglen won handily at Wimbledon. She had times of depression and illness, and times of being relentlessly upbeat. By the end of 1921, she was considered to be the dominant woman in tennis, although she had been beaten once in the United States by Molla Mallory. The match ended in a default because Lenglen claimed to be ill, possibly because her father had not accompanied her on the trip. In 1922, however, she demolished Mallory at Wimbledon, and gave similar treatment to an English champion at Wimbledon in 1923. Failure to recover from jaundice caused her to withdraw from Wimbledon in 1924. But by the following year, she recovered and completely dominated her games at Wimbledon.
In 1925, Lenglen beacame the first female athlete to transcend athletics and become a celebrity. She dropped her training regimen and acquired a retinue of camp followers. In 1926, she played the young American Helen Wills at Cannes in what has been described as "The Match of the Century." According to a contemporary journalist, Ferdinand Tuohy, the match was "a simple game of tennis, yet a game which made continents stand still and was the most important sporting event of modern times, exclusively in the hands of the fairer sex." While bookies had Lenglen as a 3-1 favorite, many people thought Wills would be lucky to win two games. Wills, who had previously won three singles titles at Forest Hills in the U.S., fought valiantly. While Lenglen won the first set 6-3, her game seemed somewhat off. Having ignored her father's advice not to play Wills, Lenglen struggled in the second set. Wills won three of the first four games, but Lenglen finally evened the score at 4-4 after a dubious call by a referee rattled Wills. Next it was Lenglen's turn to be rattled when a spectator announced that one of Will's shots was out at match point, causing Lenglen to mistakenly believe the game was over. Lenglen finally rallied to win the set at 8-6, and the match.
Because she had not decisively beat Wills, Lenglen's status diminished and she became increasingly depressed. She tried to play tennis, but her play was erratic at best. Lenglan never played Wills again. At Wimbledon in 1926, she withdrew after the crowds turned against her because of her inconsistency and an inadvertent snubbing of the Queen. This was to be her last Wimbledon appearance.
Because of her father's failing health and his inability to protect her interests, Lenglen decided to give up her amateur states and become a professional player in 1926. However, she was not able to make the amount of money she needed or wanted. Her illnesses and nervousness worsened. The amateur clubs and associations tried to force her to remain an amateur, but she departed for a professional tennis tour of the U.S. and Canada. After the tour fell apart, she tried to tour with several others, but nothing came of them. Lenglen also tried to be reinstated as an amateur, but was denied this status.
Lenglen remained a celebrity, but looked increasingly unwell and unhappy. Her father's death in 1929 was a crushing blow. During her final years, she ran a tennis camp for the children of Paris which was financed by the French government. In 1934, she almost died of acute appendicitis. On July 4, 1938, at the age of 39, Lenglen died in Paris of pernicious anemia. In an obituary, the London Times called her the greatest woman tennis player of her time, and said that she made Wimbledon the greatest tournament in the world. The New York Times stated that she was the greatest female player who ever lived, "a flashing, tempestuous figure vibrant with life.… She never had a rival in accuracy and scientific placement."
Engelmann, Larry, The Goddess and the American Girl: The Story of Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills, Oxford University Press, 1988.
Sports Illustrated, September 13, 1982; July 9, 1984; Fall 1991. □