In the second part of our new series, The Greatest: The Men and Women Who Made Tennis, Martin Keady, our resident tennis historian, looks back at the life of the woman who first popularised women’s tennis – Suzanne Lenglen.
There are two women of whom it can be truly said that they changed tennis history. One is Billie Jean King, the greatest activist and organiser in the history of the sport, who did so much in the early 1970s to achieve parity of pay (and esteem) for professional female tennis players, and who of course will be a future subject of this series. The other is Suzanne Lenglen, the great French player of the 1920s who did so much to popularise women’s tennis in the first place, in the process establishing tennis as the only major sport in which almost equal attention is paid by the public and the media to male and female players, a situation that, sadly, remains the same nearly a century on.
Suzanne Lenglen was born in Paris in 1899. Like her male equivalent, Bill Tilden, the other great champion of the 1920s who did so much to boost the profile of tennis, she was born into a wealthy family, the result of a shrewd investment by her grandfather in horse-drawn buses before their replacement by motorised buses in the early 20th century. And she was also similar to Tilden in that she first learned to play tennis while on holiday with her family. Just as Tilden first developed as a player at his family’s summer home in the Catskills, so Lenglen flourished when her family began to winter on the French Riviera.
Fortunately for Lenglen, and for the sport that she would eventually do so much to promote, the Lenglens’ villa in Nice was opposite the Nice Lawn Tennis Club. As a result, she first learned to play tennis on grass, unlike most French players then and now, as clay soon became the preferred surface of choice for France, like all the other Mediterranean countries in which grass was in much shorter supply than le terre battoue (the beaten earth). Later, her mastery of grass court tennis would lead to her dominating Wimbledon, which she won a remarkable six times, including five times in succession.
However, before Lenglen became a Grand Slam champion and internationally famous celebrity, she had to make her way in the game and make an impact nationally. In this respect, her father, Charles, was instrumental. Like so many great female players who followed Lenglen, from the Williams sisters to the most recent French Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli, she was first coached by her father and he remained her main coach throughout her career. His influence on her development was decisive. In particular, he always claimed that he learned how to coach his daughter by watching male players rather than female players, which led to Suzanne adopting a style of play that was far more aggressive (to the extent that it was occasionally even described as being “unfeminine”) than most of her female contemporaries.
Equally importantly, Charles Lenglen arranged for Suzanne to play regularly at the Nice club, even though children had never been allowed to play there before. In addition, as an amateur coach himself, he had the good sense to enlist expert help in the form of the club’s resident instructor, Joseph Negro, who taught Suzanne a far wider range of shots than most female players learned at the time.
Charles soon arranged for Suzanne to enter tennis tournaments, both in their native Paris and in the Riviera towns where they spent much of their time. As she was in so many ways, Lenglen was a pioneer of women’s tennis by playing at an astonishingly high level when she was still only a girl. She won her first tournaments when she was only 13 and soon began to attract wider attention, at a time when France was first beginning to fall in love with tennis, a process that would be dramatically accelerated by the achievements of Lenglen and her male counterparts – the famous “Musquetaires” of René Lacoste, Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon – a decade later.
However, although Lenglen achieved fame beyond France by winning the World Hard Court Championships in Paris in 1914 (before virtually every court in France was converted to clay) when she was still only 15, the start of World War One just a few months later brought her incredible rise to a premature halt, at least for the next four years.
Lenglen saw out World War One in the relative safety of Nice, which was far less affected by the ravages of trench warfare than the northern part of France. All the while, she was honing her tennis skills on the club court that she had first played on and then grown up on, in addition to the private court that her wealthy father built in the garden of their villa. Consequently, she was better prepared than many of her female contemporaries to hit the ground running when high-level tennis resumed after the war finally ended in November 1918. As a result, she was able to dominate women’s tennis, and in particular Wimbledon, from 1919 onwards.
1919 was actually Lenglen’s debut at Wimbledon and she duly became one of the few debut winners, alongside the likes of Boris Becker more than sixty years later, in the history of the tournament. At a time when the appetite for the return of top-class sport after four years of war was enormous (a situation likely to be repeated whenever professional sport today resumes after the Coronavirus crisis), there was enormous national and global interest in the young French woman who took the world’s greatest tennis tournament by storm.
Lenglen defeated a previous champion, Britain’s Ethel Larcombe (who had won the tournament in 1912), in the second round. She then progressed, via a complicated “All-Comers” format, to a Final against the “reigning” champion, another Briton Dorothea Lambert Chambers, who went straight into the Final as the defending champion, albeit as the champion from 1914, the last time the tournament had been played before the war.
What followed was a truly historic Wimbledon Women’s Singles Final. In 2020, when it is more than forty years since the last British Wimbledon Women’s Champion (Virginia Wade, who won the title in the Queen’s Jubilee year of 1977), it is almost impossible to imagine the complete domination that British women enjoyed at Wimbledon for the first thirty years of the tournament’s existence. In fact, Lenglen became only the second foreign woman to win Wimbledon, after America’s May Sutton had triumphed in 1905 and 1907.
Moreover, Lenglen did so in memorable fashion, beating Lambert Chambers 10–8, 4–6, 9–7, in a classic three-set final, more than fifty years before the invention of tie-breaks. It would also be more than fifty years before the total number of games played in the 1919 Final (44) was exceeded. That was in another classic Final, the 1970 clash between Margaret Court and Billie Jean King, which Court may have won in straight sets but only after those two sets had finished 14–12, 11–9, meaning that a total of 46 games had been played.
Having triumphed in 1919, Lenglen went on to dominate Wimbledon, winning the Women’s Singles title five times in a row. And although she did not win in 1924, she also did not lose, as she withdrew from her semi-final against Britain’s Kitty McCane (later Kitty Godfrey), the eventual champion, because of medical issues, in a grim foreshadowing of the health problems that would eventually end her life prematurely. The following year – 1925 – Lenglen returned and won again, to make it a spectacular six Wimbledon Singles titles out of seven.
Lenglen, who had grown up playing tennis on grass, was always more comfortable on that faster surface than on clay. Nevertheless, she nearly achieved the same kind of domination at her home Slam, albeit at a time when the French championships was only contested by French nationals and so was not strictly considered a “Major” tournament in the way that Wimbledon was. However, when it was finally opened up to international players as well, Lenglen won the first two editions, in 1925 and 1926. By contrast, at the other two Majors outside Europe – in the US and Australia – she barely figured, only reaching the second round once in the US in 1921 and never even making the long boat journey to Melbourne to compete in Australia.
Lenglen was one of the most famous faces of the 1920s, and not only in her native France, where her own exploits and those of the “Musquetaires”, especially in their Davis Cup battles against the US, cemented the growing French love of tennis. That love is still evident today, nearly a hundred years later, as France has the highest number of tennis players (both amateur and professional) per capita of any country in the world.
In the 1920s, Lenglen became famous throughout Europe and indeed the world, both for her flamboyant style of play and her flamboyant lifestyle, as she was often pictured smoking cigars (despite the problems this caused for her already poor health) and dancing. At a time when F. Scott Fitzgerald, a huge tennis fan, was decamping to France to write Tender Is The Night, and Claude Debussy’s Jeux, a ballet based on a game of tennis that had been written before World War One, was gaining widespread popularity, Lenglen herself became one of the most famous and emblematic faces of The Jazz Age.
Lenglen’s reign as the First Queen of Tennis, alongside Bill Tilden’s tenure as the First King of Tennis, came to an end in 1926, in bizarre and unfortunate circumstances. Having been the darling of Wimbledon for so long, she ended up alienating the crowd that had once adored her by demanding that her singles and doubles matches be rescheduled to accommodate a pre-existing doctor’s appointment, which was yet another sign of her ongoing health problems. In the aftermath of losing in both singles and doubles, and amid growing financial concerns that had resulted from her increasingly lavish lifestyle, she eventually abandoned mainstream – i.e. amateur – tennis and became a professional on the fledgling US professional tour.
Lenglen continued to play and coach tennis for another decade, but finally her long-standing health problems, which included a terrible bout of appendicitis in 1934, led to her death. She became ill with the blood disease anaemia, and died in 1938, aged only 39. Nevertheless, the legend of Lenglen lives on, particularly in her native country, where she was later honoured by having one of the show courts at the French Open renamed after her. Even more importantly, she left a legacy of brilliant attacking play and colourful, even decadent living that combine to make her one of the most irresistibly attractive players in the whole of tennis history.
Like Bill Tilden and her male compatriots, “Les Musquetaires”, Lenglen played a huge part in boosting the popularity of tennis after World War One, and her own incomparable playing style and personal magnetism ensured that women tennis players, unlike almost all other sportswomen, would continue to share the limelight with their male counterparts. That, more than anything, was why she changed tennis and why she deserves to be remembered as one of the most important figures in the history of the game.