Suzanne Lenglen, the Goddess

By Jürgen Fritz, Mon 24 Mai 2021, Cover picture: British Pathé-Screenshot

In six days, the French Open, the biggest clay tournament in the world, will begin at the Stade Roland Garros in the 16th arrondissement in Paris. Hundreds of male and female players from all over the world will then once again compete there, including on Court Philippe Chatrier and Court Suzanne Lenglen. But who was Suzanne Lenglen? She was born in Paris 122 years ago today and she was to become one of the greatest tennis players of all time.

First wimbledon title in 1919, then complete dominance from 1920 to 1925

Suzanne Lenglen was the world’s No. 1 women’s player 100 years ago and she was an athlete of the century. The Frenchwoman dominated women’s tennis in the early and mid-1920s. Her graceful style of play and exceptional appearance made her one of the first world stars in the sport. Between 1919 and 1926, she won 25 Grand Slam titles: 12 in singles, 8 in women’s doubles and 5 in mixed. She then became the first major female tennis star to move to the pros, earning sensational fees by the standards of the time. People were dying to see „the Godess“.

But first the just 20-year-old won the first Grand Slam tournament after the First World War in Wimbledon in 1919 in both singles and women’s doubles. Lenglen, who was playing on grass for the first time, reached the final straight away and faced seven-time winner Dorothea Douglass Chambers. Both played a highly exciting duel that went down in tennis history as one of the most dramatic finals. Lenglen narrowly won in three sets 10:8, 4:6 and 9:7.

From 1920 to 1924, she won both the French Championships, which were, however, only open to French players until 1924, and Wimbledon every year. In 1920, Suzanne Lenglen became the first player ever to win the title in all three competitions (singles, doubles and mixed) at the International English Tennis Championships at Wimbledon. She repeated this in 1922 and 1925.

She was also successful at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, where she won two gold medals (singles and mixed) and a bronze medal in the women’s doubles for France.

Would you like a sip of brandy?

Her appearance, which was scandalous at the time, was also legendary. Lenglen often entered the court with her fur coat open. The „Goddess“ also played her matches with a daring décolleté, uncovered arms and white stockings without petticoats. Nevertheless, Lenglen was never sent off. The British public, however, was not only shocked by the Frenchwoman’s revealing appearance. Rather, they murmured that she refreshed herself with sips of brandy during the changes of ends.

The totally disappointing trip to the USA

Lenglen’s only major defeat in a match during this period came in an unscheduled appearance at the 1921 US Open. Lenglen had decided to use her popularity to raise money for the reconstruction of war-ravaged French territories (collecting bonuses for a match was strictly forbidden for amateurs at the time and led to the exclusion of all major tournaments). For this, she planned to play some exhibition matches in the USA against the Norwegian-born US Open winner Molla Bjurstedt-Mallory.

During the long sea crossing, the Frenchwoman suffered from severe seasickness and asthmatic cough. When Lenglen arrived in New York, she was astonished to hear that the organisers of the US Open – without ever having sought her consent – had announced her participation. Although the Frenchwoman was already suffering from an increasingly severe cough at this point, she bowed to the pressure of the enthusiastic and expectant American public.

Surprisingly, there was no seed list, so Lenglen already faced the defending champion Bjurstedt-Mallory in the opening match. Lenglen lost the first set 2:6 and was shaken by such severe coughing cramps at the beginning of the second set that she had to give up. Her exit became a real gauntlet. The disappointed audience mocked the Frenchwoman. The American press was also full of criticism. A doctor later discovered that Lenglen was suffering from whooping cough. The Frenchwoman cancelled all exhibition fights. Lenglen, who was revered in Europe as „The Goddess“, returned to Europe dejected in the face of these experiences.

At Wimbledon and Nice, the Goddess sets things right again

After her recovery, the Frenchwoman set out to make amends. In the Wimbledon final of the following year (1922), Lenglen met Bjurstedt-Mallory again and swept her off the court 6:2, 6:0 in 26 minutes.

A few months later, the two met again at a tournament in Nice. Mallory did not win a single game. The match ended 6:0, 6:0.

Lenglen vs Helen Wills Moody, the outgoing vs the upcoming superstar of women’s tennis in a century match

In her last year as an amateur player, the Frenchwoman, who was already a living legend, made her greatest appearance on a tennis court. In February 1926, at the Carlton Club in Cannes, the 26-year-old met for the first and only time the American Helen Wills Moody, who was a good six years younger than Lenglen and was to become her great successor in the amateur camp (see picture). Wills Moody was already a two-time US Open winner by then and was to dominate the late 1920s and early 1930s just as Lenglen had done from 1919 to the mid-1920s.

The public’s interest in the meeting of the past and future of women’s tennis was indescribable and drove ticket prices to unprecedented heights. The enthusiasm was so great that even the roofs and windows of the buildings surrounding the tennis court were full of onlookers. The divine triumphed once again over the 20-year-old American. Lenglen won 6:3 and 8:6, although she was close to a circulatory collapse several times.

with Helen Wills Moody

Suzanne Lenglen with Helen Wills Moody, British Pathé: Tennis „Greats“ (1900-1952) Screenshot

1926: After an embarrassing incident, the six-time winner withdraws from Wimbledon and never returns to the venue again

A few weeks later, Lenglen seemed to be on course for her seventh Wimbledon title in 1926. But the British queen, Queen Mary, waited in vain in the Royal Box for the French tennis queen to appear. Lenglen had mistakenly believed that her match had been postponed to a later date and did not appear, even though the Queen was already waiting for her.

Faced with this unintentional faux pas, which British monarchists and tournament officials took as an insult to their Queen, Lenglen was close to a breakdown. She was immensely embarrassed by the incident. She withdrew from the tournament and never returned to the „hallowed turf“ at Church Road.

1926/27: Lenglen goes on US Tour and beats former US Open winner Mary K. Browne 38 times in a row

At 27, Lenglen now turned professional and was ineligible to play in any regular tennis tournaments around the world. For a series of exhibition matches in the USA against Mary K. Browne, winner of the US Open from 1912 to 1914, the Frenchwoman was paid the sensational sum of 75,000 US dollars, a sum that was unheard of at the time. Her American opponent was 35 years old and also a finalist at the French Open, where she had lost to Lenglen 1:6 and 0:6.

For the first time in the history of tennis, a women’s match dominated the headlines. In their first meeting in New York, the Frenchwoman played so dazzlingly that the New York Times reporter spoke of one of the best matches that had ever taken place on an American court.

When the series of exhibition matches ended in February 1927, Lenglen had won all 38 games against Browne. But the Frenchwoman, not even 28 years old, was exhausted and received medical advice to stay away from tennis for a long time in order to recover.

Lenglen has to end her career at the age of not even 28 and dies at only 39 years old

Lenglen decided to retire from competitive tennis altogether and, with the financial support of her partner Jean Tillier, founded a tennis school in Paris – located in the immediate vicinity of the courts of Roland Garros, the venue of the French Open. Soon – in 1936 – the academy became the training centre of the French Tennis Federation.

At that time, Lenglen also wrote several books about tennis. In Paris, Lenglen was in charge of a model house for their sportswear. At the beginning of July 1938, Parisian newspapers reported a sudden fatigue of Lenglen. A few days later, at 6:30 in the morning of 4 July 1938, she died of pernicious anaemia at her residence in Paris, aged only 39. Lenglen was buried on 6 July 1938 at the Cimetière parisien de Saint-Ouen near Paris.

The second largest stadium at Roland Garros is named after the Frenchwoman

Although she never played an official tournament in the Stade Roland Garros, which was not completed until 1928, not only the trophy for the winner of the French Open in the women’s singles bears her name today; the second largest stadium of the Roland Garros complex is also named after the Frenchwoman. Suzanne Lenglen is still considered one of the best players of all time.

Court SL

YouTube-Screenshot

The Goddess in action

The following pictures from British Pathé: How I Play Tennis – By Mlle. Suzanne Lenglen (1925) may give a little impression of the excellent footwork, body control, mobility and body balance Lenglen possessed even in extreme movements a hundred years ago.

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