Suzanne Lenglen

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Suzanne Lenglen, sometimes labelled the  or  of tennis, was the first female tennis player to become an international celebrity.
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Suzanne Lenglen, sometimes labelled the diva or prima donna of tennis, was the first female tennis player to become an international celebrity.

Suzanne Rachel Flore Lenglen (24 May 18994 July, 1938) was a French tennis player who achieved much success in the French and British women's game from 1919 to 1926, winning 25 Grand Slam titles. A flamboyant, trendsetting athlete, she was the first female tennis celebrity and one of the first international female sport stars, named La Divine (the divine one) by the French press.


Contents

Early life

A daughter of Charles Lenglen and his wife, Anais, Suzanne Lenglen was born in Compi觮e (in the department of the Oise), some 70 km north of Paris. During her youth, she suffered from numerous health problems including chronic asthma, which also plagued her at a later age. Because his daughter was so frail and sickly, Charles Lenglen, the owner of a carriage company, decided that it would be good for her to compete in tennis and gain strength. Her first try at the game was in 1910, when she played on the tennis court at the family property in Marest-sur-Matz. The young girl enjoyed the game, and her father decided to train her further in the sport. His training methods included an exercise where he would lay down a handkerchief at various places on the court, to which his daughter had to direct the ball.

Only four years after her first tennis strokes, Lenglen played in the final of the 1914 French Championships. (The tournament, a forerunner of the French Open, was only open to members of French clubs until 1925.) She lost to reigning champion Marguerite Broquedis in a closely fought three-set match: 5–7, 6–4, 6–3. That same year she won the International Clay Court Championships held at Sainte-Claude, turning 15 during the tournament. The outbreak of World War I at the end of the year stopped most national and international tennis competitions, and Lenglen's burgeoning career was put on hold.

Dominance

The French championships were not held again until 1920, but the Wimbledon Championships were again organised after a four year hiatus. Lenglen entered the tournament — her first on grass — and met seven time winner Dorothea Douglass Chambers in the final. The close match, later noted to be one of the hallmarks in tennis history, saw Lenglen saving two match points and winning in 10–8, 4–6, 9–7 to take her first Grand Slam victory.

Not only her performances on the court were noted, however. She garnered much attention in the media when she appeared at the Wimbledon with her dress revealing bare forearms and cut just above the calf, while all other players competed in outfits covering nearly all of the body. Staid Brits also were in shock at the boldness of the French woman who also casually sipped brandy between sets.

At the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp (Belgium), Lenglen dominated the women's singles. On her path to the gold medal, she gave up only four games, three of them in the final against Dorothy Holman of Britain. She then teamed up with Max Décugis to win another gold medal in the mixed doubles. She was eliminated in the women's doubles semi-final (playing with Elisabeth d'Ayen), and won the bronze medal after their opponents withdrew.

From 1919 to 1925, Suzanne Lenglen won the Wimbledon singles championship every year with the exception of 1924. Health problems due to her asthma which had already taken her out of that year's French Championships, forced her to withdraw after the fourth round. From 1920 to 1926 she won the French Championships (French Open from 1925) six times.

Failed American debut

Lenglen's only tournament defeat in a singles match during this period occurred in an unscheduled appearance in the 1921 US Open championships. That year, to raise reconstruction funds for the regions of France that had been devastated by the battles of World War I, she went to the United States to play several exhibition matches against the Norwegian-born US Open champion, Molla Bjurstedt-Mallory.

Arriving in New York City, Lenglen learned that, without her permission, it had been announced by the US Open tournament officials that she would be competing. The public pressure was such that she entered the tournament despite being run down and suffering from what later was diagnosed by doctors as whooping cough. To her surprise, there was no seeding for the event and her name had been drawn to play against Bjurstedt-Mallory, the reigning champion.

In their match, Lenglen lost the first set 6–2 and just as the second set got underway, she began coughing and burst into tears, unable to continue. The crowd jeered her as she walked off the court and the American press severely criticised her. This worsened when, under doctor's orders after it was confirmed that she was afflicted with whooping cough, she cancelled her exhibition match. Unaccustomed to such treatment, a devastated Lenglen went home.

Once healthy, she set about preparing herself for redemption. In the singles final at Wimbledon the following year, she destroyed Bjurstedt-Mallory in only 26 minutes, winning 6–2, 6–0. The two met again later that year at a tournament in Nice where Bjurstedt-Mallory failed to win even one game.

Final amateur year

In what would turn out to become her last year as an amateur player, Suzanne Lenglen played what many consider to be her most memorable match. In a February 1926 tournament at the Carlton Club in Cannes, she played her only match against Helen Wills. The 20-year-old American was already a two-time US Open winner, and would dominate the women's game in the late 1920s and early 1930s in the same way that Lenglen had dominated it since 1919.

Public attention for their meeting in the tournament final was immense, and scalper ticket prices went through the roof. Roofs and windows of nearby buildings were also crowded with spectators. The match itself saw Lenglen clinging on to a 6–3, 8–6 victory after being close to a collapse on several occasions.

Later in the year, Lenglen seemed to be on course for her seventh Wimbledon singles title. However, Lenglen unknowingly kept Queen Mary waiting in the Royal Box for her appearance in a preliminary match. Lenglen, who had been told that her match would not start until much later, fainted upon being informed of her error, which was seen by aristocratic English attendees as an insult to the monarchy. Lenglen withdrew from the tournament, which would be her last appearance at the courts of Wimbledon.

Professional career and later life

The first major female tennis star to turn professional, Lenglen was paid $75,000 to tour the United States in a series of matches against Mary K. Browne. Browne, winner of the US Open from 1912 to 1914, was 35 and considered to be past her prime, although she had reached the French Open final earlier that year (losing to Lenglen 6–1, 6–0).

For the first time in tennis history, the women's match was the headline event of the tour (which also featured male players). In their first match in New York City, Lenglen put on a performance that New York Times writer Allison Danzig lauded as "one of the most masterly exhibitions of court generalship that has been seen in this country." When the tour ended in February of 1927, Lenglen had defeated Browne, 38 matches to 0. She was exhausted from the lengthy tour, and a physician advised Lenglen that she needed a lengthy period away from the game to recover.

Instead, Lenglen chose to retire from competitive tennis to run a Paris tennis school, which she set up with the help and money of her lover Jean Tillier. The school, located next to the courts of Roland Garros, slowly expanded and was recognised as a federal training centre by the French tennis federation in 1936. During this period, Lenglen also wrote several books on tennis.

In June 1938, the French press announced that Lenglen had been diagnosed with leukemia. Only three weeks later, she went blind. She died of pernicious anemia on 4 July 1938. She is interred (buried) in the Cimeti貥 de Saint-Ouen at Saint-Ouen in Paris.

Achievements

During her career Suzanne Lenglen won 81 singles titles, seven of which were achieved without losing a single game. In addition, she won 73 doubles titles, and 8 mixed doubles titles. She remains the only player to have won the Wimbledon Singles, doubles, and the mixed doubles championships in the same year (in 1920, 1922 and 1925).

Lenglen's total number of Grand Slam wins is 25, although the titles won in the French championships are not always counted because the tournament was not open to all entrants until 1925. Hence some sources credit her with 21 titles. A full listing of her Grand Slam titles:

singles doubles mixed doubles
French Open 1920–1923, 1925–1926 1925, 1926 1925, 1926
Wimbledon 1919–1923, 1925 1919–1923, 1925 1920, 1922, 1925

Legacy

Despite her flamboyant and sometimes controversial appearance on the court, Suzanne Lenglen was also known as a very graceful player.
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Despite her flamboyant and sometimes controversial appearance on the court, Suzanne Lenglen was also known as a very graceful player.

Prior to Lenglen, female tennis matches drew little fan interest, which quickly changed as she became her sport's greatest drawing card. Tennis devotees and new fans to the game began lining up in droves to buy tickets to her matches. Temperamental, flamboyant, she was a passionate player whose intensity on court could lead to an unabashed display of tears. But for all her flamboyance, she was a gifted and brilliant player who used extremely agile footwork, speed and a deadly accurate shot to dominate female tennis for seven straight years. Her excellent play and introduction of glamour to the tennis court increased the interest in women's tennis, and women's sport in general.

In 1997 the second court at the Roland Garros Stadium, site of the French Open, was renamed Court Suzanne Lenglen in her honour. Four years later, the French Tennis Federation organised the first Suzanne Lenglen Cup for women in the over 35 age class. First played in France, the annual event is now held in a different country each year.

Lenglen, who was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1978, continues to be held by many as one of the best players in tennis history. For example, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, organiser of the Wimbledon Championships, ranks her among the five greatest Wimbledon champions.

References

  • Gianni Clerici (1984). Suzanne Lenglen – La Diva du Tennis.
  • Bud Collins. International Tennis Hall of Fame (http://www.tennisfame.com/enshrinees/suzanne_lenglen.html). Retrieved 12 September 2004.
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