The 100-year legacy of Suzanne Lenglen

Photo : tokyo2020.org
tokyo2020.org|22-Nov-2020 17:57

The Olympic Games are full of champions, records and stories, but they’re also an incredible encyclopaedia of strange, funny, emotional and sad moments. We’ll dig some out every week to put a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. This week: the story of an historic women's gold medal won a century ago at the Antwerp 1920 Games.

The background
In 1899 in Paris, a child was born who would change the world of women’s tennis. Her name was Suzanne Lenglen.

A mere 12 years later, that change had already begun.

"There was one day I’ll never forget… I’d just turned 12, and my father came back from Compiègne and said: ‘Here, I’ve bought you a tennis racket and some balls. Let’s see what you can do in front of a net’. He handed me a racket he’d bought for 3.50 francs, a kid’s racket, and some really hideous-looking tennis balls."

Lenglen’s father encouraged her to play tennis in order to improve her asthma, and by the age of 15 she was already a sensation, reaching the final of the International Championship in France (later the French Open) and winning the International Clay Court Championships.

However, with the outbreak of World War I, her career - along with much of the rest of the world - came to a standstill.

When international tennis resumed in 1919, it became clear the years away from the sport had done nothing to blunt the skills of the young Lenglen. That year the French prodigy won her first Wimbledon title, beating Dorothy Lambert Chambers in one of the most iconic finals in the tournament’s history. She would go on to win the Wimbledon title another five times, in 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1925.

When Lenglen arrived in Antwerp ready to compete in the Games, she was already one of the favourites to win gold.

The finals
Lenglen prepared herself to compete at the Beerschot Tennis Club where the Antwerp 1920 tennis competition took place. The girl who first wielded a racket at age 12 had taken less than a decade to secure her place at the Olympic Games.

She stormed through the first three rounds, winning all of them in straight sets without losing a single game. Finally, in the semi-final she did lose a game, but still ran out a 6-0, 6-1 winner against Sigrid Fick.

In the final, Lenglen - who was nicknamed ‘La Divine’ - gave her opponent no chance at all, beating Great Britain’s Dorothy Holman 6-3, 6-0 to win gold.

And as if this were not enough, the French dynamo won gold in the mixed doubles event alongside Max Decugis and bronze in the first ever women’s doubles tournament alongside Élisabeth d'Ayen.

But these three Olympic medals were just one small part of her outstanding career.

Her legacy
After the Olympic Games, Lenglen’s dominance continued to grow. ‘La Divine’ became the first professional female tennis player and the sport’s first female star.

According to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, "Lenglen won 250 championships: 83 in singles (seven without the loss of a game), 74 [doubles] championships, and 93 mixed doubles titles. Lenglen lost one singles match in eight years, and was unbeaten in 1919 and 1920, and 1922 through 1926."

In other words, between 1919 and 1926 she lost just one match.

Her longest winning streak was 181 matches and her final career statistics included 341 victories and only seven defeats, with a final win percentage of 98.

Besides her three Olympic medals and six Wimbledon singles titles, Lenglen also won six French Championships titles. She is also famous for winning what has been dubbed the ‘Match of the Century’ when she beat the USA’s rising star Helen Wills 6-3, 8-6 in Cannes, France. The match inspired many authors, such as Larry Engelmann, who wrote the book 'The Goddess and the American Girl: The Story of Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills'.

Lenglen also appeared in Ernest Hemingway’s book 'The Sun Also Rises', when the American writer described his character Robert Cohn with the words: "He probably loved to win as much as Lenglen, for instance."

Not only did Lenglen stand out because of her skills with a tennis racket, she also changed the perception of the sport with her charisma and fashion sense.

The WTA defined her as outrageous, unconventional and brilliant, saying: "Lenglen’s persona was as big as her game. She would show up to matches wearing a full-length fur coat and heavy makeup accentuated with bright red lipstick. She wore her dark hair in a short bob, popular with flappers of the 1920s. She became a fashion icon, her style copied by women around the globe. She played in diamond-accented headscarves, silk stockings and clothing that was scandalous for the time, exposing her forearms and calves."

The French tennis star was also an advocate for gender equality and broke ground for women when she became one of the first female tennis players to turn professional. She once said: "I have worked as hard at my career as any man or woman has worked at any career. And in my whole lifetime I have not earned $5,000 - not one cent of that by my speciality, my life study - tennis."

"I am 27 and not wealthy - should I embark on any other career and leave the one for which I have what people call genius?

"Or should I smile at the prospect of actual poverty and continue to earn a fortune - for whom?"

Lenglen brought her career as a professional tennis player to an end in 1928, but she never left the sport behind. Over the following years she opened a sports shop, ran a tennis camp and wrote about the subject.

Just a decade later, ‘La Divine’ was diagnosed with leukemia and died of pernicious anaemia on 4 July 1938 at age 39.

But her legacy lives on.

In 1978, Lenglen was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and in 1997, the second court and women’s trophy of the Roland-Garros tournament were both named after her.