Jean René Lacoste (July 2, 1904 - October 12, 1996) was a famous French tennis player and businessman, nicknamed "the Crocodile" or "the Alligator" by fans, because of his pugnacity on the court. In recent years, he is most famous for being the namesake of the Lacoste tennis shirt, which he introduced in 1929.
Lacoste was one of The Four Musketeers, France's tennis stars who dominated the game in the 1920s and early 1930s. He won seven Grand Slam singles titles in the French, American, and British championships but never made the long trip to Australia to play in their championships. He was the world's number one player for both 1926 and 1927.
He married the famous golfing champion, Simone de la Chaume. Their daughter, Catherine Lacoste, was a champion golfer.
Lacoste was born into an upper class family and did not take up tennis until age 15. He enjoyed the game so much that he wanted to pursue playing on a more serious level. He lacked the natural ability of other stars, but his father agreed to let him prove himself. He encouraged his son to pursue the sport under the condition that he become a world champion within five years.
Without any extraordinary talent, Lacoste relied on determination and intense training to improve his game. He also committed himself to being a cerebral player, constantly analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of players and reading instructional books. His game was designed to break down opponents by being steady from the backcourt.
Given such a short window of opportunity to find success and the tremendous pressure from his father, Lacoste found his diligence and dedication rewarded. By 1923, he was selected to his country's Davis Cup team, alongside Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, and Henri Cochet. Together, the men comprised the legendary "Four Musketeers."
In 1924, he reached his first major final at Wimbledon, losing to his countryman Borotra in five sets, but won the title the following year in a rematch. It was his second major victory, as he won the French Championships that year as well.
The French Davis Cup team finally reached the World Group final in 1926, though they lost to the U.S. team, 4-1. But Lacoste scored a stirring upset over Big Bill Tilden in four sets, 4-6, 6-4, 8-6, 8-6. The win marked Tilden's first Davis Cup loss in 17 matches. The breakthrough victory boosted them to the Cup the next year, as Lacoste beat Tilden again in one of his three match victories over Tilden in 1927. Recounting the match, Tilden later remarked, "This was one of the finest tennis players and tennis brains I ever encountered, and I underestimated him. I saw too late that Lacoste had figured out a way to beat me … that he had developed a slice serve just for the purpose of using it against me." His other wins over Tilden that year included one at the French Championships, in which he saved two match points before winning in five epic sets, and an even more impressive 11-9, 6-3, 11-9 victory at the U.S. Championships, an event that Tilden would win seven times. The final win was particularly remarkable, as Lacoste's relentless retrieving left the aggressive Tilden exhausted and ultimately bewildered.
In 1928, Lacoste stepped down from Davis Cup duty after a loss to Tilden. He retired from competition the following year, after winning the French title, his last of seven major titles. He remained close to tennis, though; as captain of the Davis Cup team, he led France to victory in 1931-32.
Lacoste was nicknamed le Crocodile by the American press. The French Davis Cup captain had promised Lacoste a crocodile-skin suitcase as an incentive to win a crucial match. The nickname caught on with American spectators, and according to Lacoste, it was an apt characterization: "the nickname highlighted my tenacity on the tennis courts, never giving up my prey!"
Robert George designed the signature crocodile, which was embroidered on the blazer that Lacoste sported each time he came onto the court. The Lacoste label was effectually launched five years later, in 1933, when Lacoste asked Andre Gillier to embroider the crocodile on the front of his tennis shirt. The company was officially named La Societe Chemise Lacoste. The sportswear was revolutionary at the time, because it strayed from the traditional long-sleeved shirt, and instead was a short-sleeved, jersey knit polo shirt.
The company ventured further from tradition by making a line of color shirts in 1951. In the 1970s, Lacoste-wear gained full popularity in the U.S., as the label and its crocodile emblem became the standard for preppy clothing styles. Many companies followed suit with similar shirts and logos. Lacoste himself could not attribute the label's success to any one source: "I suppose you could say that if it had been a really nice animal, something sympathetic, then maybe nothing would have happened. Suppose I had picked a rooster. Well, that's French, but it doesn't have the same impact."
Bernard Lacoste, René's son, took over the company in 1964. In 2000, Christophe Lemaire replaced Giles Rosier as the company's Creative Director, helping reinstate Lacoste's popularity and its status in high fashion. Much more than a producer of shirts, as a nearly billion-dollar enterprise, the company has branched out into other areas of fashion, branding watches, lingerie, and fragrances. Lacoste himself even designed the unprecedented steel racket in the 1960s, which was used by Jimmy Connors, among other players.
Lacoste died in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France, in 1996. He was 92 years old. The week of his death, the French Advertising agency Publicis, who had been managing the account for decades, published a print ad with the Lacoste logo and the English words "See you later..." reinforcing the idea that the animal was perhaps an alligator.
In his 1979 autobiography, Jack Kramer, the long-time tennis promoter and great player himself, included Lacoste in his list of the 21 greatest players of all time. With his athleticism and build seemingly less than ideal for tennis, Lacoste fashioned for himself a legendary career. The winner of seven Grand Slams, Lacoste captured the U.S. Championships and Wimbledon twice each, and his native French Championships three times.
For all his singular efforts, perhaps his lasting mark on the sport was his patriotism, as his name remains tied to his three comrades. The Four Musketeers were inducted simultaneously into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1976.
All links retrieved July 28, 2019.
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