Suzanne Rachel Flore Lenglen (May 24, 1899 – July 4, 1938) was a French tennis player who won 31 Grand Slam titles from 1914 through 1926. Coached rigorously by her father, she is considered one of tennis' first true stars.
A flamboyant, trend-setting athlete, she garnered attention for both her tennis and her sportswear. The aura of her celebrity led to her being named La Divine (the divine one) by the French press.
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 glamor to the tennis court increased the interest in women's tennis and women's sports in general.
Lenglen was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1978.
Lenglen was born to Charles and Anaïs Lenglen, in Compiègne, some 70 km north of Paris. By the age of eight, Lenglen showed early signs of athletic ability. She was an excellent runner, swimmer, and bicyclist. During her youth, she suffered from numerous health problems, including chronic asthma, which also plagued her at a later age. Her various ailments prompted her father to encourage her to take up tennis as a way of strengthening her body.
Though Charles, the owner of a carriage company, did not play tennis, he was secretary for a tennis club in Nice. 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.
After hours of daily practice, it soon became clear that Suzanne was an exceptional talent. Since there were not many tennis instructors around, her father decided to teach her himself. After observing the women of the time playing a patient, careful placement style of game, he decided it was not right for his energetic, enthusiastic daughter. After observing the men's style of more aggressive play, he decided to teach his daughter accordingly.
Her father devised a training regimen, which included not only hitting the same shot over and over again until it was perfected, but also such physical conditioning activities as jumping rope, running wind sprints, and swimming. He also found male players to hit with her. Frequently, his methods drove his daughter to exhaustion.
Both her parents motivated Lenglen by means of psychological intimidation. When she performed well, they gave her love and rewards. When she did badly, they cursed at her and embarrassed her in public. The result was an emotionally battered tennis genius, dependent upon her parents for love and support. In spite of her outward portrayal of assurance, she lacked self confidence and was desperately afraid of failure. Her only escape from her parents regimen was to get sick; so she did often.
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 July 4, 1938. She was 39 years old. She is buried in the Cimetière de Saint-Ouen at Saint-Ouen near Paris. There was speculation that she had weakened due to the toll of her victories, coupled with the intensity of her childhood training.
Only four years after her first tennis strokes, Lenglen played in the final of the 1914 French Championships. (The tournament 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 World Hard 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 amateur career was put on hold.
Lenglen’s next major appearance was in 1919, at Wimbledon, after a four year hiatus for the tournament. In her grass court debut, the 20 year old Lenglen made her way to the final round against 40 year old Dorothea Douglass Chambers, the defending champion with seven Wimbledon titles already to her credit.
The match, which became one of the hallmarks of tennis history, was played before 8,000 spectators, including King George V and Queen Mary. After splitting the first two sets, Lenglen took a 4-1 lead in the final set before Chambers rallied to take a 6-5 (40-15) lead. Lenglen saved the first match point when her service return trickled off the wood of her racket and dropped over the net. Lenglen survived the second match point when Chambers hit a drop shot into the net. Lenglen then went on to win the match 10-8, 4-6, 9-7.
After her victory at Wimbledon, Lenglen entered a period of complete dominance. At the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp (Belgium), Lenglen took the women's singles gold, losing only four games—three of them in the final against Dorothy Holman of Britain. She also teamed up with Max Décugis to win another gold medal in the mixed doubles. She was eliminated in a women's doubles semifinal (playing with Elisabeth d'Ayen) and won the bronze medal after their opponents withdrew.
|Olympic medal record|
|Gold||1920 Antwerp||Women's singles|
|Gold||1920 Antwerp||Mixed doubles|
|Bronze||1920 Antwerp||Women's doubles|
Lenglen successfully defended her title at Wimbledon in 1920, in a repeat final against Chambers. Lenglen won 6-3, 6-0, her dominance now in full flight.
Lenglen garnered much attention from the media, not only for her great play, but also for her daring fashion choices. Her daringly short skirt and tight-top Jean Patou-designed white outfits, a signature wide scarf wrapped around her cropped bob, full makeup, a full length coat of ermine or mink, caused quite a stir. It was considered scandalous because all the other players competed in traditional outfits that covered the body nearly completely. Still, the relative sparseness of her clothing aided her graceful, athletic movement and underscored her former ballet training. Staid Brits also were in shock at the boldness of the Frenchwoman, who also casually sipped brandy between sets.
She would also go on to win her own native French Championships four consecutive times, from 1920-1923, and again from 1925-1926. Lenglen also took the women’s doubles titles at Wimbledon from 1919-1923 and in 1925, and mixed doubles titles in 1920, 1922, and 1925. She captured both the women’s and mixed titles at the French Championships in 1925 and 1926.
Other than one pre-match withdrawal, Lenglen's only tournament defeat in a singles match during this period occurred in an unscheduled appearance in the 1921 U.S. 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 U.S. champion, Molla Bjurstedt Mallory.
Arriving in New York City the day before the tournament after a very stormy, delayed voyage, during which she was ill the whole time, Lenglen learned that, without her permission, tournament officials had announced that she would be competing in the U.S. Championships. Because of immense public pressure, she agreed to play in the tournament despite being run down and suffering from what later was diagnosed by doctors as whooping cough. As a concession, she was given a day to recover. To her surprise, there was no seeding for the event and her name had been drawn to play Elinor Goss, a leading American player. Goss immediately defaulted, leaving Lenglen to face Molla Mallory, the many-times reigning champion.
Against Mallory, 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 later the American press severely criticized her. This worsened when, under doctor's orders, she canceled the exhibition matches that she had initially come to play. Unaccustomed to such negative reception, Lenglen went home, devastated.
Having withdrawn from the 1924 Wimbledon Championships, Lenglen began to show signs that the toll of her dominance was wearying her. Though she returned impressively to the tournament in 1925, surrendering only five games en route to the title, victories seemed less enjoyable, as her refusal to lose became exhausting.
Lenglen’s last year under amateur status was 1926, and included perhaps 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 Wills was already a two-time U.S. 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.
According to many authorities, including Larry Englemann, in his book, The Goddess and the American Girl—The story of Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills, Lenglen was forbidden to play Wills by her father, and because she was defying her father, she was sleepless for the whole night before the match, and in a state of the highest nervous tension.
The 1926 Wimbledon would turn out to be her farewell to Grand Slam competition. She progressed to the third round, seemingly poised to lift the trophy for the seventh time. For her third round match, the Queen Mary was in attendance, and due to a miscommunication of her starting time, Lenglen forced the Queen to wait for an hour. 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.
The first major female tennis star to turn professional, Lenglen was paid $50,000 by American entrepreneur Charles C. Pyle to tour the United States in a series of matches against Mary K. Browne. Browne, winner of the U.S. Championships from 1912 to 1914, was 35 and considered to be past her prime, although she had reached the French 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 a tour, which also featured four male players. When the tour ended in February of 1927, Lenglen had defeated Browne, 38 matches to zero. Lenglen was exhausted from the lengthy tour, and a physician advised her to take a lengthy period break from tennis 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 recognized as a federal training center by the French tennis federation in 1936. During this period, Lenglen also wrote several books on tennis.
Lenglen was criticized widely for her decision to turn professional, and the All England Club at Wimbledon even revoked her honorary membership. Lenglen, however, described her decision as "an escape from bondage and slavery" and said in the tour program,
In the twelve years I have been champion I have earned literally millions of francs for tennis and have paid thousands of francs in entrance fees to be allowed to do so…. 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 specialty, my life study—tennis…. I am twenty-seven 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?
As for the amateur tennis system, Lenglen said,
Under these absurd and antiquated amateur rulings, only a wealthy person can compete, and the fact of the matter is that only wealthy people do compete. Is that fair? Does it advance the sport? Does it make tennis more popular—or does it tend to suppress and hinder an enormous amount of tennis talent lying dormant in the bodies of young men and women whose names are not in the social register?
During her career, Lenglen won 81 singles titles, seven of which were achieved without losing a single game. In addition, she won 73 doubles titles and 11 mixed doubles titles. She won the Wimbledon singles, women's doubles, and mixed doubles championships in the same year on three separate occasions (1920, 1922, and 1925).
The World Hard Court Championships (WHCC), the official clay court world championships, were held in Paris (except for one year in Brussels) beginning in 1912 and lasting through 1923. Unlike the pre-1925 French Championships, the WHCC was open to all nationalities. Therefore, the WHCC is the truer forerunner of the open-to-all-nationalities French Championships that began in 1925. For purposes of determining the total number of Grand Slam titles won by Lenglen, the WHCC is used for 1914 and 1920 through 1923 instead of the closed-to-foreigners French Championships for those years. Under this counting method, Lenglen's total number of Grand Slam wins is 31.
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 glamor 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 honor. Four years later, the French Tennis Federation organized 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 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, organizer of the Wimbledon Championships, ranks her among its five greatest Wimbledon champions.
|Event||Singles||Women's Doubles||Mixed Doubles|
|French Championships||(6) 1914/1921/1922/1923/1925/1926||(5) 1914/1921/1922/1925/1926||(5) 1921/1922/1923/1925/1926|
|Wimbledon||(6) 1919/1920/1921/1922/1923/1925||(6) 1919/1920/1921/1922/1923/1925||(3) 1920/1922/1925|
|Year||Championship||Opponent in Final||Score in Final|
|1914||World Hard Court Championships||Germaine Golding||6-3, 6-2|
|1919||Wimbledon||Dorothea Douglass||10-8, 4-6, 9-7|
|1920||Wimbledon (2)||Dorothea Douglass||6-3, 6-0|
|1921||World Hard Court Championships (2)||Molla Bjurstedt Mallory||6-2, 6-3|
|1921||Wimbledon (3)||Elizabeth Ryan||6-2, 6-0|
|1922||World Hard Court Championships (3)||Elizabeth Ryan||6-3, 6-2|
|1922||Wimbledon (4)||Molla Bjurstedt Mallory||6-2, 6-0|
|1923||World Hard Court Championships (4)||Kathleen McKane Godfree||6-2, 6-3|
|1923||Wimbledon (5)||Kathleen McKane Godfree||6-2, 6-2|
|1925||French Championships (5)||Kathleen McKane Godfree||6-1, 6-2|
|1925||Wimbledon (6)||Joan Fry Lakeman||6-2, 6-0|
|1926||French Championships (6)||Mary Browne||6-1, 6-0|
|Australia||NH||NH||NH||NH||NH||NH||NH||NH||A||A||A||A||A||0 / 0|
|France1||W||NH||NH||NH||NH||NH||1R||W||W||W||NH||W||W||6 / 7|
|Wimbledon||A||NH||NH||NH||NH||W||W||W||W||W||SF||W||3R||6 / 8|
|United States||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||2R||A||A||A||A||A||0 / 1|
|SR||1 / 1||0 / 0||0 / 0||0 / 0||0 / 0||1 / 1||1 / 2||2 / 3||2 / 2||2 / 2||0 / 1||2 / 2||1 / 2||12 / 16|
NH = tournament not held.
A = did not participate in the tournament.
SR = the ratio of the number of Grand Slam singles tournaments won to the number of those tournaments played.
1Through 1923, the French Championships were open only to French nationals. The World Hard Court Championships (WHCC), actually played on clay in Paris or Brussels, began in 1912 and were open to all nationalities. The results from that tournament are shown here for 1914 and from 1920 through 1923. The Olympics replaced the WHCC in 1924, as the Olympics were held in Paris. Beginning in 1925, the French Championships were open to all nationalities, with the results shown here beginning with that year.
All links retrieved January 12, 2020.
|French members of the International Tennis Hall of Fame|
|Jean Borotra (1976) | Jacques Brugnon (1976) | Philippe Chatrier (1992) | Henri Cochet (1976) | Francoise Durr (2003) | Pierre Etchebaster (1978) | René Lacoste (1976) | Suzanne Lenglen (1978) | Yannick Noah (2005)|
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