Suzanne Lenglen, Divine forever. The first real star in the history of tennis shone with a light so strong that it also changed the history of Wimbledon. A star that shone in the firmament after a life ended too soon, but which gave it an imperishable duration in time.
Suzanne Lenglen, La Divine, is, according to many insiders and media, the strongest player ever to take on a tennis court. Her name has been perpetuated for twenty-three years by the French Tennis Federation, which named her the second most important court of the Roland Garros.
Today our time is marked by a global pandemic that brought our beloved planet and our beloved Game to its knees. Without tennis in the most interesting moment of the year, between the French Open and Wimbledon, it is right to celebrate the first superheroine of the Game, which already many years before Billie Jean King, made women's sport vibrate for the first time, giving it value and recognition Suzanne was born in Paris on 24 May 1899.
Chronic asthma and migraine forced her parents to move to Compiegne, in what was once Picardy. Charles Lenglen had inherited a transportation company: horse-drawn carriages. One day he sold everything and, with the proceeds, he took the family with him to Nice, in the heart of the French Riviera, a stone's throw from a tennis club.
It was he who put the first racquet in Suzanne's hand. He enrolled his daughter in classical dance to shape her physique at the age of 14 years-old, and subjected her to exhausting workouts. He used to place a coin anywhere on the court, forcing his daughter to hit until she hit the coin itself.
He was very severe, and sometimes he would mock her in front of the audience, reducing her to tears. Her mother Anais, cynical like her husband, after every mistake, said to her: "Stupid girl, keep your eyes on the ball."
But Suzanne's talent was impressive. At just 14 years-old he was a finalist at the French Championships, forerunners of the Roland Garros, which at the time, however, were reserved for French players only. A few months later she won the World Hard Court Championships, real precursors of the French Slam.
Lenglen had it all: talent, strength, mind.
During the First World War, she trained with the Nice coach Joseph Negro, and his father built a private court at the back of their villa. And he took the opportunity to train her with several men, paid to force her to train harder and harder and develop unprecedented offensive tennis: a new for that era.
After the war she was invincible. At Wimbledon 1919 Lenglen became the first non-English speaking woman to win the Championships. In a legendary final, she beat Briton Dorothea Lambert Chambers, a seven-time London title winner.
It was the beginning of his myth. Meanwhile, Suzanne revolutionized outfits on a tennis court: she played with her arms outstretched and her skirt ending just below the knee. Dressed by the well-known stylist Jean Patou, she used clothes to claim her independence.
He wore make-up before playing and drank cognac when changing the side of the court. Her was a continuous war against traditionalists. She became very popular, to the point that her matches convinced the board of the Championships to look for a new venue for Wimbledon.
There were no facilities on Worple Road to accommodate the flood of the crowd who wanted to see her play. The Church Road new facility was built mostly for her. After the war, she got 341 victories and only 7 defeats. She won six times Wimbledon and six times the Roland Garros (the last two when it was open to foreigners) and four editions of the World Hard Court Championships.
In 1920 she won three medals at the Olympics in Antwerp: women's singles and mixed doubles gold medal, and women's double bronze.
For three editions of Wimbledon (1920, 1922, 1925) she won women's singles, women's doubles and mixed doubles.
The biggest women's match ever: Suzanne Lenglen against Helen Wills
Suzanne wanted to prove that she could dominate even outside Europe, and she found a way to go to America, despite she was ill and against the advice of her father, who could not accompany her.
After a strong cough, she retreated against Mallory. There were 8,000 people and her withdrawal was negatively accepted: they accused her of withdrawing out of fear, not because she was ill. They prescribed eight days of absolute rest and skipped several performances before returning to Europe.
Then she would become unbeatable: she got 181 wins in a row, a staggering figure and never closer. In the meantime, another great champion was emerging: the American Helen Wills. She dominated the United States and many considered Wills her heir.
It was therefore natural that the only H2H between the two, even today, is remembered as the Match of the Century. It was played in Cannes and it was an unprecedented media event. Despite tickets at 300 francs each, they recorded an impressive sold-out with 3,000 spectators.
Someone climbed the trees to see something. Those who lived nearby offered places for sale from their balconies, from which there was a fair view of the court. It was a real game, won in two sets by Lenglen for 6-3 8-6, confirming her superiority.
The problem is that Suzanne wasn't making money. Her amateur status forced her to settle for modest expense reimbursements. For this, she had already decided to turn professional at the end of the season. Accelerating the decision for the events that happened at Wimbledon: without notifying her, the tournament organizers anticipated her match from 4 pm to 2 pm to facilitate the Royal Family, who had announced the presence.
They told the change her that morning, and she reacted badly. By the way, at 2 pm she had an appointment with the doctor. She showed up at 3.30 pm when Queen Maria and the rest of the crowd had been waiting for more than an hour.
The organizers tried hard again: in response, she refused to play. To avoid disqualification, they scheduled her for the next day. She won, but then she would forfeit due to a shoulder injury. That would have been her last amateur tournament.
Towards the end of 1926 she turned professional: “In my 12-year career, I made the world of tennis, but for me, it was only an expense. I worked hard, but nothing was left in my pocket." For this reason, she was banished from the French Tennis Federation and expelled from Wimbledon, of which she was an honorary member.
The agreement with the American promoter CC Pyle allowed her to earn something like $100,000, a very high figure for the time. After settling down economically, she stopped playing while remaining tied to tennis. She created a tennis school near the Roland Garros Stadium and she became a sportswear stylist, as well as appearing in various advertisements and acting in some movies.
She was the first tennis player to gain popularity outside of her sport. Health, however, would have consumed her quickly. Already in 1934, she was under surgery for appendicitis, then her condition plummeted in 1938 when she had leukemia.
She went blind and died on 4 July 1938, at just 39. A cruel fate, which however gave birth to the myth. However, over 80 years after her death, she is still not remembered as she deserves. In the ranking of the strongest tennis players ever, Tennis Channel placed it in 24th position.
A staggering decision, my thought, for an athlete who was the cornerstone of women's tennis and one of the strongest ever: Suzanne Lenglen, Divine forever.