Suzanne Rachel Flore Lenglen (24 May 1899 – 4 July 1938) was a French tennis player who won 31 Championship titles between 1914 and 1926. 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.
A daughter of Charles and Anaïs Lenglen, Suzanne Lenglen was born in Compiègne, department of the Oise, 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, the story goes, 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, aged only 14 (the tournament was only open to members of French clubs until 1925). She lost to reigning champion Marguerite Broquedis in the final 5–7, 6–4, 6–3. That same year, she won the World Hard Court Championships held at Saint-Cloud, turning 15 during the tournament. This made her the youngest winner of a major championship in tennis history. A record she holds to today. 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 for the next 5 years, until Wimbledon in 1919.Lenglen with Bill Tilden
The French championships were not held again until 1920, but Wimbledon was, again, organised for 1919. Lenglen entered the tournament — her first on grass — and met seven time winner Dorothea Douglass Chambers in the final. 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.
Not only her performances on the court were noted, however. She garnered much attention in the media when she appeared at 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. The staider British 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 againstDorothy Holman of Britain. She then 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 Élisabeth d'Ayen) and won the bronze medal after their opponents withdrew.
From 1919 through 1925, Lenglen won the Wimbledon singles championship every year with the exception of 1924. Health problems due to jaundice forced her to withdraw after winning her quarterfinal match. Lenglen was the last French woman to win the Wimbledon ladies singles title until Amélie Mauresmo in 2006.
From 1920 through 1926, she won the French Championships Singles title six times and the Doubles title five times, plus three World Hard Court Championships from 1921 to 1923. She starred in an instructional film Tennis and How to Play It that was shown in newsreels in 1922.
Lenglen's only defeat in singles, other than a pre-match withdrawal, during this period occurred in an unscheduled appearance in the 1921 U.S Championships. 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 champion, Molla Bjurstedt Mallory.
Lenglen arrived in New York City the day before the tournament after a stormy and delayed voyage, during which she was ill the whole time. Upon arrival, Lenglen learned that, without her permission, tournament officials had announced her participation in the U.S. Championships. Because of immense public pressure, she agreed to play in the tournament despite suffering from what was diagnosed later 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 Eleanor Goss, a leading American player. Goss immediately defaulted, leaving Lenglen to face Mallory in the second round as her first opponent.
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 defeated Mallory in only 26 minutes, winning 6–2, 6–0, reputedly the fastest Ladies major tournament match on record. The two met again later that year at a tournament in Nice where, with Lenglen showing her complete mastery of the sport, Mallory failed to win even one game.
In what would turn out to become her last year as an amateur player, 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 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 almost for the first time she was defying her father, she was sleepless for the whole night before the match, and in a state of the highest nervous tension.
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.
The first major female tennis star to turn professional, Lenglen was paid US $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 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 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.
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 programme, "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?"
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 buried in the Cimetière de Saint-Ouen at Saint-Ouen near Paris.