Suzanne Lenglen: The first diva of tennis

Story highlights

  • Suzanne Lenglen revolutionized women's tennis with her powerful game, fashion sense
  • She was one of the sporting icons of the 1920s and was a darling of French society
  • The six-time Wimbledon winner died young, aged just 39, after being diagnosed with leukemia
  • Her career ended a year turning pro at a time when most athletes were nominally amateur

She drank alcohol on court, smoked "furiously" and horrified the establishment with her daring outfits, "unladylike" playing style and highly-publicized affairs.

Tennis has never known anyone quite like Suzanne Lenglen, who transformed the women's game from a gentle housewives' pastime into a sport where the men, begrudgingly, had to take a back seat.

"If normalcy for women meant back to the kitchen, then Suzanne and other ladies of her ilk were heading full tilt in the opposite direction," stated a television report in the 1920s, when Lenglen -- who liked to be known as "the Goddess" -- had become the most famous female athlete on the planet.

When modern tennis stars such as Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams take to the court at Roland Garros during the French Open, there is evidence everywhere around them of the trailblazer who lived fast, played hard -- and died young.

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With her short skirts, fur coats, bob haircut and trademark bandana, Lenglen was the darling of French society despite her unconventional looks -- a bold, free woman, an icon of the decade's "Flapper" generation who became a national hero but ultimately succumbed to the pressures created by her success.

"Suzanne was the glory of the times in which she lived," says Larry Engelmann, author of "The Goddess & the American Girl: The Story of Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills."

"She came to represent a sort of resilient, resurgent, glorious France. She was, in the eyes of the French press, a reborn Joan of Arc. They called her 'the Goddess.'

"After all of the suffering that the French people had gone through in the First World War, suddenly there was the emergence of this girl, this young woman who is a very dominating figure in a very popular sport."

Lenglen won the French national championship six times, but it was her six successes at Wimbledon -- then considered the unofficial world title -- that established her as a superstar.

She lost just one match from 1919 to her final year as an amateur in 1926, dropping only two sets in that period as she overpowered her rivals with an athletic approach founded in her ballet and gymnastics training as a child and a later continued love of dancing.

"She revolutionized women's tennis," Engelmann told CNN's Open Court, "showing that women could be just as tough and just as aggressive and just as capable as men on the tennis court."

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When Lenglen became the first non-English-speaking women's champion at Wimbledon in 1919, the 20-year-old shocked the home crowd by serving overhead like the men -- not underhand like her final opponent, seven-time winner Dorothea Douglass Chambers.

Lenglen, playing on grass for the first time, saved two match points before triumphing 10-8 4-6 9-7 -- a landmark result that ushered in a period of dominance where she would expect to lose just a few games during entire tournaments.

Up until 1922, the defending champion at Wimbledon played only the final -- but Lenglen changed that as she decided to take her place in the draw, revolutionizing the women's format.

"Her opponents were afraid of her because she was like a lion on the court, it was not usual for a woman to hit the ball so hard," says Patrick Clastres, a sports historian at Sorbonne University in Paris.

"She was very different from the other ladies, she was very free."

Lenglen's intense desire to win came from her father Charles, who -- having retired after selling his bus franchise -- meticulously shaped her career from a young age.

"She was a very brilliant child playing tennis but as a woman she had problems," Clastres told CNN.

"I think she was depressed when she lost games. It was very hard for her to live with this sort of pressure from her father -- her family had lost a boy when she was young, and she was the boy of her father."

Charles made his young daughter practice with male players, convinced that her female peers were not good enough.

"He solicited the best foreign and French male tennis players to teach her and play with her," Engelmann says.

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"Aggressive, 'in your face' tennis, combined with hours and hours of practice -- and she did things that people just didn't expect of a young girl or of a woman, and it worked.

"When she got a bad line call, she threw a racquet into the net. People had not seen something like this before. There was always a drama. It was not only sports and tennis, it was a theater production."

Lenglen played the role of a diva to the hilt -- she was part of a movement of liberated women known as "Flappers" who flouted societal and sexual norms, as seen in the recent Hollywood film adaptation of the "The Great Gatsby."

Engelmann says one of the conditions she had for playing in the U.S. in 1921 was that New York's Forest Hills tennis club provide her with several cases of champagne despite liquor being illegal due to prohibition laws at the time.

"She demanded playing at a certain time, not playing in the morning -- she never played before noon because she had to sleep until noon, so she had a love/hate relationship with the clubs in England," Engelmann says.

"She made demands and I think people objected to that. With her talent came power, and that was a challenge to the powers that be in the tennis world at that time."

Lenglen was known to drink cognac during matches -- Clastres says this was to calm her nerves in front of her demanding courtside parents, but it was away from her family that she suffered her most humiliating playing moment.

When Lenglen traveled to the U.S. in 1921 for what was supposed to be a series of exhibition matches, she went without her father -- and arrived in New York in poor health after a testing sea voyage without having trained, instead choosing to practice her dancing on board.

Given just one day to rest after arriving, she was told she had been entered in the U.S. national championships -- and then had to take on titleholder Molla Mallory after her planned opponent withdrew.

Lenglen, later diagnosed with whooping cough, lost the first set and then pulled out of the match -- resulting in widespread criticism from the American media, which had been expecting the type of all-action performance for which she had been renowned.

"Her movement, it comes across as something of a fairy," Engelmann says. "She walks like a ballerina on her toes. She moves so lightly. Just grace. Pure grace.

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"And people would point out, she was not beautiful until she started moving around the court -- and then you tended to forget her lack of beauty. Have you ever seen an ugly ballerina? I don't think so, and that may be how this worked for Suzanne."

Lenglen's amateur career came to an end in 1926 after what was dubbed "the Match of the Century" against Helen Wills, a then 20-year-old American who would go on to win 19 grand slam singles titles as she took over the mantle of the Frenchwoman.

Wills traveled to the south of France for a clash that was built up by the frenzied press, as both players studiously avoided each other in preceding tournaments.

"It was largely constructed by the media," Clastres says. "During weeks and months they made the promotion of the match in Cannes and a lot of people were there, all the kings and the queens.

"It was a huge exhibition with probably 7,000 people around the court of a hotel. It was crazy."

Lenglen finally saw off her young rival, but the experience -- she defied her father's wishes by taking on Wills -- left her distraught and shattered, according to reports at the time.

"It was a very difficult match for her and probably she was not able to win once more," Clastres says. "And she didn't want to lose, I think, to Helen Wills."

Lenglen responded by turning professional later that year after being offered $50,000 by an American promoter -- a move which prompted Wimbledon to revoke her honorary membership.

It was a double blow for Lenglen, who had been crucified in the British press after a scheduling mixup at that year's tournament which meant Britain's Queen Mary had to watch an empty court for half an hour after turning up to see the defending champion. Mortified by such a faux-pas, the player pulled out.

But Lenglen hit back publicly at her detractors, criticizing the hypocrisy of so-called amateur sport.

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"To me it is an escape from bondage and slavery. No-one can order me about any longer to play tournaments for the benefit of club owners," she said in an interview with the Associated Press.

"I got great fun out of tennis for a few years after the war, but lately it had become too exacting. I have done my bit to build up the tennis of France and of the world. It's about time tennis did something for me."

Although players were amateur in name, most received payments through other means.

"She was probably paid for this match, like others," Clastres said of the Lenglen's clash with Wills.

"Tennis was the key but every player was professional. She was paid to write about tennis for the newspapers and also to play with very famous champions."

Lenglen lasted just a year in the States, as ill health after an exhausting tour packed with high-society engagements forced her to take an extended break from playing.

She returned home, and chose to retire at the age of 27, and was reduced to working in a fashion house as her main source of income dried up.

In 1933, Lenglen helped set up a tennis school located next door to the new Roland Garros, built in 1928.

She never played there, but the present-day French Open venue's second show court is now named after her and features a statue in her honor among other exhibits at the museum.

Paris also has a Suzanne Langlen Metro station, plus a sporting center in her name, while many other references to her can be found in the city where she was born and buried.

Lenglen's health deteriorated and she was diagnosed with leukemia. She died from pernicious anemia not long after having a blood transfusion, aged just 39.

By then, Engelmann says, she had gone blind as her body "just gave out."

Although she was not worried about being a role model during her playing days, Clastres believes Lenglen would have been proud of her legacy.

"When she died it was like a national drama," he says, sitting in the stands of the court that bears her name. "I think she would be very proud to have her name all around Roland Garros, even if she never played here.

"She was very proud of being a free woman -- if not really being free because she was being represented as a female ballerina. She wanted to be free but the media constructed a figure of feminine character with a lot of ideas from the past."

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