Suzanne Lenglen: The first diva of tennis

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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

CNN  — 

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.”

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02:51 - Source: CNN

“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.”

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.