Tennis’ first professional female player was a child prodigy, who through her talent and flamboyant behavior became an international celebrity in the 1920s. Suzanne Lenglen was called “our Suzanne” by French media and was known around the world as 'The Goddess'.
In her short life, Lenglen became one of the top female players of the pre-Open era, capturing 12 Grand Slam singles titles and the allegiance of fans everywhere.
Lenglen was born in Paris on May 24, 1899, to Charles and Anaïs Lenglen. Her father inherited a carriage company, which he later sold, and the family moved to northern France. They spent winters on the French Riviera in Nice, living in a villa across from the Nice Lawn Tennis Club.
As a child, Lenglen played diabolo, a game that involved tossing and balancing a spinning top on a string connected to two sticks. She performed it in front of large crowds at a busy promenade, helping her to develop an aptitude for artistry.
Only months after she first picked up a tennis racket at age 11, Lenglen made the finals of a top-tier tournament in Chantilly. Following that success, her father implemented a stringent training regime, which would often leave his daughter exhausted and sobbing. He pushed her to play aggressively like the male players of that time.
Serving as her coach, Charles Lenglen was a tough taskmaster, who berated Lenglen over minor mistakes. Her mother, Anaïs Lenglen, also was quick to criticize her daughter publicly. The wrath of her impatient parents softened only when Lenglen, who suffered from chronic asthma, was ill. Whether feigned or real, sickness would strike at key moments throughout Lenglen’s career.
At age 15, only four years after she first began playing tennis, Lenglen won the 1914 World Hard Court Championships in Paris. But as World War I began, competitive tennis came to an end, temporarily stalling Lenglen’s path to the top. Although there were no tournaments for the next four years, she continued to train in southern France, waiting to make her move.
When tennis resumed in 1919, Lenglen renewed her on-court success by winning her first of six Wimbledon singles titles, as King George V and Queen Mary watched from the stands. After the devastation and destruction of the war, Lenglen became a symbol of pride and optimism for France.
At her Wimbledon debut, it took 20-year-old Lenglen 44 games to beat seven-time defending champion Dorothea Lambert Chambers, 10-8, 4-6, 9-7. Following that epic clash, Lenglen became more efficient, using little effort in claiming her victories.
During the seven years she played after World War I, she lost only one singles match and only three sets total. While most women of that era served underhand, Lenglen served overhead, like the men her father had instructed her to emulate.
In 1920, Lenglen would win her first of six singles titles at the French Championships. She finished with a year-end ranking of world No.1, beginning in 1921 and ending in 1926, the year she turned pro. Following her one loss, she won 181 consecutive matches.
Lenglen’s persona was as big as her game. She would show up to matches wearing a full-length fur coat and heavy makeup accentuated with bright red lipstick. She wore her dark hair in a short bob, popular with flappers of the 1920s. She became a fashion icon, her style copied by women around the globe. She played in diamond-accented headscarves, silk stockings and clothing that was scandalous for the time, exposing her forearms and calves.
Her gameplay was exciting. She would leap through the air, arms and legs outstretched in ballerina-like movements, thrilling fans.
“I just throw dignity to the winds and think of nothing but the game,” Lenglen said of her playing style. “I try to hit the ball with all my force and send it where my opponent is not.”
Lenglen had no desire to compete in the understated manner that was expected in the sport. She was known to throw her racquet, curse, argue calls and intimidate opponents. Lenglen liked to smoke and preferred to sip brandy instead of water during changeovers.
Her only singles loss after the war came at the 1921 US National Championships at Forest Hills in New York, during prohibition. Her second-round match was against five-time defending champion Molla Mallory, who attacked with the same aggression as Lenglen. As she began to fall behind, Lenglen started to cough. After losing the first set 2-6, and down 0-40 on her serve in the first game of the second set, Lenglen began to cry and informed officials that she was ill and could not finish the match. Spectators booed, and the press vilified Lenglen, accusing her of faking her illness.
Lenglen famously avenged the loss the next year at Wimbledon by defeating Mallory 6-2, 6-0 in 26 minutes, the shortest Grand Slam final on record. In a widely reported exchange after the match, Lenglen said: “Now, Mrs. Mallory, I have proved to you today what I could have done to you in New York last year.”
Mallory reportedly replied: “Mademoiselle Lenglen, you have done to me today what I did to you in New York last year. You have beaten me.”
Mallory would later describe what it was like to play against Lenglen. “She is just the steadiest player that ever was,” she said. “She just sent back at me whatever I sent at her and waited for me to make a fault. And her returns often enough were harder than the shots I sent up to her.”
The New York incident was not the only time Lenglen’s claims of sickness were questioned. She would default a match, asserting illness or injury, only to be seen dancing and drinking later that night. Lenglen was outrageous and unconventional, and the public adored her. She embodied the unrestrained playfulness of the Roaring 1920s.
Her charisma appealed to the masses, drawing international attention to the sport. She was so popular that in 1922, the All England Club moved to a larger location, in part to meet the public’s demand to watch Lenglen play at Wimbledon. Lost Generation writer, and future Nobel Prize-winner, Ernest Hemingway even mentioned her in his ground-breaking 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises.
In 1926, a shy 20-year-old American named Helen Wills was tennis’ new rising star. Lenglen and Wills were slated to play at the Carlton Club in Cannes, France. It was billed as the 'Match of the Century'. The buildup was intense, and tickets for the highly anticipated event were in great demand. During the match, Wills thought she won a decisive point to proceed to a third set, but a line judge saw it differently. Lenglen held on to win the tight match in the pair’s only meeting.
Later that year at Wimbledon, Lenglen was late for a match because of a miscommunication, unknowingly keeping Queen Mary waiting for an hour. This was seen as a snub to British royalty. When she heard about what she had done, Lenglen fainted, claimed she had a cold and withdrew from the tournament. It would be her last time to compete at Wimbledon.
After years of increasing tennis’ fanbase and bringing in substantial money for the sport, Lenglen had found fame but not fortune. Prior to the start of the Open era in 1968, tennis players were amateur athletes who received no prize money.
Lenglen and other top players struggled with the decision of turning professional, but Lenglen was the first to, as she put it, “escape from bondage and slavery” of amateur tennis.
Professional tennis offered the ability to earn money but took away the opportunity to participate in tournaments, including Grand Slams.
“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 speciality, my life study—tennis,” Lenglen said. “I am 27 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?”
Ultimately, Lenglen turned professional, earning $50,000 to play in 38 exhibition matches across the US. Lenglen’s pro career was brief. Her celebrity began to fade and younger stars, such as Wills, took her place.
Lenglen retired from tennis in 1928 to a relatively quiet and unassuming existence. She worked at a sporting goods store, ran a tennis clinic and wrote a book on the sport. Although she had several high-profile relationships, she never wed.
In June 1938, Lenglen reportedly was diagnosed with leukaemia and soon went blind. Three weeks later, she was dead at age 39 of what was officially listed as pernicious anaemia.
At Roland Garros, where the French Open is played, the second-largest show court is named after Lenglen. The stadium, which holds more than 10,000 spectators, was built in 1994. A bronze relief sculpture of Lenglen at the east entrance depicts her in mid-swing, legs outstretched, tennis dress clinging as she moves forward, ready to take her shot.
On Court Suzanne Lenglen, what’s on the surface isn’t as it appears. The famous red clay is really crushed red brick covering thick layers of limestone and gravel.
The stadium’s namesake was more than she appeared to be as well. She was not just a diva, a trendsetter, an athlete. She was girl who longed to please her parents, a heroine who brought hope to a war-ravaged country, a frail figure who found the strength to live life with dramatic flair. The complexity and tenacity of 'The Goddess' can be found by looking beneath the surface.