A new graphic novel by artist and illustrator Tom Humberstone pays tribute to the life and times of 1920s tennis icon Suzanne Lenglen. Read an extract from "Suzanne: The Jazz Age Goddess of Tennis" in which Lenglen meets fashion designer Ted Tinling, and a foreword by 1967 Roland Garros champion Françoise Dürr, below.
I first heard the name Suzanne Lenglen when I was 11 or 12. Everyone knew who she was, even if you weren’t a person who was into sports. She was the legend, the celebrity of French tennis. She had won so many Roland Garros titles; so many Wimbledons. She had played tennis with the King of Sweden, the King of Denmark. Couturiers such as Jean Patou made dresses especially for her.
Suzanne did things no woman had done before. At that time, for a woman to decide to play tennis and travel all over the world to do so was unheard of. On court, she didn’t stay on the baseline like everyone before her did, but she was always jumping, gliding, moving forward. And this was why she was the first woman to play with such a short dress, rather than the heavy skirts all the other women wore. She had to wear this because she moved so athletically, with such big steps.
That all impressed me, but I never thought I could do anything like she did. But little by little, I enjoyed the game and then I decided to go on -- and then I began to see how Suzanne’s legacy had to be upheld.
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When I turned pro, I found that women tennis players were not given the same consideration as the men. I could not play Fed Cup; I could not do this, I could not do that. But little by little, that changed. Billie Jean King said that the men created the ATP, and we have to do something. So just before Wimbledon in 1973, we got a lot of players in one room and we told them: "No one is leaving the room." Betty Stöve was the tallest of all of us at that time; we put her in front of the door and told her, "Don’t let anyone out until we found the WTA." Billie was the president, I was co-secretary with Ingrid Bentzer, and Betty was the treasurer.
That was all thanks to Billie for forcing the issue. I found a parallel between Suzanne and Billie Jean because they both fought for women’s place in the sport.
When we started the Virginia Slims Circuit, we decided to dress for the people, for the younger women. The designer Ted Tinling wanted tennis players to be glamorous, like dancers or ice skaters. I remember one year when he made me a bare-back dress. I was playing on Centre Court at Wimbledon, and I was wearing a sweater over it when I came on court. And when I took it off, the public were a little bit astonished! I wondered if that was how Suzanne had felt.
These days, you can compare Serena Williams to Suzanne. Always with a new outfit, and so expressive on court -- and importantly, winning so much of everything.
In Suzanne, Tom Humberstone captures so much of what made her a star. It’s an original way of telling her story, and it’s exciting to think that it can introduce a new audience to such a revolutionary figure. We all have to go back and see where we came from, and there are still so many lessons in Suzanne’s life for the sport in 2022.
Françoise Dürr, June 2022
"Suzanne: The Jazz Age Goddess of Tennis" is published by Avery Hill Publishing on Sep. 1, and can be pre-ordered here.
Images © Tom Humberstone, 2022.