Catching the Tape: Lenglen-Wills

Thursday, April 12, 2012 /by

It’s the season for new series at Tennis.com, so here’s one more: Catching the Tape, a weekly dig through the many-layered goldmine of YouTube for a tennis clip. It might be topical, funny, historic, interesting, or just weird. I’ll start with something that's historic, semi-topical, and when, I first found it and put it up here a few years ago, mind-blowing: six minutes of the Match of the Century, between Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills, which was held 20 miles down the road from Monte Carlo, in Cannes.

"The golden sun of the Era of Wonderful Nonsense was somewhat beyond the meridian at the beginning of 1926, but the art of ballyhoo was at its peak. In sports, as in other areas of life, sensational occurrences took place more or less all year long."

This was how longtime New York tennis writer Al Laney introduced a chapter in his memoir about the famous Lenglen-Wills match, which took place on February 16 of that year. As Laney writes, “It was blown up into a titanic struggle such as the world had never seen before.”

This would be the only meeting between the two all-time greats, in the final of a small tournament at the Carlton Club, which had six courts, no changing facilities, and no stands. They were still being bolted together even as spectators, reporters, and royalty from around the world stormed them. As Laney writes, “By the time it came off it was of worldwide interest, and never again in the history of sport was such an event allowed to go under such ridiculous and fantastic conditions.”

The tournament in Monte Carlo that starts Monday was established around the turn of the century, but the 1920s was when tennis took off along the Riviera—yellow-red courts suddenly stretched completely around the coast of France from Menton, on the Italian border, to Boulogne, the far channel port.

It was a boom time in general for this international playground, with wealthy visitors descending on the thin strip of beach land through the second half of the decade. Laney writes of the Riviera of that era: “Every nationality and every type was present—crooks, pimps, great ladies, and prostitutes by the hundreds, famous persons from stage and Hollywood, titled gentlemen from every European country where titles remained intact.”

All of these clubs held tournaments during the society “season,” and all of them wanted Lenglen—"the Queen"—to play. If you’re like me, you’ve probably wondered exactly what the ballyhoo over her was all about. She was obviously more than just a tennis star, but she hardly looked like an athlete. According to Laney, “The enthusiasm Lenglen had generated and the boost she had given to the French collective ego can hardly be calculated. The feeling was tied up with the feeling of France about the war debts owed the United States, and the growing anti-American attitude everywhere. To overcome an American, even if only in a game of tennis, became important to the individual Frenchman, who blamed Washington for everything, especially the disappearance of his life’s savings. The plan of the young girl from California to come to the Riviera to play the tournaments was looked at as an invasion of Suzanne’s territory.”

Hence, Lenglen-Wills. Young Helen, who came to France with her mother, was met by an “army” of reporters—every news service was represented, a famous Spanish novelist was assigned to cover it, and the Chicago Tribune sent James Thurber. Journalists followed Wills everywhere, even to the dress shop where she bought her clothes. The day of the match, the lines to get in were so long that spectators finally abandoned them and collapsed into a vast mob at the gates. Once in, they ran for whatever seat was empty. The many royal personages in attendance had to make do with whatever they could find. Reporters, with nothing approaching a press section in sight, wrote with their typewriters on their knees.

The match itself. I like Lenglen’s entrance—notice how she makes Wills wait—and the way she jogs happily across the court after greeting her fans with a kiss. Her bandeau, in case you’re wondering, was salmon-pink. As for the play, you get the sense that it was unseemly for women to use their legs in their shots, or even their serves. We see a lot changing of sides; is that Lenglen’s famous glass of cognac she’s sipping on one of them? Wills seemed to use the same grip for forehand and backhand, and had some topspin on her forehand. If the tennis looks a little primitive, it was certainly state of the art for the time. Each of these players would enjoy runs of more than five years without a defeat.

The match actually ended twice, after a ball that had apparently been called out in Lenglen’s favor was deemed to have been in, and the women had to take the court again and play for another 15 minutes before Lenglen won 6-3, 8-6.

Laney says that it was Lenglen’s greatest and most difficult triumph. “Suzanne received an ovation beyond anything even she had previously experienced. Finally, they sat her down on a bench and surrounded her with a wall of flowers until only her turbaned head showed above.”

“Directly behind where Suzanne sat,” Laney writes, “Helen stood for a few minutes, unnoticed, forgotten, and alone in the midst of the thing. I watched as Miss Wills, with hardly room to extend her arms, pulled on her sweater. Then, still alone, she turned and began quietly to push her way back through the indifferent crowd toward the gate. She disappeared among them and no one seemed to care that she was gone.”

For the moment, the Queen had vanquished Little Miss Poker Face, and America with her.

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