When it comes to the pioneering figures of the past, the facts of their lives may not change from one era to the next, but the meanings we find in them do. Whether it’s Martin Luther King or Billie Jean King, every generation takes what it needs from history’s inspirational individuals.
What does the life of Suzanne Lenglen, one of tennis’ most celebrated pioneers, mean to us today? The question seems especially relevant right now, 120 years after her birth in 1899, and 100 years after her first victory at Wimbledon in 1919. In truth, though, there’s never a bad or unedifying time to study Lenglen’s triumphant career and tragically too-short life. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that, while tennis was invented by Walter Wingfield in 1873, the tennis player wasn’t invented until this Frenchwoman flew into the public eye 50 years later. So many of the elements, good and bad, that we’ve seen in the careers of the game’s stars were present in Lenglen’s career a century ago.
The maniacally ambitious tennis parent? Charles Lenglen, universally known as Papa, was the original. Driven to create a champion who would defy the perceived limits of female athletes at the time, he pushed his daughter relentlessly. He laid down coins on the court as targets, and had Suzanne practice until she could hit them—after thousands of hours, she could. He had her jump rope, swim laps, and run sprints daily. Most presciently, he also signed her up for a ballet class.
The revolutionary style of play? Like Chris Evert with her two-handed backhand in the 1970s, Lenglen advanced the sport by moving forward to volley and launching herself into her shots rather than waiting for them to come to her. Just as her Papa hoped, Lenglen fused artistry with athleticism in a way that no one had before. (Just for reference, the woman she beat in the 1919 Wimbledon final, 40-year-old Dorothea Lambert Chambers, was still using an underhand serve.)
The game-changing fashion sense? Like the early WTA players with their Ted Tinling dresses, or Serena Williams with her cat suit, Lenglen was a forward-thinker when it came to her clothes. She ditched the floppy hat for a bandeau, the long skirt for a daringly short pleated version, and traditional whites for bright colors. She was the first woman to wear make-up and sport a tan on court, and probably the first to come with her own couturier, Jean Patou.
The cult following? Like Roger Federer, Lenglen drew audiences too large to fit inside Wimbledon’s stadium court when she made her debut there in 1919. Because of those crowds, the AELTC began work on a new facility on nearby Church Road, which opened in 1922, and which is where the tournament is still played today. Lenglen has an arena with her name on it at Roland Garros, but Centre Court at Wimbledon could rightfully be called “The House that Suzanne Built.”
The domination of her competition? Lenglen should feature prominently in any GOAT conversation. She won 181 straight matches, went years without dropping a set, and finished—by the best accounts available—with a 341-7 career record; even Evert and Martina Navratilova didn’t win 98 percent of their matches. As for her toughest competition, Lenglen beat Helen Wills in their only meeting, in what was billed as the Match of the Century, at Cannes.
The US Open controversies? Like Serena, Lenglen caused a stir in the Big Apple. In 1921, she disappointed the capacity crowd that had come to see her at Forest Hills by retiring, due to illness, in the middle of her second-round match. “A distinct hissing sound came from the stands as [Lenglen] crossed the terrace and passed from sight,” wrote New York sportswriter Al Laney. “The crowd was branding her with that horrid American word, ‘quitter.’”
The clash with tennis’ amateur authorities? Until the advent of the Open era in 1968, this was an unfortunate necessity for every star player. Again, though, Lenglen got there first. In 1926, she left the amateur game to sign with the first major pro tennis tour, created by U.S. promoter C.C. Pyle. While few of her colleagues took the same risk, the tour was a success with Lenglen as the headliner. In 1927, she made $100,000—$30,000 more than Babe Ruth. But the price was steep. Lenglen was banned by the French Tennis Federation and had her AELTC membership revoked.
If you’re an American of a certain age, you were introduced to Lenglen through the tennis-history segments that the late Bud Collins narrated for NBC. In those, Lenglen was portrayed as the quintessential French artiste, a dark-haired woman in white who twirled across the grass and took a nip or three of cognac on the sidelines for sustenance.
Is that happy-go-lucky, très francais version of Lenglen still the most useful for us today? To me, there are two aspects of the Lenglen legend that are more relevant to this era. The first is the toll that her parents’ pressure took on Lenglen. The second is the way she risked everything for a fair day’s pay.
WATCH: TenniStory, Suzanne Lenglen
“Many of those who watched Suzanne’s practice sessions expressed dismay at the way Papa and Mama Lenglen callously utilized emotion to keep their daughter practicing and working and running hour after hour and day after day,” Larry Engelmann wrote in The Goddess and the American Girl, his book about Lenglen and Helen Wills.
Papa “assaulted and battered the child’s self-esteem, ridiculed her in front of spectators, and reduced her to tears and hysterics.” When Suzanne made an error, “Mama too openly expressed her dissatisfaction, hissing, ‘Stupid girl! Keep your eye on the ball!”
“Love—the offering or the withholding of it—became the whip Papa snapped…She became athletically formidable but emotionally tattered.”
How did Suzanne respond? According to Engelmann, she used illness as an escape.
“Early in her career,” he wrote, “she learned of the temporary respite to be gained over Papa and Mama through sickness or collapse. Only when she was clearly ailing did she receive the rewards of unsolicited parental affection.c
Illness would follow Lenglen through her life, and she would die of anemia at age 39, just 12 years after her great victory over Wills at Cannes. Today, when we’re more attuned to the dangers and trade-offs that come with an over-ambitious tennis parent, we can see Lenglen’s career not just as a story of athletic triumph, but also as a cautionary tale.
Yet along with her vulnerability, we can also recognize her strength, in the way she stood up for an athlete’s right to make a living. It was a stand that still resonates today. While the amateur era is long over in tennis, it lives on in American college sports. Just this week, news came that the NCAA has finally decided to allow its athletes to earn money from selling their likenesses. That’s a tiny slice of the wealth they create for their universities, but it’s something.
Suzanne Lenglen, it turns out, knew exactly how college football and basketball players feel. Here’s what she wrote in the program for Pyle’s U.S. pro tour in 1927:
“In the twelve years I have been champion I have earned literally millions of francs for tennis, and have paid thousands of francs in entrance fees to be allowed to do so. 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 specialty, my life study, tennis.
“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?”
There are dozens of reasons to remember Suzanne Lenglen. This week, those words, which ring so true nearly a century after they were written, seem like the best reason of all.