By Randy Walker
They say that Yankee Stadium in New York is the “The House That Ruth Built.”
If that is the case, then Centre Court at Wimbledon is “The House That Lenglen Built.”
As the popularity and success of the famous baseball legend Babe Ruth created the aura and sports juggernaut that is the New York Yankees and its famed ballpark, the immense fascination with the French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen was the factor in the creation of the present-day Centre Court at Wimbledon.
With much of the recent attention in Britain and Wimbledon surrounding French women – with Marion Bartoli of France winning the women’s singles title in 2013 and Amelie Mauresmo, the 2006 champion, becoming the coach of the defending men’s champion Andy Murray, it is worth looking back to the accomplishments and popularity of Lenglen, who did more for the early esteem of Wimbledon than perhaps any other person.
“She had a captivating allure and numerous love affairs, an appeal that was dynamite at the box office,” wrote Bud Collins in his “The Bud Collins History of Tennis” book. “Her magnetism and invincibility made the original Wimbledon too small, leading to the construction of the ‘new’ (present) complex in 1922. Her long, Gallic nose and prominent chin were complemented by a fiery disposition, a chic appearance and a dancer’s movements.”
At the age of just 20 in 1919 for her Wimbledon – and grass-court – debut, Lenglen advanced through the “all-comers” tournament to face the defender, seven-time champion Mrs. Dorothea Douglass Chambers of Britain. Chambers had won her first Wimbledon in 1903 and was two months from her 41st birthday.
Wrote Collins of the famous 1919 final-round match between Lenglen and Chambers, “Lenglen’s dress created a sensation. The British had been accustomed to seeing their women in tight-fitting corsets, blouses and layers of petticoats. When Suzanne stepped onto Centre Court in a revealing one-piece dress, with sleeves daringly just above the elbow, her hemline only just below the knee, reaction ranged from outrage on the part of many women spectators—some reportedly walked out during her matches, muttering ‘shocking’—to delight among the men. But everybody was also impressed by the young Frenchwoman’s grace and disciplined shot-making as she won the title, 10-8, 4-6, 9-7, the 44 games amounting to the longest female final until Margaret Court’s 14-12, 11-9 victory over Billie Jean King topped it by two games in 1970.”
Lenglen created such a stir that for years to come, she was the main attraction at The Championships each summer, further popularizing the sport and the tournament. Following her epic triumph in 1919, Lenglen won Wimbledon again in 1920 and 1921, needing only to win the “challenge round” singles final. She also won gold in women’s singles and mixed doubles at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium, losing only four games in the singles event – three of them in the gold medal match. In 1921, she made her only appearance at the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills, but was beaten by Molla Mallory in the second round, defaulting in a somewhat controversial manner due to whooping cough after losing the first set 6-2. It was Lenglen’s only loss in singles in an incredible eight-year span.
In 1922, the All-England Club finally upgraded its facilities to feed the appetite of the public for Lenglen and the tournament and moved its facility from the Worple Road location to the current larger location of the All England Club on Church Road, complete with its new Centre Court that held 13,589 fans – and increase from the previous main court that held 8,500. Lenglen avenged her controversial default to Molla Mallory at Forest Hills the year before in the first final in the new building, winning the final 6-2, 6-0 in only 26 minutes.
Wrote Collins of the continued popularity of the French woman at Wimbledon in 1922, “Lenglen’s appeal was such that before her first match, a 6-1, 7-5 decision over Britain’s Kitty McKane, “a line stretched more than a mile and a half from the underground station to the entrance to the All England Club,” wrote Wimbledon official Duncan Macaulay. “People used to call it the ‘Lenglen trail a-winding’ after the famous World War I song of those days [‘along, long trail. . .’].” Lenglen won three Wimbledon titles for the second time, teaming with Aussie Pat O’Hara Wood to win the mixed doubles, over Elizabeth Ryan and Lycett, 6-4, 6-3, and, with Ryan, the doubles over McKane and her sister, Margaret McKane Stocks, 6-0, 6-4.”
Lenglen eventually abandoned the glamour of the amateur game and turned pro in 1926. In her Wimbledon career, she won 90 of 92 career matches – 32-0 in singles, 31-1 in doubles and 27-1 in mixed doubles. She died 12 years later in 1938 of pernicious anemia.
Considering that a woman was a large part of the growth and stature of the All England Club and The Championships, it is remarkable to think that when the tournament became a pro event in 1968, it took until 2007 for the women to be paid as much as the men. Perhaps to add to the famous statue of Fred Perry on the grounds of the All England Club, the club should consider a statue of this French legend outside of Centre Court. After all, if it wasn’t for her, perhaps Wimbledon would not be the grand place and occasion that it is today.