So you think Novak Djokovic’s 40-match win streak is impressive? Well, this birthday girl – born today, May 24, in 1899, once won 182 straight matches from 1921 to 1926. Suzanne Lenglen, the woman whose name graces the second-biggest stadium on the grounds at Roland Garros was born 112 years ago Tuesday. Here’s how Hall of Fame tennis journalist Bud Collins describes her in his famous volume THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS ($35.95, New Chapter Press, available for sale here: http://amzn.to/kLrGQn)
Hall of Fame—1978
In the days of ground-length tennis dresses, Suzanne Rachel Flore Lenglen played at Wimbledon with her dress cut just above the calf. She wept openly during matches, pouted and sipped brandy between sets. Some called her shocking and indecent, but she was merely ahead of her time, and she brought France the greatest global sports renown it had ever known.
Right-hander Lenglen was No. 1 in 1925-26, the first years of world rankings. She won Wimbledon every year but one from 1919 through 1925, the exception being 1924, when illness led to her withdrawal after the fourth round. Her 1919 title match, at the age of 20, with 40-year-old Dorothea Douglass Chambers is one of the hallmarks of tennis history.
Chambers, the seven-time champion, was swathed in stays, petticoats, high-necked shirtwaist, and a long skirt that swept the court. The young Lenglen was in her revealing dress that shocked the British at the sight of calves and forearms. After the second set, Lenglen took some comfort from her brandy and won, 10-8, 4-6, 9-7, in a dramatic confrontation, rescuing two match points. After her victory, Lenglen became easily the greatest drawing card tennis had known, and she was one of those who made it a major box-office attraction. Along with a magnetic personality, grace and style, she was the best woman player the world had seen.
She had first attained prominence as a wonderchild at 15, winning a 1914 tournament called the World Hard Court [clay] Championships in Paris over Germaine Golding, 6-2, 6-1. However, World War I broke out shortly after that, and she had to wait five years to get to Wimbledon, which re-opened in 1919 ready for La Belle Suzanne’s takeover of the world stage.
She was golden at the 1920 Olympics, taking the singles over Brit Dorothy Holman, 6-3, 6-0, and the mixed with Max Decugis over Brits Kitty McKane (Godfree) and Max Woosnam, 6-4, 6-2. But she didn’t play the 1924 Games in Paris.
Lenglen, born May 24, 1899 in Paris, played an all-court game such as few had excelled at. She moved with rare grace, unencumbered by the tight layers of garments others wore. She had extraordinary accuracy with her classical, rhythmic groundstrokes. For hours daily, her father, Charles Lenglen, had her direct the ball at a handkerchief he moved from spot to spot. Her control was so unfailing that she thought it shameful to hit the ball into the net or beyond the lines. In addition, she had so keen a sense of anticipation that she invariably was in the right position to meet her opponent’s shot.
Her 1926 match against Helen Wills in a tournament at Cannes, France, caused a sensation, and world-wide attention and coverage. Tickets brought unheard-of wealth to scalpers, and the roofs and windows of apartments and hotels overlooking the court were crowded with fans. Lenglen was on the verge of collapse during the tense match, but was saved by smelling salts and brandy and defeated the 20-year-old Wills, 6-3, 8-6. Lenglen’s career was not free of setbacks, however. In the 1921 U.S. Championships, having lost the first set badly to Molla Mallory, Lenglen walked weeping and coughing to the umpire and said she could not continue, defaulting the match. She made up for it the next year at Wimbledon by defeating Mallory, 6-2, 6-0, in the final and did not lose another match for the remainder of her amateur career.
At Wimbledon in 1926, Lenglen had a terrifying ordeal. She kept Queen Mary waiting in the Royal Box for her appearance when, owing to a misunderstanding or a failure of communications, Lenglen did not have the correct information about the time she was to be on court. The ghastly error was too much. She fainted and Wimbledon saw her no more as a competitor. She withdrew from the tournament, and that year turned professional, going on tour of the U.S. with a troupe of newly-declared pros under the management of American promoter C.C. Pyle, winning all 38 matches against ex-U.S. champ, 35-year-old Mary K. Browne. It marked the beginning of professional tennis as a playing career.
Suzanne’s career numbers were staggering. According to the research of Wimbledon librarian Alan Little, in his biography, Suzanne Lenglen: Tennis Idol of the Twenties, she won 250 championships: 83 singles (7 without the loss of a game), 74 doubles, 93 mixed. Losing one singles match in eight years—that to Mallory at the U.S. of 1921—she was unbeaten in 1919 and 1920, 1922-23-24-25-26. Sandwiching the Mallory defeat were winning streaks of 116 matches before, and 182 after to the close of her amateur days. At Wimbledon, her greatest showplace, she won 90 of 92 matches—32-0 singles, 31-1 doubles, 27-1 mixed. She never married, despite many romances, the most serious with Baldwin Baldwin, an American millionaire who accompanied her on the professional tour.
At the age of 39, Lenglen died of pernicious anemia, July 4, 1938, in Paris. She was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1978. There was speculation that her health had been undermined by her long hours of practice as a young girl. But she had brought the glamour of the stage and the ballet to the court, and queues formed at tennis clubs where before there had been indifference. She had emancipated the female player from layers of starched clothing and set the short-hair style as well. She had brought tennis into a new era.
MAJOR TITLES (21)
French singles, 1925, 1926; Wimbledon singles, 1919, 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1925; French doubles, 1925, 1926; Wimbledon doubles, 1919, 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1925; French mixed, 1925, 1926; Wimbledon mixed, 1920, 1922, 1925.
SINGLES RECORD IN THE MAJORS
French (10-0), Wimbledon (32-0), US, (0-1).