Next week the US Open Tennis Championships begin in Flushing Meadow, New York. On hand will be the fashionistas of tennis: the Williams sisters. The dominating duo, apart from holding the number two and three spots (Serena and Venus, respectively), are also known for their attendance at movie premieres, fashion decisions, and hobnobbing with the rich and famous. They’re tennis celebrities who happen to dominate the sport.
And while there isn’t exactly a long legacy of female tennis celebrities (with all due respect to Wills, King, Evert, Navratilova, and Graff, among others) who dominate, the phenomenon can be traced back to one fille: Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen.
Lenglen dominated the British and French game from 1919-1926, winning 25 Grand Slam titles. Perhaps more impressive are her 81 singles titles, seven of which she achieved without losing a single game. She also showed herself an excellent doubles partner, winning 73 doubles titles and 8 mixed doubles titles. Oh yeah, and throw in an Olympic gold medal from the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.
Her first appearance at a Grand Slam tournament was Wimbledon in 1919. It was her first tournament on grass, and she edged Dorothea Douglass Chambers in close sets: 10-8, 4-6, 9-7. British audiences were awed by the young Lenglen’s grace, agility, and precision on the court but were shocked and awed by her manner of dress.
For her first appearance (and win) at Wimbledon, Lenglen wore makeup for the occasion. Worse still, she doffed the waist-cinching whaleboned corset and petticoats and instead donned a dress that exposed BOTH her forearms and her calves. And although I’m pretty sure dogs were not allowed on the pristine green blades of Wimbledon, she was famous for taking nips of brandy between sets.
So here we are in the 1920s with a rule-breaking, dominating trendsetter redefining what it meant to be a woman and what it meant to be a female tennis player. Female sports, save for a few exceptions (iceskating, gymnastics, etc.), are constantly overshadowed by their male counterparts. This was exceptionally true almost a hundred years ago. But it takes someone like Lenglen, like the Williams sisters, to bring presence to a game. To dominate players and to do it with a personality. To become so much more than a tennis player.
For her ability to do all these things, the French press nicknamed her “The Divine.”
The Divine made her way across the pond in 1921 to play the US Open. American audiences were eager to see The Divine, in all her bare-calved and blue silk-bandeaud glory. But it was clear from warm-ups that The Divine was feeling less than heavenly that day, and she had to be carried off the court, according to the New York Times. According to some sources, she had contracted whooping cough.
Americans, particularly the press, were not impressed by the young French woman. They wanted to believe the hype. They saw evidence of the young woman’s flair for fashion but nothing in the way of tennis dominance. Lenglen left America disappointing and disappointed.
But a champion doesn’t quit, and in 1926 Lenglen returned to the States for an American tennis tour that was bankrolled by American entrepreneur Charles C. Pyle. Lenglen and Mary K. Browne were the main attraction of a tennis tour that included males. The twenty-something Lenglen defeated the elder stateswoman Browne, 30 matches to 0.
Exhausted from the lengthy playing and traveling, Lenglen returned to France and opened up a tennis school with her lover Jean Tillier. She died in 1938 of pernicious anemia.
N.B. The winner of the women’s singles title at the French Open at Roland Garros receives the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. No translation necessary.
Tracey McCormick is Managing Editor at GreatHistory.comAbout the Author: Tracey's interests in history range from the ancient Greeks to the medieval monks to the women of the American West. She holds a B.A. in History, Math/Philosophy, and the Classics. When not writing, editing, or teaching, she's out exploring, via her mountain bike, the Anasazi ruins in and around her home state of Colorado.