Tennis has a host of impressive rivals; Federer/Nadal, Nadal/Djokovic, Evert/Navratilova, King/Court, Borg/McEnroe, and Sampras/Agassi. Tennis, as a sport, is defined by its rivalries. The first great rivalry that captured the world’s attention was between two women who could not have been more dissimilar and only played each other once.
For 12 years Suzanne Lenglen star shined the brightest in female sports. She was “The most polarizing player of generation” . The phrase Prima Donna was created to describe a person like her. Her level of celebrity may have been higher than any other international sports star ever. She was as big as the Babe, but throughout Europe and the United States. She was considered a national treasure by her home country and yet was abandoned by them when she chose to go pro.
Suzanne Lenglen was born of a wealthy family in 1899 in Paris, France. She struggled with asthma as a child so her father made her take up tennis. Charles Lenglen, known as Papa to all, would be the first in what tennis would come to accept of monster parents. He would yell at his daughter when she would miss a shot as well as sneak her alcohol in the middle of matches (sometimes helping her hide them in ice cubes in her water bottle).
“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!”
But it worked, at 20 years old she stormed into Wimbledon and forever changed the sport. Lenglen changed the game, especially on the women’s side, in a way few have done since. In her inaugural year, Wimbledon was an open format, taking all who entered. She made it through to the final where she face off against 40-year old Dorothea Chambers. Chambers had won tennis’s most prestigious event 7 times and as a Brit held the hearts of the crowd. King George V and Queen Mary attended the event of old versus young. Chambers served underhand, Lenglen smacked it from a toss above her head. Lenglen moved toward the net, introducing the volley to the women’s game. The match would go down as one of the greatest Wimbledon Finals of all time. The final score was 10-8, 4-6, 9-7.
A diva was born.
Lenglen would garner around her a cult following. They would pack into her matches at Wimbledon and hang from the rafters at the French. Lenglen would be at the top of the game in tennis, though World War I would greatly hinder her ability to play. She would win 181 straight matches during this time. She would win Olympic Gold in 1920 and after her 1919 Wimbledon victory wouldn’t give up that title until 1925 when a rival rose to challenge her.
Helen Wills beginnings were similar to Lenglen. She was born to moderately wealthy parents in San Francisco in 1905. But that is where the similarities stop. San Francisco was a far cry from Paris, which had been the the center of culture for a hundred years at this point. Claude Monet was peacefully painting his garden in France and changing the art world when Wills entered the world. San Francisco was a growing town adjusting to life after the gold rush that had filled it quickly. It may no longer have been run by only prostitutes and gamblers, but it certainly wasn’t a cultural center, or perhaps a place Lenglen or any other European could find on the map.
California was still the frontier in 1905. In 1906, a great earthquake would bring San Fran to it’s knees. This was the world that Wills was raised in, the rush as the frontier of America vanished and Manifest Destiny ran its course. While Lenglen lived her life in the rise and fall of France. From the heights it stood at the dawn of the Great War to the devastation it would endure as the world went to war on it’s land. France was a beleaguered and retiring world power. America was quite the opposite, it was youthful and just coming into it’s own. The war that would cripple France would propel the United States to be internationally interest.
Wills was raised as any good, wealthy, Victorian girl ought to be in California. She was taught by her mother and then a governess. As the only child of Clarence and Catherine, it was Clarence who first introduced her to the game of tennis. Tennis was a popular sport at the time, and Wills idolized many of California’s best players.
The Great War stopped most sporting endeavors and Wills’ life changed as her father was sent to France and she went to boarding school in Vermont. When the war ended, they all returned to San Francisco and her tennis career really began.
In September of 1921, at 16 years old, she faced off against her rivals in the California State Open. She won both the singles and doubles title. The next year she entered her first U.S. Championships (later to be renamed the U.S. Open). At just 17, she would run through to the Final where she was finally defeated by Molla Mallory who had won the event the previous six years. Wills would win all 7 of the following U.S. Championships she entered.
She went to her first Wimbledon in 1924 as the now two time defending U.S. Champion. She would make it to the Finals where she would lose to Brit Kitty McKane. The same year, she went to Lenglen’s backyard, and won the Olympic Gold Medal in both women’s singles and doubles.
After the Great War, Lenglen was lifted up by her French countryman of a symbol of their national pride. But Lenglen struggled with her health all year in 1924, and though she didn’t lose a match, she didn’t enter into the Olympic Games and watched the gold medal she had hoisted 4 years before go to the quiet American teenager. Lenglen was entered in Wimbledon that year, but withdrew after the third round. But a wave of anticipation was building around these two women.
The year Lenglen sat out for health reasons, Wills won Wimbledon, the U.S. and the Olympic Gold. 1925 tennis fans started to clamor for a match up. That year Wills won every major she entered and Lenglen won every major she entered, unfortunately Wills didn’t go to Europe that year and Lenglen didn’t go to stateside.
Lenglen had come to the United States in 1921 to much fanfare. She was anything but gracious to her American hosts, insisting on wine before each match even though Prohibition was in affect (officials smuggled her wine, just to show how big of a star she was). She faced off against Molla Mallory, the American Wills would dethrone from the top of the American game a year later. Mallory beat Lenglen in the first set and Lenglen experienced dramatic coughing fits. She lost a few more points in the second set. Lenglen called the Umpire down and said she was unfit to continue. The New York crowd booed her.
Lenglen was famous for complaining of illness on the tennis court but being found partying the night away on the same days. Lenglen would not return to the States again as a amateur. Everyone knew, if Lenglen and Wills were going to play, Wills would have to go to her.
1926 dawned and these two women were the talk of the world. Lenglen was hot tempered and full of drama. The media adored her and she soaked in the attention.
The stress of her parents and the celebrity never seemed to phase the beautiful and vivacious Lenglen. She changed fashion, introducing knee length dresses to the sport. The French media adored her and she gave them much to talk about. From drinking alcohol on the court to shouting and other such antics. She was known for dating loosely and being driven around in chauffeurs. She didn’t care about convention, a philosophy that was gaining steam in the post-Victorian age of the 1920s.
When asked to describer her playing style she said, “My method? I don’t think I have any. I just throw dignity to the winds and think of nothing but the game. I try to hit the ball with all my force and send it where my opponent is not.”
Helen Wills was everything not that.
Wills was very shy, even among her competitors. She fled the spotlight, earning her the ire of the newspapermen who followed her.
“I’ll let my racket do the talking,” she always said. But in the roaring twenties, the newspapers didn’t want that. Even though her racket was speaking loud and clear.
Like Lenglen, Wills played different than the rest of the players. She hit the ball so hard. She trained with men and pounded the ball to the back of the court, forcing her competitors to play with speed and power they had never faced in a woman before. She was only 5 feet tall, but her competitors couldn’t believe how fast and hard the ball came at them. Her backhand was just as powerful and her forehand.
“She had a relentless, tactical game, employing a wicked slice serve to draw her opponents out wide and would follow with a finishing volley or an un-returnable overhead smash. She had great court coverage and instincts, combining athletic ability with match toughness to demoralize her opponents.”
Wills wore the same look to every match, a white visor and a knee length skirt and some light makeup. Lenglen, by contrast, wore bright colors and full makeup. Wills spoke little on the court, she was always so focused on the match. Lenglen would yell and scream, along with the antics of her parents on the sidelines.
In 1926, Lenglen was coming off a win at Wimbledon and the French, she was 27 years old and had won 8 Major Titles. 1926 would be the pinnacle of Lenglen’s career. Wills was only 20 years old, still a newcomer, but she already had three Major Titles and a Finals appearance at Wimbledon. She had only played in a couple of tournaments in 1925 because she had finished up her studies at the University of California in Berkeley. But now it was time. Wills went searching for a match against Lenglen.
They both entered the Carlton Club tournament in the French Riviera, the hype began to rise. Tennis fans and newspapers had hoped for their match up for years. Whereas Lenglen had the habit of faking illness when she started to lose, Wills did the opposite, playing through illnesses without blaming it on her poor play.
56 other women were entered in the tournament. But Wills and Lenglen proved they were the two best in the world when they cruised through the competition. When the day of the Final between these two arrived, tickets were worth 20 times as much as the Men’s U.S. Open Final that year. But it didn’t matter, the tickets sold out and there were spectators hanging from the building. Lenglen could sense this one mattered, it was in her home country against an up and coming star, a threat to her supremacy, she brought her best.
February 16, 1926 the two stars faced each other.
Lenglen was the first to serve, and won it at love. Wills went down 0-30 on her first service game but powered back to hold her serve and put the set 1-1. Wills rode the momentum into the third game which she won, handing out the first break of serve of the game and a 2-1 lead in the first set. The French crowd rose in ovation for the spunky American. Her final shot in the game was usually unhittable, but she had hit a cross court winner off of it. Everyone now knew, Wills could beat Lenglen, but would she?
But Lenglen hadn’t held an 181 straight match streak without being able to adjust. Lenglen noticed Wills never went down the line with her backhand. She adjusted her game. Lenglen started hitting her drop shots to bring her to the net and then passing her to the backhand side. The adjustment led to Lenglen rolling off 3 straight games to lead 4-2.
Wills started coming to net in anticipation and hit winner volleys past Lenglen. Wills broke again, Lenglen still led, but only 4 games to 3. Instead of passing shots, Lenglen hit lobs and was able to seal the set, 6-3.
Wills silently went to her bench. She had run a lot, but she wasn’t “Little Miss Poker Face” for no reason. She regularly started matches slowly. Whereas Lenglen dramatically went to her mother for some cognac.
The second set began with three hold so serve and again it was Wills to take the first break giving her a 3-1 lead. Wills had played aggressive, rushing toward the net and pounding Lenglen with volley’s. Lenglen stalled the match after losing her serve and rushed to her mother for more alcohol. After the stop in play, Lenglen came back to level the breaks and then held serve, 3 games to 3, second set. The 7th game took 14 points for Wills to finally win when Lenglen committed an unforced error.
Wills led, 4-3. Again, Lenglen left the court for more cognac. Back from her break, Lenglen went down 15-30 in her service game. The next point a ball near the service line and the sideline. The line judged called it in. Everyone who saw that ball, except the line judge thought it was out. As proof that it was probably out, Wills, usually stoic and accepting of missed calls, lost her temper on the line judge. Claiming it was out by inches. The spectators and journalists all agreed with Wills but the potential break points was now 30-30. Lenglen won the game and each player held their serve again to get it to 5 games apiece.
Wills was serving, Lenglen broke her comfortable. It was time for Lenglen to serve for the match leading 6-5 with a set. Holding the momentum and seeing her opponent was tired from such a physical first set, Lenglen went to 40-15, giving her two match points.
The match point was long, the power of each woman showed why they had risen above the rest of the field of female tennis players. Wills hit a crushing cross court forehand to the corner. All heard “Out”.
Cameras and fans rushed the field to congratulate Lenglen. But the out hadn’t come from the lines judge, it had come from a spectator. Order was hard to restore. But finally the confusion was settled, and the women returned to their places. Lenglen serving 40-30 for the set and match. Helen Wills rattled off three wins, the set was again tied, 6-6.
Wills, exhausted, couldn’t carry her momentum. She fell down 0-40 in her service game. She scrambled back, to get the game to deuce. Lenglen won three points to take the game and break. Again she would serve for the match.
Wills worked her way to a break point at 30-40. But Lenglen was too tough and brought the game back to deuce. Then Lenglen double faulted at 40-40, something unheard of for Lenglen who had made popular the overhead serve. But Lenglen saved her break chances again. Again Lenglen got it to match point, her third. Lenglen drew Wills in with a drop shot Wills was barely able to get back. Lenglen volleyed it back and claimed victory of the Match of the Century. 6-3, 8-6.
Everyone thought this was but the first of a host of encounters between these two. Lenglen had proved the better player, being smarter and a bit better able to adjust in the middle of the game. But Wills had proved her equal at every point of the match, running down balls and hitting with power Lenglen wasn’t used to.
But the rematch was not to be.
They both entered the French Open, but Helen Wills suffered an emergency appendectomy after the second round. She wouldn’t play in another Major in 1926. Suzanne Lenglen would go on and win the French Open, her 2nd French and 8th Major Title. It would also be her last.
Lenglen, who controversy seemed to shadow, would instigate drama in Wimbledon. 1926 was the 50 year anniversary of the tournament. Queen Mary wanted to attend one of Lenglen’s matches and so her match was postponed. Lenglen was irate. They rescheduled the match to appease Lenglen. In the press it was reported that her actions hand angered the Queen so the usually supportive British crowd was anything but in her next match. Lenglen withdrew having lost more games in her 3 rounds than she had the entire tournament the year prior. It was the last tournament Lenglen played as an amateur.
1926 was the only year these two meteors of the sport were in the same galaxy. From 1926 on Lenglen would descend. She signed with an American promoter for $50,000 to tour the United States and play against Mary K. Browne. In 1927, she made more than Babe Ruth who was starring with perhaps the greatest baseball team of all time. She made her money touring around the United States playing matches.
Her move to amateur angered her fellow Frenchman and she was kicked out of the French Tennis Federation and the All England Tennis and Lawn Club. Suzanne Lenglen retired at the age of 28 from tennis, she returned to her beloved Paris in 1930. Here she opened a shop and created the first tennis short for women. She died 4 years later from a disease that had been curable for years. She was only 39.
Suzanne Lenglen is beloved in her home country. The second most prestigious court at the French Open is named in honor of her.
Helen Wills, by contrast would etch her name in the Greatest of All-Time list. She would hold that title until Margaret Court came nearly 50 years later to take it from her. Wills would struggle with illness most of career but she never used it as a crutch.
She would come back from her appendectomy of 1926 and win the Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1927. From 1927 to 1938 she would win all but one Major she entered (that one loss came in the Finals). She went 55-1 at Wimbledon, 20-1 at the French and 50-2 at the U.S. Championships. In her 17 year career, plagued by illness, she won 19 Major Titles.
Helen Wills would grace the front page of TIME Magazine twice and be a central, though unwillingly so, figure of the Roaring 20s in America.
She would retire in 1938 to the reclusive life of an artist. She would marry twice and die at 1998 of natural causes. She would have no children and at 98 was to watch such greats as Martina Navratilova beat her record of most appearances in Wimbledon Finals and see Steffi Graf beat her record of 19 Major Titles. Only Serena Williams has passed her since. She still stands in 3rd in the Most Singles Major Titles, and she played 100 years ago and never played in Australia. She dominated her competition the likes of only a few can appreciate. But she also never had a rival to equal that of Suzanne Lenglen. A rivalry that could have been epic, yet was cut short. A rivalry that only met once and left everyone wanting more, even 100 years later.
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Larry Engelmann wrote a book on the two stars titled The Goddess and the American Girl which you can find here.