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Suzanne Lenglen: the woman who revolutionized tennis

Goran Blazeski

Suzanne Rachel Flore Lenglen was born on May 24th, 1899, in Paris, to Charles Lenglen and Anais Lenglen. As a child, Suzanne had various health problems including asthma. In order to improve his daughter’s health, Charles thought that it would be useful if Suzanne played tennis and kept her strength up.

At the time there weren’t many tennis instructors, so Suzanne’s father decided to take the role of an instructor and teach her how to play tennis. He was a passionate tennis fan who often studied the tactics and the skillful movements of the players. In that way, he was able to teach Suzanne everything she needed to know about tennis.

French tennis player Suzanne Langlen
French tennis player Suzanne Langlen

At first, Charles didn’t think that Suzanne will show any special skills, but she proved him wrong. Instead of teaching her to play patiently and carefully like many of the female tennis players at the time, he taught her to play more aggressively with the strength and speed of a man, but with the grace of a woman.

In 1912, she became a member of the Nice Tennis Club. One year later she won the Nice Tennis Club championship. By the age of 15, she won the Italian Championship, played in the final of the French Championships, and won the World Hard Court Championship, becoming the youngest ever major tournament champion. She holds the record to this day. Suzanne became the most popular sports hero in France.

Lenglen with Bill Tilden
Lenglen with Bill Tilden

After this, her career was put on hold for the next five years due to the World War I. However, she continued to practice during this time and after the end of World War I, Suzanne was ready to compete at Wimbledon. She managed to reach the final of the tournament where she faced Lambert Chambers– seven-time Wimbledon champion. Suzanne upset Chambers, 10-8, 4-6, 9-7, in a victory that led to her immortality at Wimbledon.

She dominated at Wimbledon the following years, winning the tournament five times in the next six years. She won against Douglas in 1920, Elizabeth Ryan in 1921, Molla Mallory in 1922, Kathleen Godfree in 1933, and Joan Fry Lakeman in 1925.

Despite her flamboyant and sometimes controversial appearance on the court, Suzanne Lenglen was also known as a very graceful player
Despite her flamboyant and sometimes controversial appearance on the court, Suzanne Lenglen was also known as a very graceful player

Besides being a tennis champion, Suzanne was also the first female tennis celebrity. She had bob style black hair on which she wore her trademark– a bandana. She wore scandalously short dresses with short sleeves, displaying bare arms.

She entered tennis courts wearing fur coats, full makeup and painted nails. She often brought a flask of brandy or cognac which she drank between sets. “Her movement, it looks like that of a fairy.

She walks like a ballerina on her toes. She moves so lightly. Just grace. Pure grace.” – said Larry Engelmann, the author of a book about Suzanne. The French press called her ‘the Goddess who revolutionized tennis’.

In 1926, Suzanne gave up her amateur status and became a professional player. During the final days of her life, she ran a tennis camp for children in Paris.

Court Suzanne Lenglen. Photo Credit
Court Suzanne Lenglen Photo Credit

During her career, Suzanne won a total of 241 titles. She died of pernicious anemia in 1938 at the age of 39.

Read another story from us: The origins of golf in the Netherlands and Scotland

She will be remembered as the tennis player who revolutionized women’s tennis. Today, the French Open venue’s second show court is named after her.

Goran Blazeski

Goran Blazeski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News