Can you guess who this severe and scary looking woman is? If you think she might be a famous tennis player – you're right! (If you think this might be a publicity shot of Joan Crawford in full Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? make-up, well, that's what I thought at first too.)
This woman is, in fact, French tennis legend Suzanne Lenglen, or “La Divine” as she was known in her day. And with the French Open officially getting under way today, I think its time we all get to know her. Why?
- The trophy awarded to the female French Open champion each year is named after her – the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.
- The second court at Roland Garros Stadium is named after her – Court Suzanne Lenglen.
- She won the French Open six times in the Amateur Era, tying the Open Era record held by Steffi Graf. The only woman to win more than either of them is Chris Evert, who won seven times.
And was she good? Take a look at this photo collage of La Divine and tell me what you think:
Très divine, oui? You and I wish we were that athletic.
So what's her story?
Suzanne Rachel Flore Lenglen was born on May 24, 1899 in Compiegne, France. While vacationing as a child on the French Riviera, her father became convinced she needed to take up tennis and he became her coach and instructor. He made the important decision that Suzanne needed to play less of a “girly” style of tennis, the only kind women played at that time, and needed to adopt a more aggressive style, similar to the way men played.
This one decision resulted in producing one of the best female tennis players of all time. Lenglen won Wimbledon and the French Open six times each (!!!) and from 1919 to 1926 she lost only one match!
But it wasn't just her incredible athleticism that made Lenglen stand out. While other women were playing in corsets, starched collars and ties, Lenglen hired fashion designed Jean Patou to come up with a sleeveless, loose dress she could play in that hit just below her knees. Meaning that, on occasion, with all of her leaping and diving, one might actually catch a glimpse of some skin when Lenglen played! To top this look off, Lenglen usually wrapped her hair in a bandeau fashioned with a jeweled pin, usually work make-up on court, was prone to emotional outbursts, and often sipped brandy between sets (I'm liking her more and more).
After retiring from tennis, Lenglen opened a tennis school and wrote several tennis books. In June of 1938, she was diagnosed with leukemia. She went blind just three weeks after her diagnosis was made public. She died on July 4, 1938 at the very young age of 39.
Do you think Suzanne Lenglen has been forgotten, her memory left in the red clay dust of Roland Garros? Désolé, mais pai mon chéri! (Meaning – Sorry, but no my darling!) (I hope.)
For example, for his Spring-Summer 2010 Hermes collection, no less a designer than Jean Paul Gaultier took inspiration from La Divine in sending looks like this out on the runway:
Not really anything you could play tennis in, but très chic nonetheless.
Now, just in case you're questioning my original Suzanne Lenglen/Joan Crawford comparison, here's a little photo collage showing you just how closely these two resemble each other:
Très effrayant, oui?
Final note – In case its not obvious, and I think it probably is, I don't speak French. I only hope that my attempts to use Google's free English to French translator will not result in some type of international tennis debacle.