Suzanne Lenglen, the tennis world’s first diva, arrived at matches wearing bright red lipstick and a fur coat. In between sets, she sipped cognac. She had plenty of lovers. And though she was predisposed to mood swings and an occasional outburst of cursing, Lenglen never disputed her nickname — “The Goddess.”
The French legend played tennis a century before Venus and Serena Williams dominated Wimbledon — and where Venus, at 37, is seeking her sixth title this week.
In many ways, Lenglen is the athletic and cultural godmother to the Williams sisters. Physically ferocious. Always fashionable. A disrupter of convention.
She was also the greatest athlete and star of her time — bigger, some sportswriters argued, than Babe Ruth.
From 1919 to 1926, Lenglen won six times at both Wimbledon and the French Open, where a court at Roland-Garros is named after her. She won two Olympic gold medals. The number of matches she lost during that period — one — still boggles the mind. She ended her career with 250 championships. Her longest winning streak was 116 matches.
“She didn’t just beat her opponents, she demolished them,” Sports Illustrated said in a 1982 story remembering her life. “They measured their successes against Lenglen in points. A game was a triumph. A set was historic.”
The sports world had never seen anything like her.
On the court, Lenglen played like a man, the result of years training against the best male opponents her father, Charles Lenglen, could find in their native France. Charles was an intense father, obsessively studying tennis history and styles.
“The play of the English ladies,” he once wrote, “impressed me by its great regularity and calm, reasoned placing.” But men attacked. They owned the court with athleticism and brute force. “Why then, I asked myself, should not women accept the masculine method? Is there any good reason why they do not do so, or is it merely a matter of custom and precedent?”
Lenglen’s matches regularly sold out in advance, though not just because of her aggressive, almost acrobatic play. She shattered custom and precedent on the court in other visible ways, wearing silk tennis dresses cut above the knee and baring her arms with sleeveless tops — total no-nos back then.
“Beneath the silk dress she wore silk stockings rolled just above the knee, and who knew what else,” Sports Illustrated recounted. “Certainly not a petticoat.”
The silk chiffon Lenglen wore around her head was copied by her fans and, later, other women breaking free from custom and precedent. Though she was by no means strikingly beautiful — some profiles of the day called her homely and demeaned her nose — Lenglen’s style captivated women on both sides of the Atlantic.
Vogue featured her in a fashion spread, writing that “the French champion wears a tennis costume that is extraordinarily chic in the freedom, the suitability, and the excellence of its simple lines.” Lenglen was, the magazine recently said, “a paradigm of style.”
She was also a piece of work.
“She was continually doing in broad daylight what most people only dreamed of in the dark night,” the Sports Illustrated story said. “She drank, she danced, she smoked, she swore, she wore her skirts short and her arms bare and she had lovers — lots of them.”
Newspapers were constantly filled with stories about Lenglen’s latest love interests or party sightings. She often pleaded to play after lunchtime — not to carb load, but because she was frequently not home by breakfast time from the night before.
That life — pushing her body to limits on and off the court — eventually caught up with Lenglen. She retired when was just 27. By contrast, Venus and Serena have continued to play deep into their 30s. After leaving the game, Lenglen ran a tennis school and wrote about her career.
Then, in June 1938, Lenglen was diagnosed with leukemia. She went blind a few weeks later. She died on the Fourth of July at the age of 39.
Throughout her life, Lenglen was asked how she did it — how she dominated the game, became a star and changed the game forever.
No secret, she’d say. Just practice.
“But really deep in my mind,” she wrote, “I think there is another reason, an almost fundamental one.”
That reason, Lenglen said, is the soul of sports — and life.
What is it?
“The will to win.”
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