Suzanne Lenglen: The Tennis Champion Called ‘La Divine’

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Suzanne Lenglen: The Tennis Champion Called ‘La Divine’
As a child, I wore my headband flat against my fringe. My dad told me I looked like “Suzanne Long-Long.” My English father’s pronunciation befuddled my little ears. Her name was, of course, Suzanne Lenglen, an athlete whose career had ended even before my father was born. By the end of the 1920s, Suzanne Lenglen was the most famous (or infamous) athlete, newsmaker or celebrity in Europe. She shone as the greatest tennis player in the world. A century later, the French Open of tennis runs this year from May 22 to June 11, 2023 at the Stade Roland-Garros on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne. The French Open along with the Australian Open, the Wimbledon Championships and the US Open, comprises the annual Grand Slam of Tennis. Played on the best clay court in the world, the French Open is regarded as the most physically challenging of the four. First held in 1891, the French National Championships were a men’s competition played at the Stade Français, in the Paris suburb of Saint-Cloud. Six years later, women’s matches were added to the tournament. In the days of classic tennis, players competed for silver trophies, not prize purses worth millions. But there was always intrigue and a cast of newsworthy characters. One of which, Suzanne Lenglen, was dubbed La Divine of French tennis. She had a winning percentage of 98%. She won tournament after tournament, losing only one game in seven years. French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen at the French Championships, Photo Credit: Agence de presse Meurisse/ Wikimedia Commons Born in the 16th arrondissement of Paris in 1899 in the private hamlet of Boulainvilliers, Lenglen triumphed over a rather sickly childhood – she suffered from asthma and insomnia – and went on to excel at a variety of sports. She earned her chops playing a string and spool game of dexterity called Diabolo on the front in Nice, the crowds boosting her confidence. To boost her strength, her father Charles, known to all as Papa, presented Suzanne with her first tennis racquet when she was just 11. Recognizing her precocious talent, Papa Charles improvised a rigorous daily routine for his daughter which included skipping, sprinting, swimming, gymnastics and dance. Her precise footwork was practiced on a tennis court marked like a checkerboard. Charles dotted the court with handkerchiefs to use as  targets. When Suzanne proved her aim, the hankies were folded ever smaller until they were replaced with coins. Though just a girl when she came into the limelight, Charles taught her to play like a man, but she surpassed her male counterparts with her agility and accuracy. Suzanne Lenglen (left: with a tennis racket; right: with her father at a ping pong table. Credit: Jean Laporte in 1 July 1914 edition of Femina / Wikimedia Commons At 15, Lenglen was the youngest champion in history when she won her debut game at the 1914 French Championships. At the age of 20, she made a smash at Wimbledon. In less than a decade from receiving her first racquet, she won the women’s championship at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics.
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Lead photo credit : Photo Credit: Bain News Service

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A freelance writer and amateur historian, Hazel knew she wanted to focus on the lives of French artists and femme fatales after an epiphany at the Musée d'Orsay. A life-long learner, she is a recent graduate of Art History from the University of Toronto. Now she is searching for a real-life art history mystery to solve.

Comments

  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2023-06-08 06:04:50
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Wonderful article, Hazel! Fascinating and enlightening. Merci beaucoup!

    REPLY

  • Benjamin Feldman
    2023-05-27 01:23:02
    Benjamin Feldman
    Thank you for your wonderful vivid and totally accurate story about Suzanne Lenglen. My name is Benjamin Feldman, and I am a 70-year old historian and author living an working in New York City since 1969. Suzanne Lenglen is featured prominently in my latest book, a biography of a man name Charles Wilen, who was Suzanne's commercial agent during 1925, when she decided to turn professional and hired a sports promoter in NYC to arrange exhibition matches for her in the USA and Canada the following year. I purchased the Wilen family archive from Charles' grandson two years ago, and it includes many contracts, photos and miscellaneous other images and documents from that time period and before. Much of it was sold by me to a museum a year or so ago, but I retained a number of very important autographed photos etc. as my sole property. I have visited the Stade Roland-Garros and the Nice Lawn Tennis Club on Avenue Suzanne Lenglen and would be happy to share more with you. My. phone number is 1 917 359 1357. I will be visiting Paris for part of early September this year. I'd love to meet you. Your English writing is quite good, mais je parle Français couramment aussi....

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    •  Hazel Smith
      2023-05-29 06:46:17
      Hazel Smith
      Thanks Benjamin, for comments. Your project sounds very interesting. Me, I'm an avid researcher and delve into a wide array of topics. Malheureusement, je parle l'anglais, seulement. Je suis Canadienne et ne serai pas en France cet automne. Merci!

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