Rene Lacoste: Obituary

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Rene Lacoste, the crocodile shirt man, was the last of the four tennis-playing "Muscateers" whose deeds and duelling on the tennis courts of the world could match any adventures from the colourful pen of Alexandre Dumas.

Always frail and pale - even sickly - as a Parisian youth, Lacoste was the most unlikely survivor of the famous four Frenchmen who dominated the game in the 1920s when lawn tennis was developing from a fairly peaceful pastime into a well-to-do social highlight of the summer season. His legendary team mates were the volatile Jean Borotra, Toto Brugnon, "the Rock", and Henri Cochet, the magician who could play the most wonderful early-ball strokes without ever quite knowing how he did it.

By contrast, Lacoste was austere by nature and his remarkable successes came from careful planning rather than from inner inspiration. After every match he could be seen sitting quietly in a corner of the dressing room making careful notes about the match he had just played or on a competitor he had just seen. He noted their strengths and their weakenesses, their likes and dislikes. He also developed one of the first ball-lobbing machines in 1925, so as to improve his smash.

With his conservative outlook on life, it would have been remarkable if he had been anything but a baseliner, yet his success at this type of play came when the great Bill Tilden was thrilling the crowds with displays of pace and power, a kind of tennis which was to become the role model of today's champions.

Lacoste began playing at the age of 15 against the wishes of his father, who did not think he was physically strong enough to withstand the pressures of serious competition. Within a year the young Rene was nationally ranked in France, and by the age of 22 was internationally recognised as a star in the making.

From 1924 - two years after the All England Club grounds had moved to Church Road in Wimbledon - to 1929, when the creeper was beginning to grow around the Centre Court, not only did one or other of the Four Musketeers win the Men's Singles but, with the exception of 1926, they also produced the runner-up. Lacoste became champion in 1925, beating Borotra, and again in 1928 defeating Cochet, both matches in four sets. He won the Wimbledon men's Doubles in 1925 with Borotra as his partner; a chalk-and-cheese partnership if there ever was one.

Lacoste went on to defeat Borotra in the final of the US Championships in 1926, when the event was played on the rather dicey grass courts of the West Side Club, Forest Hills, New York, but it was his triumph the following year with his 11-9, 6-3, 11-9 defeat of Bill Tilden, who had held the title for six consecutive years, which really rocked the American tennis establishment.

With his all-conquering team mates as his only serious threat, Rene Lacoste won the French Singles in 1925, 1927 and 1929, and the Men's Doubles in 1925 and 1929.

He also played Davis Cup for France from 1923 to 1928, missing the odd match because of sickness, and France won the Cup for six consecutive years (1927-1933). This was when the event was treated with all the enthusiasm and atmosphere of a Super-Bowl and the Grand National rolled into one.

Because of ill health, Lacoste had to retire in 1929, at the age of 25, but by then he had already discovered romance for the first time and married the beautiful French golf champion Simone Thion de la Chaume.

It is ironical that in spite of all his international successes, Rene Lacoste will be best remembered for the tiny green crocodile embroidered on the sportswear much beloved by beautiful sun-and-social seekers from the Cote d'Azur to Bondi Beach.

It became his "trade mark" long before he thought of going into the up- market clothing trade. At first, his contemporaries called him "the crocodile" because once he got his teeth into an opponent he would not let go. And then, almost by coincidence, when he spotted an expensive alligator suitcase in a shop window, his Davis Cup captain said he would buy it for him if he won his matches. Lacoste obliged and from then on he had the green crocodile embroidered on his own blazer pocket. This was probably his one and only extroversion.

He started La Societe Chemise Lacoste in 1934 and ran it "like a hobby" till his son, Bernard, took it over in 1964 and expanded it into a worldwide operation. (Lacoste himself had other business involvements, including representing Bendix-Lockheed in France.)

Perhaps now he is dead, those in charge will reproduce the green crocodile in black. When Mr Rolls died, the "RR" was altered from red to black and, after all, Rene Lacoste was something of a tennis-playing Rolls-Royce, for you could almost hear his clock ticking even when he was playing at full speed. It would be a better tribute than any crocodile tears.

Rene Lacoste, tennis player and businessman: born Paris 2 July 1904; married Simone Thion de la Chaume (three sons, one daughter); died St Jean de Luz 12 October 1996.

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