Obituary: Jean Borotra
Monday 18 July 1994
TODAY young tennis fans at Wimbledon scream at the sight of Andre Agassi; in the 1980s similar crowds loved to hate John McEnroe and in the 1970s Bjorn Borg had to be given police protection to prevent him being mobbed by teeny-boppers while on his way to the courts. But if you could roll the attractions of all three of these players into one hero the result would still fall short of Jean Borotra, winner of the singles title at Wimbledon in 1924 and 1926.
Borotra was the greatest matinee idol lawn tennis has ever produced. Showman that he was, he often said that he wished he could make his final exit while serving an ace on the centre court at the All England Club. Although this was not to be, he was still playing his own brand of doubles when he was well into his nineties.
Born in 1898 in Arbonne, near Biarritz, Borotra came into competitive tennis when it was developing from a social pastime into a sport with mass appeal. His unequalled personality was a vital part of the mystique that makes Wimbledon what it is today: a multi-million pound world-wide television spectacular.
The flappers of the Twenties flocked in their hundreds to see Borotra in action: and what action it was. He played the game as if he had invented it. In his long white flannels and his black beret he rushed into the net and produced acrobatic volleys which had his admirers swooning with delight. Even in the middle of his toughest matches he would catch the eye of the prettiest girls on the sidelines and smile at them. And much to the annoyance of some opponents he even found time to kiss a few hands between points. Borotra's contests were not so much matches as theatrical productions. It may seem strange in these cynical times, but then only the uncharitable suggested that there could be a hint of gamesmanship in his relationship with spectators.
In fact Borotra was very much a gentleman. He was a successful businessman, and to the end his elegant dress and his manners made it seem as if he had just stepped from a Jane Austen drawing-room. But behind the smiles and the polite gestures he had the heart of a tiger, albeit a playful one.
Borotra was one of the 'Four Musketeers', the Frenchmen who dominated the tennis world in the 1920s. Rene Lacoste was the youngest and most austere, studying strokes and tactics; Henri Cochet was the cool and nonchalant magician, and Toto Brugnon was the rock on which most of their successful doubles pairings were built. But it was the volatile Borotra who was the inspiration of the greatest team France, or any other country for that matter, has ever produced. They helped France win the Davis Cup from 1927 to 1932 without a break, and this in spite of Fred Perry's playing for Britain in 1931. In total Borotra won 44 of his 54 Davis Cup rubbers.
Besides his two wins at Wimbledon, Borotra reached the final there a further three times, on each occasion losing to one or another of his French team-mates. He was successful at doubles, both with Lacoste and Brugnon, and with the great Suzanne Lenglen won the Wimbledon mixed doubles in 1925, the sensational year when she was late for her match and Borotra, at the request of the referee, was asked to go into the ladies dressing-room where Lenglen was having a fit of hysterics to try to persuade her to go on to court. Borotra later boasted that he was the only man to have entered the ladies dressing-room at Wimbledon, but that is not quite true for the All England Club later employed a blind male masseur for the lady competitors.
Borotra won the French singles title in 1924 and 1931 and the Australian title in 1928. In the United States his major successes included winning the National Indoor Championships four times. In all he won 19 titles - in singles, doubles and mixed doubles - at the Australian, French, Wimbledon and US championships.
During the Second World War Borotra accepted the position of Minister of Sport for the Petain government, but when he resigned the post in 1942 he was arrested whilst trying to escape to North Africa and imprisoned. After his serious playing days Borotra did a lot of powerful work for the French Federation and the International Tennis Federation and supported the opening up of the game to professionals in 1968.
He received many high honours during his colourful life including being made a Commander of the Legion d'Honneur, being appointed honorary CBE, and receiving the Croix de Guerre in both World Wars, but the one that gave him most pleasure was that of seeing his name on the list of champions at the All England Club where in his playing days he used to arrive on the eve of the event in a chauffeur-driven Hispano-Suiza with half a dozen rackets and a case which included white tie and tails for dinner that night. Jean Borotra was a man with style.
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