Fox's 20th Century: Tennis - 1915-20: Suzanne Lenglen

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The Independent Online
FIRST SOME facts. In major championship finals she conceded an average of only 1.3 games per set, and 42 per cent of those she won 6- 0. Between 1919 and 1926 she suffered just one singles defeat, and then only because she was ill. On five occasions she won a tournament without losing a game. Yet she changed tennis more because of her style and appearance than her near invincibility.

Probably no match in the history of the game was as revolutionary as the meeting at Wimbledon in 1919 of this 20-year-old Frenchwoman and Mrs Lambert Chambers, of England, who had dominated before the First World War. Mrs Chambers wore what she considered appropriate: a gored skirt only a few inches off the ground and shirt buttoned at the wrist. Freedom of movement came second to etiquette.

Mlle Lenglen appeared in a one-piece dress with sleeves daringly cut below the elbow. But more sensationally, her hemline was just beneath the knee. Some women spectators muttered "disgusting". But they were to be entranced by a match that heralded a new approach to tennis as well as fashion.

Whereas the pre-war style of play had been stately, Lenglen introduced balletic movement. In a thrilling final, she darted about the court, apparently without a flaw in her play. Yet Chambers was a stern and experienced opponent. Lenglen eventually won 10-8 4-6 9-7.

The victory marked the beginning of the Lenglen era in which she confirmed that her ball control was near impeccable, her volleying powerful and her athleticism something never previously seen. At Wimbledon in 1925 she lost only five games in five rounds, and her only championship defeat was by Molla Mallory when, in 1921, she had become ill on the way to the United States from Europe. She dominated the game until 1926.

Her temperament had always been volatile, culminating in an hysterical withdrawal from Wimbledon when she misunderstood the time of the start and kept Queen Mary and the crowds waiting. On entering the court she received an unfriendly reception and was so unnerved that she burst into tears and refused to play.

She turned professional that year, which was regrettable since she met another great player, the hard-hitting American Helen Wills Moody only once. That match, in Cannes, also in 1926, saw Lenglen win 6-3 8-6. Yet many tennis fans insisted that Wills Moody was the greater of the two and had not reached her peak. Lenglen died in 1938.