"La Divine" Suzanne Lenglen lights up the Antwerp 1920 Games

Suzanne Lenglen – undoubtedly the greatest French female tennis player of all time. World champion at the age of 15, a six-time winner at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon and the first real global tennis star, she won the women’s singles tournament 99 years ago at Antwerp 1920, losing only four games in the process. She also claimed gold in the mixed doubles with Max Decugis, and bronze in the women’s doubles alongside Élisabeth d'Ayen.

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On the grass courts of the Beerschot Tennis Club in Kontich, on the outskirts of Antwerp, Suzanne Lenglen, then aged 21, sailed through the Olympic women’s singles tournament held from 16 to 24 August 1920. She dispatched her first three opponents in straight sets with no games lost: Belgium’s Marie Storms in the first round, Great Britain’s Winifred McNair in the second and Sweden’s Lily Strömberg-von Essen in the quarter-final. She finally conceded a game to another Swede, Sigrid Fick, in the semi-final (6-0, 6-1).

In the final, “La Divine” faced Great Britain’s Dorothy Holman, a champion at the World Covered Court Championships (wooden playing surface) in 1919 and at the World Hard Court Championships (clay surface) in 1920. Once again, Lenglen made short work of her opponent, winning 6-3 in the first set and 6-0 in the second to become, to this date, France’s only female Olympic champion in a sport that was on the women’s programme from 1900 to 1924 and returned in 1988. And she did it conceding only four games – a performance difficult to top.

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She also delivered in the mixed doubles with Max Decugis, Wimbledon champion in 1911 and finalist in 1912. After Spanish duo María Rospide and Manuel Alonso Areizaga forfeited their first-round match, Lenglen and Decugis beat British pair Winifred and Alfred Beamish in the second round. They dropped a set in the quarter-final against Germany’s Anne Chaudoir and Albert Lammers (6-3, 1-6, 6-1), but conceded just one game in the semi-final against Denmark’s Amoury Folmer-Hansen and Erik Tegner (6-0, 6-1). In the final, they defeated Great Britain’s Kitty McKane and Max Woosnam 6-4, 6-2.

In the first-ever women’s doubles tournament at the Games, Lenglen and compatriot Élisabeth d'Ayen lost in three sets in the semi-final against the eventual winners, Kathleen McKane Godfree and Winifred McNair (6-2, 3-6, 6-8). They went on to win the bronze medal without even playing, after Belgium’s Fernande Arendt and Marie Storms forfeited the match.

One of the greatest female tennis players of all time

These three Olympic medals came in the middle of what was a dazzling tennis career. The statistics are truly remarkable: 241 titles, a run of 181 consecutive wins and, in total, 341 victories and 7 defeats – a win percentage of 98 per cent. Born in Paris on 24 May 1899, Lenglen told Femina magazine on 1 July 1914: “There was one day I’ll never forget… I’d just turned 12, and my father came back from Compiègne and said: ‘Here, I’ve bought you a tennis racket and some balls. Let’s see what you can do in front of a net.’ He handed me a racket he’d bought for 3.50 francs, a kid’s racket, and some really hideous-looking tennis balls.” Lenglen swiftly demonstrated her prodigious talent, and her father became her coach. At the time of her interview with Femina, she had recently been crowned world champion, at the age of just 15, on the courts of the Stade Français in Saint-Cloud in the suburbs of Paris, where she defeated Great Britain’s Germaine Golding, 12 years her senior, on 9 June 1914 (6-2, 6-1).

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She continued to train during the First World War, often playing against men and taking inspiration from their more physical style of play, and moved with her family to Nice. After the war, she stormed to victory at Wimbledon in 1919, beating in the final the 1908 Olympic champion, and seven-time winner of the prestigious grass-court tournament between 1903 and 1914, Dorothy Lambert Chambers. Lenglen won further titles at the All England Club in 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923 and 1925. At Roland Garros, she won the tournament then known as the French Championships four times in a row from 1920 to 1923 and, after it was designated a major championship, in 1925 and 1926. She also repeated her success from 1914 to win the World Hard Court Championships in 1921, 1922 and 1923.

The “Match of the Century” in 1926

One of the most famous matches in history took place on 17 February 1926 at a tournament in Cannes, with Lenglen pitted against 20-year-old Hellen Wills Moody, the 1924 Olympic champion and a three-time winner of the US Open. It was billed as the “Match of the Century”, drawing more than 3,000 spectators and receiving international press coverage. Lenglen emerged victorious, winning 6-3, 8-6.

The first major global star of women’s tennis, Lenglen ended her amateur career that same year after an incident at Wimbledon when she failed to turn up for a match, which was considered an insult to the waiting Queen Consort. Lenglen later explained that she had been unaware she was supposed to be playing and was suffering from a heavy cold. She subsequently turned professional and embarked on an exhibition tour of the USA, attracting large crowds wherever she went. After retiring from tennis in 1928, she became a sportswear fashion designer, appeared in several advertisements, starred in films and set up her own tennis academy. She also wrote the seminal book Tennis By Simple Exercises.

Having been diagnosed with leukaemia, Lenglen died aged 39 on 4 July 1938 in Paris. On 6 July, in an article in the Gazette de Biarritz entitled “The world mourns Suzanne Lenglen”, the international outpouring of grief caused by Lenglen’s death was reflected in a piece translated from an article that had appeared in The Times: “It could almost be said that she, along with Bill Tilden, created the modern-day Wimbledon. Ms Lenglen was more than just a remarkable player. Whether or not it was because she was French and there was an unusual atmosphere after the war, her spirited, positive personality caused a sensation at Wimbledon in 1919 and, in time, even her headband became famous.”

An editorial in The New York Times said that it was difficult to argue with those who hailed Lenglen as the greatest female tennis player ever, while The Herald Tribune noted that her exceptional quality had earned her the right to be ranked alongside the top male players in history, and that the world of sport had lost one its most prominent figures.

One of the entrances to the Roland Garros Stadium and the second court at the complex were named after her, and many streets, avenues, parks and sports facilities throughout France also bear her name.