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The Reluctant Queens of the Court
Theodore M. O'Leary
May 14, 1962
After avoiding each other for years, Helen Wills and Suzanne Lenglen met in an unimportant tournament in Cannes
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May 14, 1962

The Reluctant Queens Of The Court

After avoiding each other for years, Helen Wills and Suzanne Lenglen met in an unimportant tournament in Cannes

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The most eagerly awaited and universally talked about tennis match ever played did not take place at Wimbledon, Forest Hills, Melbourne or Sydney. Tilden didn't play in it, neither did Budge, Vines, Kramer, Sedgman, Hoad or Gonzalez. Matched instead were two young women—Suzanne Lenglen of France and Helen Wills of California. They played on February 16, 1926 in the finals of a small regional tournament sponsored by the Carlton Club of Cannes. All over the world, people who had scarcely even given a thought to tennis before waited upon the outcome. When the match was over, the results were printed, not on the sports pages, but on the front pages of most of the world's newspapers.

It was unthinkable that the match would not someday be played, but it had remained unplayed so long that an almost unbearable tension had set in among the partisans of the two players. Aside from the fact that the match brought together two world-ranking tennis players, it also pitted what Miss Wills's supporters liked to think of as American simplicity and innocence against French guile and sophistication.

The two players had virtually impeccable records. Suzanne, then 26, had lost only one singles match since 1919—a default to Molla Mallory of the United States in the second round (seedings were not used then) of the 1921 American championships at Forest Hills after Mrs. Mallory had won the first set 6-2. Suzanne had won at Wimbledon in 1919, 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923 and 1925. Miss Wills had won the U.S. title in 1923 when she was only 17 years old and had retained her title the next two years. She later won four more U.S. singles titles. Helen exemplified power, particularly off her forehand. Suzanne played with craft and the grace of a dancer; she covered the tennis court with an effortless glide.

When Helen arrived on the Riviera in the winter of 1926 everyone knew why she was there but nobody was sure when she would play Suzanne. As boxers, milers and other athletes are still doing today, neither girl hastened to commit herself to a match with the other. In the previous tournaments, Suzanne confined herself to the doubles if Helen entered the singles, or if Suzanne entered the singles, Helen played in the doubles. They didn't find themselves on the opposite side of a net until the finals of a tournament at Nice, and then it was only in mixed doubles.

The two girls maintained the fiction of a high personal regard for each other. Suzanne, who had a gift for being patronizing, told reporters she thought Helen was "a sweet child." But later she began psyching Helen. After watching her in a mixed doubles match Suzanne remarked most audibly, "Isn't that comical?" and went off for tea. They also sought to outploy each other in their dress. Once Helen asked photographers to delay taking pictures of her for a day until a couple of new outfits arrived from Paris. The distinguished American diplomat and author Brand Whitlock found his diplomatic prowess tested when he was dragged into the controversy. Someone had said that Helen would be handicapped because her skirt was longer than Suzanne's, which, in the delicious phrasing of one writer, "just kissed her knees." Whitlock remarked that Helen's skirt was merely decently long, and when reporters asked him if by that he meant that Suzanne's was indecent, he took refuge in the assertion that a few inches one way or another would not decide the feminine tennis championship of the world.

Reporters assigned to the two players were hard pressed at times to sustain interest, as tournament after tournament went by without pitting Helen and Suzanne in the singles. To keep in trim they limbered up with similes. One described Suzanne as "charging along on tiptoes like a high-strung racer," while Helen "walked flat-footed like an Indian or a detective." Suzanne wore a "fixed, frozen smile like a toothpaste advertisement," while Helen, "pale and tight-lipped, was the Coolidge of tennis."

Finally, to the vast relief of everyone, both players sent in their entries for the Carlton Club tournament, to be played on the club's pink clay courts, with only limited gallery space. The club was operated by the Burke brothers, tennis professionals, and, presumably speaking for them, one of their associates, Bernie Hicks, said in a notable display of candor: "We are out to get the coin. It's purely a question of dough." Hicks was not an Oxford man. In pursuit of their aim the Burkes sold exclusive newsreel rights for $100,000, and wangled $4,000 out of a tennis ball manufacturer for the privilege of letting him provide the balls for the match. The newsreel deal fell through when both Helen and Suzanne insisted that the match be open to all motion picture cameras.

Never ones to encourage needless expense, the Burkes prevailed upon some Englishmen to put up a handsome gold cup for the winner. It was reported that the largest contributor, Sidney Beers, had simply dipped into his winnings of $200,000 at the Cannes gaming tables. Around those tables the match became as consuming a topic of interest as what color or number was coming up next.

The commercial aspects of the match were further accentuated when rumors began floating about that Suzanne's father, Papa Lenglen (who had taught her not only to play tennis but to know the value of a franc), had seen to it that his daughter would be cut in for $12,000 of the gate receipts, which ultimately totaled around $40,000. An Englishwoman, who also knew the value of a franc as well as a shilling, got her hands on a large block of 50-franc tickets, which she later peddled for 1,000 francs each.

The match was called for 11 o'clock in the morning. Years later Miss Wills was to recall that the night before, after a dinner of clear soup, filet mignon, green peas, boiled new potatoes, ice cream and cake, she went up to her room and, despite the repeated strains of the season's top hit, Valencia, which floated up from the terrace below, slept soundly.

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