"On the other hand, when I played against Tilden in the championships at Forest Hills we both played very well. I happened to win, although he had been leading in all three sets. After all, I had to win it in three sets. My future wife was there watching!"
At an age when most tennis players are still approaching their prime, the frail Lacoste retired from tournament tennis, partially on the advice of his doctor and partially because he considered the "play" phase of his life over.
"I did not find it possible to do both serious work and serious tennis," Lacoste says. "I have the one-track mind. I cannot subdivide myself. And besides, one had to live. Being an amateur tennis player then was the same as now. You could make a little money—I was paid I a word by
The New York Times
for some articles about my game—but I did not fool myself; it was not because of my good writing that I got so much money. So I retired and went into my father's company. He was the president of the Hispano-Suiza automobile company. And then I broke away and began going in my own directions. But I was never permitted to forget tennis. Wherever any of the Mousquetaires went in France, our record went with us. We have remained French heroes for 40 years and for one reason only: because no French team except ours ever won the Davis Cup. If one had, then we would be forgotten. Every now and then the four of us still play an exhibition. We hit a few balls and look ridiculous and retire gracefully. Tennis is too much of a game for me now. I play golf. The only tennis I play is against the wall, testing my rackets. So now you know my life story: from the wall to the wall in 50 years."
Neither Ren� Lacoste nor his bride, daughter of the director of the Bank of Indo-China and other enterprises, was facing the poorhouse when Ren� retired from tournament tennis in the late 1920s, but neither had they established any independent source of wealth. On one of his frequent visits to the U.S., Lacoste went about interviewing industrialists, asking advice on what sort of business to enter. A visit with old Henry Ford was followed by a visit to the Bendix plant in South Bend, Ind., where a bemused executive wrote out a licensing agreement permitting the French tennis star to manufacture Bendix-type engine starters in Europe. Thus began a Lacoste company called Air Equipement, which grew and merged through the years into Ducellier- Bendix-Air, a mammoth automobile, aerospace and parts corporation that turned more than $100 million in sales last year. DBA makes one part or another for just about every automobile manufactured in France or, for that matter, Europe. Lacoste also sits on the board of Le Nickel, one of the largest French corporations; helps run a Rothschild investment company called Sinord; is active in a big shipbuilding company called Soci�t� des Ateliers et Chantiers de la Loire, which makes 200,000-ton tankers; and holds a dozen or so other directorships and business interests.
Ironically, the product with which Lacoste is most closely identified throughout the non-Gallic world is one that has never been more than a part-time activity for him, the cotton sports shirts bearing the little green alligator on the breast and the impressive label at the collar: " Chemise Lacoste." Now run by son Bernard out of an office in Paris, Chemise Lacoste sold something less than two million shirts last year and, with Catherine Lacoste's victory in the U.S. Women's Open, demand has soared so far beyond capacity that the company doubts if it will ever catch up. "We had a backlog of something like 200,000 at one point," Ren� says. "Everybody seems to want them. It is worse than ever. Of course, for more than 20 years we have not been able to make enough."
The original Chemise Lacoste—and, indeed, the original knitted sports shirt as we know it today—sprang directly from the fertile mind and frail constitution of the tennis-playing Ren� back in the 1920s. "I was always catching cold during tournaments," he remembers, "and I began to suspect that one of the causes was the 'floating' shirt that everybody was wearing in those days. Perhaps it is hard to remember now, but we all played in white shirts with cuffs and collars and buttons. It was exactly the kind of shirt you would wear to a dinner, except that we would not wear a tie. I wanted something more practical and more healthy, so I turned to what the polo players were wearing. They didn't wear collars, and they used a softer material and short sleeves. I had a shirtmaker take one of these polo shirts and add a collar. I began to wear this type of shirt, and I immediately attracted attention. In fact, long before I got the idea of going into the business, shirts of this type were being manufactured and sold as ' Lacoste shirts,' not as any kind of brand name but simply as a description."
In the early 1930s, while Lacoste was still learning the manufacturing business, he was approached by a friend who said that it was ridiculous for him to allow dozens of knitwear companies to turn out Lacoste shirts while he was not making a sou on his own creation. "He made me a little annoyed at myself," Lacoste says, "and so I agreed that he and I would start a shirt business together. The company prospered on a small scale until World War II, when we shut down because we did not want to sell crocodile shirts to Germans. After the war we started again. Then we began exporting them, and suddenly everything took off, exploded. Our shirts became so popular that at one time there were 50 commercial firms in America turning out shirts with a crocodile insignia—or an alligator, as the Americans have always called it. You could even buy little green alligators to sew on your sports shirts to make them look like Chemises Lacoste. We could do nothing about it, because it was impossible for us to register an alligator trademark. That trademark was already held by the company that makes raincoats. Finally we made an agreement with Alligator, and now they can use the trademark and so can we, but nobody else can."
Although the usually reticent Lacoste will talk your ears off about the quality of his shirts, the Peruvian and Egyptian cotton that goes into them, the cut and design and superior production methods, etc., he also is the first to admit that the simple gimmick of the crocodile played a major but mysterious role in making the shirts popular. "I cannot explain it," he says, "but it just caught on. People wanted to wear that little alligator. Isn't it strange how life works—the elements of pure luck that are involved? I was called The Crocodile, and it turned out to be a nice identifying mark. But suppose I had been called something else, something vague—the retriever or the getter—something you can't picture. Do you think we would have had a successful shirt called Chemise Retriever or Chemise Getter? I was very, very lucky."
One might expect Ren� Lacoste, late in his middle years, to retire gracefully from all his business activities and enjoy the family's weekend home smack in the middle of the Saint-Nom-La-Breteche golf course near Paris, or the swank apartment in the 16th arrondissement, or the summer home overlooking the course at Golf de Chantaco; and to some slight extent he has. But his mind refuses to retire, and Lacoste periodically finds himself caught up in some new moneymaking enthusiasm, whether he likes it or not. The latest interest in his business life is the steel tennis racket, used with more than their usual success at Forest Hills by finalist Clark Graebner and semifinalist Gene Scott, and with total success by winner Billie Jean King. "It will be accepted more and more," the grand old man of French tennis predicts with less-than-typical modesty, "and it will be just like the history of Chemise Lacoste. For 20 years we won't be able to catch up with the demand for the steel racket. I do not state that as an idle boast, but as a simple fact. Already we hear that Wilson, our licensee in the U.S., cannot supply the steel rackets fast enough, even though they are not at all inexpensive [about $50]."