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The Lady In The White Silk Dress
Sarah Pileggi
September 13, 1982
Suzanne Lenglen drank, swore and had lovers by the score—and played tennis incomparably, losing once in seven years
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September 13, 1982

The Lady In The White Silk Dress

Suzanne Lenglen drank, swore and had lovers by the score—and played tennis incomparably, losing once in seven years

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By special dispensation, she was allowed to play Thursdays and Sundays at the Nice Tennis Club. Charles, who served as club secretary, arranged matches for her with winter visitors, many of whom happened also to be among the world's most talented players. She was an appealing little girl, small for her age, with long dark curls down her back. She was not pretty even then, but the vivacity that was the foundation of her charm throughout her life emanates from the old photographs.

Charles spent many hours each day at the Nice club studying the better players. He later wrote in an American newspaper: "The play of the English ladies consisted mostly of long rapid drives placed accurately along the lines and impressed me by its great regularity and calm, reasoned placing." But it was the superior play of the men that impressed him even more. He wrote: "Why then, I asked myself, should not women accept the masculine method. Is there any good reason why they do not do so, or is it merely a matter of custom and precedent?"

Thus Suzanne became the first woman player to train with men. Ted Tinling, who in his youth lived for several years on the Riviera, reports in his memoir, Love and Faults, that "Voulez-vous jouer avec ma fille?" became a familiar phrase at the courts along the Côte d'Azur. As time passed, however, and Suzanne's successes mounted, the number of notable players not only willing but also eager to play with Charles Lenglen's little girl grew rapidly.

In May 1914, while she was still 14, Suzanne won the world hard-court championship in Paris. In the light of that success it was thought she might make her Wimbledon debut that summer, but Charles was far too clever to risk his rising star on a foreign surface (grass) in a foreign country. So Suzanne didn't enter Wimbledon in 1914 and, as it turned out, in 1915, '16, '17 and '18 as well, because the tournament was not held during World War I. But in 1919, with Europe at peace again, Lenglen was 20 years old and ready.

Until 1922 Wimbledon was a tournament to decide who would challenge the defending champion. Lenglen won that honor in 1919, losing only 17 games and no sets in the process. The defender that year was Chambers, 40, the greatest player of her day and the ladies' singles title-holder for the previous seven years.

The two, separated by two decades and a chasm of experience, went at it for three sets—Chambers, the proper Edwardian in her ankle-length tennis costume, and Lenglen, the child-woman at the dawn of an era, short-skirted, brazenly bare-armed, consuming cognac-soaked sugar lumps tossed to her from the grandstand by her father. As King George V and Queen Mary looked on, Lenglen won 10-8, 4-6, 9-7 in a tremendous upset. The new queen of tennis was crowned and the tone of her long reign set when, after the match, she received congratulations while in her bath.

For the rest of her life, Lenglen maintained that the Chambers match had been her most difficult and most rewarding. But Mrs. Chambers viewed it as tragic for the Frenchwoman. Years later she confided in Tinling her belief that the match had given Lenglen "a taste of invincibility and a subsequent compulsion for it," which eventually caused her great unhappiness.

From then on Lenglen had everything—fame, adulation and all the trappings, if not the substance, of wealth. The city of Nice provided the Lenglens a large, comfortable house, the Villa Ariem, just across the street from the entrance to the tennis club. Her clothes were designed by Patou, the celebrated Parisian couturier. Her friends were beautiful or rich or titled or all three; her lovers were legion if not always suitable. Before she was 22 she had already broken off an affair with the French tennis player Pierre Albarran, a married man. Her mother, a dumpy little woman whom Suzanne sometimes called "ma poule" was her daughter's sympathetic chaperon. Tinling, who as a youth of 14 and 15 had umpired many of Lenglen's matches on the Riviera, recalls Anais and Charles Lenglen seated below him, wrapped in rugs against the chill, arguing loudly and reproving their daughter for her slightest errors.

America's first glimpse of Lenglen came in August 1921. Against Charles's wishes, Suzanne agreed to play a series of exhibitions in the U.S. for the benefit of "the [war] devastated villages of France." Once in New York, she further agreed to play in the U.S. women's championship, being held that year for the first time at Forest Hills after 34 years in Philadelphia. Charles, back home in Nice too ill to travel, told his friends that Suzanne had made the biggest mistake of her life.

Everything went wrong from the start. First she caught a bad cold and had to postpone her departure twice. Then, aboard the liner France, she declined to use the deck tennis court that had been set up for her and issued a news bulletin declaring that "the fox-trot and the shimmy were excellent training for tennis." In New York her reception by the press was effusive (MLLE. LENGLEN'S PETIT FEET AMAZE ON ARRIVAL), but she soon learned that her fate in the draw at Forest Hills was to play No. 5-ranked Eleanor Goss in the first round and, probably, the five-time U.S. champion, Mallory, in the second. The seeding of players according to ability to prevent just such an undesirable pairing had not yet been instituted. Even worse, on the day of Lenglen's scheduled first-round match, Goss defaulted and Lenglen, who had had one day's rest and one day's practice, was ordered to play Mallory instead so as not to disappoint the crowd that had gathered at Forest Hills Stadium to see her.

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