New surface, new ball, new climate and, for her first opponent, the best female player in America. All this without Papa by her side. Lenglen's nerves showed signs of fraying even before her match began. Once it was under way, her strokes lacked power and she coughed intermittently. Mallory, for her part, was at the top of her form. Allison Danzig, who was then a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle and later became the tennis writer for The New York Times for 45 years, recalls, "Molla had a hell of a forehand. She didn't have a backhand. She had the weakest service I have ever seen. But what a forehand!"
Mallory put her forehand to good use in the first set, winning it 6-2 while Lenglen coughed more frequently. Lenglen had beaten Mallory badly in France the previous year. Now Mallory, backed enthusiastically by her good friend Bill Tilden, who disliked Lenglen intensely because her fame overshadowed his, was about to take her revenge. With the score 0-15 in the first game of the second set, Lenglen, serving, double-faulted and then forfeited the match, saying she was too ill to continue. Holding a towel to her mouth as some spectators booed, she was led sobbing from the court. "Cough and Quit" became Lenglen's middle name in America, and that view of her prevailed until she returned to the U.S. as a pro in 1926 and set the record straight.
On later occasions Lenglen withdrew from tournaments for reasons of strategy or ill health or both, but she never again lost a match and she never again ignored her father's advice.
A spectator at the Lenglen-Mallory match that day was 15-year-old Helen Wills from Berkeley, Calif., who was in New York to play in the National Junior championships. As Lenglen's successor, Helen Wills Moody was to win eight Wimbledon singles titles. In her book, Fifteen-Thirty, which was published in 1937, Moody recalled her first sighting of Lenglen on the clubhouse veranda at Forest Hills: "She wore a yellow organdie dress, a large hat and a white lapin coat described as ermine by the newspapers. The fur coat on a hot day made me ask why. I was told that she had a cold.... I was impressed, and later even more so when she came out to practice with six racquets."
In December 1925 Wills (she did not marry Frederick Moody until 1929) was a 20-year-old who had won the American championship three times and stood at the brink of what was to become a great career. Lenglen at that time was 26 and at the peak of her powers. She had won Wimbledon, the unofficial world championship, for the sixth time, and the most enjoyable season of her tennis year was about to begin—the "spring circuit" on the Riviera, a series of weekly tournaments from Christmas to Easter. Her midday matches would be a fixture in the daily round of pleasure-seeking and hostesses would schedule their parties to avoid conflict with them. She was La Belle Lenglen, queen of the Cote d'Azur. Sportswriter Al Laney, in his book Covering the Court, described her in her prime: "She was far from beautiful. In fact, her face was homely in repose, with a long, crooked nose, irregular teeth, sallow complexion, and eyes that were so neutral that their color could hardly be determined. It was a face on which hardly anything was right. And yet, in a drawing room this homely girl could dominate everything, taking the attention away from dozens of women far prettier...."
When it was learned that month that Wills was coming to France in the expectation of playing Lenglen, it was thought to be a bold, impertinent but very exciting challenge to Lenglen's total domination of the game. From the moment Wills and her mother landed at Le Havre in mid-January, a fever of anticipation took hold in the sporting press. Tennis regulars such as John Tunis of The Boston Globe and Wallis Myers of London's Daily Telegraph, writers who often played in the same weekly Riviera tournaments they reported, were joined by an international press corps large enough to cover a medium-sized war. Grantland Rice arrived. So did James Thurber. So did the eminent Spanish novelist Blasco Ibañez, who had never so much as seen a tennis match.
The longer the meeting of Lenglen and Wills was postponed—one would enter a tournament, the other would withdraw—the larger became the army of journalists camped out from San Remo to Cannes. Bookmakers who had at first made Lenglen a 1-10 favorite, dropped their odds to 1-4 when Suzanne appeared to be ducking the confrontation for fear of losing. In the midst of growing hysteria, only Wills remained calm. She recalls today, at her home in Carmel, Calif., her first glimpse of Lenglen at Villa Ariem. "It's like a picture in my mind," she says. "She lived across the street, or very near, to the tennis courts. My mother and I went to the courts by taxi and when I got out, I saw her in an upstairs window. It was a wide French window, and she waved to me. She wore a bright yellow sweater. I can still see the palm trees around her house. It's like a postcard in my mind."
Ultimately, the day arrived. Feb. 16, 1926, the singles final of the Carlton Club tournament in Cannes. Lenglen, always tightly strung at the best of times, was "empty, exhausted and frightened," according to her friend Florence Gould, wife of Frank Jay Gould, son of financier Jay Gould. With nothing to gain and her near-perfect seven-year record at stake, Lenglen was about to risk all over the challenge of a "little country girl," as a Nice newspaper referred to Wills.
Lenglen's lifelong friend, the French playboy Coco Gentien, would later write in his memoirs of Lenglen's apprehension about the match, brought on by the pressure to win: "For Suzanne every day was a torture.... She hardly ate or slept. A few friends and I never left her side. Every day she seemed thinner. Her small face was drawn, and all you could see were two big eyes filled with dread."
Lenglen won the first set 6-3, but she was clearly not herself. Papa Lenglen was ill again, but Anais was present to shout to her daughter when things were going badly, "Oh, you're playing miserably, my dear!" To which her daughter sharply replied, "Merde, Maman!" Between games Lenglen resorted to her restorative silver flask, and dramatically underlined her exhaustion by placing one hand on her hip, the other over her eyes.