Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills Moody
Arguably the two most dominant and influential women tennis players of the first half of the 20th century. Their dominance in the sport is still unparalleled.
In the days of ground-length tennis dresses, Suzanne Rachel Flore Lenglen played at Wimbledon with her dress cut just about the calf. She wept openly during matches, pouted, sipped brandy between sets. Some called her shocking and indecent, but she was merely ahead of her time, and she brought France the greatest global sports renown it had ever known
Right-handed Lenglen was No. 1 in 1925-26
, the first years of world rankings. She won Wimbledon every year but one from 1919 through 1925
, the exception being 1924, when illness led her to withdrawal after the fourth round. Her 1919 title match, at the age of 20, with 40-year-old Dorothea Douglass Chambers is one of the hallmarks of tennis history
Chambers, the seven-time champion, was swathed in stays, petticoats, high-necked shirtwaist, and a long shirt that swept the court. The young Lenglen was in her revealing dress that shocked the British at the sight of ankles and forearms. After the second set, Lenglen took some comfort from her brandy and won, 10-8, 4-6, 9-7
, in a dramatic confrontation, rescuing two match points.
After her victory, Lenglen became easily the greatest drawing card tennis had known, and she was one of those who made it a major box-office attraction
. Along with a magnetic personality, grace and style, she was the best woman player the world had seen
Lenglen, born May 24, 1899, in Paris, played an all-court game such as few had excelled at. She moved with rare grace, unencumbered by the tight layers of garments others wore. She had extraordinary accuracy with her classical, rhythmic ground strokes. For hours daily her father, Charles Lenglen, had her direct the ball at a handkerchief he moved from spot to spot. Her control was so unfailing that she thought it shameful to hit the ball into the hight or beyond the line
. In addition, she had so keen a sense of anticipation that she invariably was in the right position to meet her opponent's shot.
Her 1926 match against Helen Wills in a tournament at Cannes, France (pictured above), caused a sensation
. Tickets brought unheard-of wealth to scalpers, and the roofs and windows of apartments and hotels overlooking the court were crowded with fans. Lenglen, on the verge of collapse during the tense match, but saved by smelling salts and brandy, defeated the 20-year-old Wills, 6-3, 8-6
Lenglen's career was not free of setbacks, however. In the 1921 U.S. Championships, having lost the first set badly to Molla Mallory, Lenglen walked weeping and coughing to the umpire and said she could not continuem defaulting the match. She made up for it the next year at Wimbledon by defeating Mallory, 6-2, 6-0, in the final and did not lose another match for the remainder of her amateur career
In the 1926 Wimbledon, Lenglen had a terrifying ordeal. She kept Queen Mary waiting in the Royal Box for her appearance when, owing to a misunderstanding or a failure of communications, Lenglen did not have the correct information about the time she was to be on court. The ghastly error was too much. She fainted and Wimbledon saw her no more as a competitor. She withdrew from the tournament, and that year went on a tour for money in the United States under the management of C.C. Pyle, winning all 38 matches against Mary K. Browne
. It marked the start of professional tennis as a playing career.
At the age of 39, Lenglen died of pernicious anemia, July 4, 1938, in Paris. She was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1978. There was a speculation that her health had been undermined by her long hours of practice as a young girl. But she had brought the glamour of the stage and the ballet to the court, and queues formed at tennis clubs where before there had been indifference. She had emancipated the female player from layers of starched clothing and set the short-hair style as well. During her career she won 81 singles titles (seven without the loss of a game!), 73 doubles titles, and 8 mixed doubles titles. On five different ocassions, Suzanne won the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles at the French Open and Wimbledon. She had brought the game of tennis into a new era
Major titles (21)- French singles, 1925, '26; Wimbledon singles, 1919, '20, '21, '22, '23, '25; French doubles, 1925, '26; Wimbledon doubles, 1919, '20, '21, '22, '23, '25, French mixed, 1925, '26; Wimbledon mixed, 1920, '22, '25
French Open Record: 10-0 %1.00
Wimbledon Record: 32-0 %1.00
US Open record: 0-1 %.000
Helen Wills Moody
United States of America (1905-?)
It scarcely seems possible that two players of the transcendent ability of Helen Newington Wills Moody Roark and Suzanne Lenglen could have been contemporaries. They were ranked for close to half a century as the two best female tennis players of all time. Their records are unmatched and hardly have been approached.
While indeed contemporaries, they were rivals in only one match, played in 1926 and won by Lenglen, 6-3, 8-6, at Cannes, France. Lenglen, not yet 27, was at the crest of her game, with six Wimbledon championships in her possession. Wills' game at 20 had not quite attained full maturity, though she had been in the Wimbledon final of 1924, and would win eight times. Their rivalry was limited to the single meeting, for later that same year Wills was stricken with appendicitis, and Lenglen turned pro.
It would be difficult to imagine two players of more different personalities and types of game. Between 1919 and 1938 (29 years), Wills won 52 of 92 tournaments on a 398-35 match record, a .919 average, and had a 158-match winning streak (27 tournaments).
Quiet, reserved, and never changing expression, Wills, known as Little Miss Poker Face, played with unruffled poise and never exhibited the style, the flair, or the emotional outbursts that Lenglen did. From her first appearance in the East in 1921, when she was national junior champion, Wills' typical garb on the court was a white sailor suit, white eyeshade and white shoes and stockings.
The game she played right-handed was one of sheer power, which she had developed in practice against men on the West Coast. From both forehand and backhand she hammered the ball almost the full length of the court regularly, and the speed, pace and depth of her drives, in conjunction with her tactical moves, sufficed to subdue her oppenents. She could hit winners as spectacularly from the baseline on the backhand as on the forehand.
She went to the net occasionally, not nearly as often as Lenglen, and Wills was sound in her volleying and decisive overhead with her smash. Her slice service, breaking wide and pulling the receiver beyond the alley, was as good as any female player has commanded.
Her footwork was not so good. She did not move with the grace and quickness as Lenglen, and opponents fared best against her who could use the drop shot or changes of length to draw her foreward and sent her running back. Anchored to the baseline, she could run any opponent into the ground. Because of her exceptional sense of anticipation, she seemd to be in the right spot, and it was not often that she appeared to be hurried in her stroking.
She was born October 6, 1905, in Centreville, Calfornia, and the facts of her invincibility are stark. She won Wimbledon a record eight times (until Navratilova won 9) in nine tries, her only lose coming in her first appearance, in 1924. She won the U.S. Championship seven times. From 1927 to 1932 she did not lose a set, anywhere. She was seven U.S., five Wimbledon, and four French championships without loss of a set until Dorothy Round of Britain extended her to 6-4, 6-8, 6-3 in the 1933 Wimbledon final.
In Wightman Cup play from 1923 to 1938, she won 18 singles matches and lost two, both in 1924. She won the Olympic Singles and doubles in Paris in 1924. When she scored her first Wimbledon victory, in 1927, she was the first American there to be crowned since 1905.
Two of her three most remarkable matches were her meeting with Lenglen in 1926 and her default because of back pain to rival Helen Jacobs while trailing 0-3 in the final set of the 1933 U.S. Championships The third remarkable match was in the 1935 Wimbledon fianl in which Jacobs was in the lead 5-2, in the third set and stood at match point, only to see the then Mrs. Moody rally and add one more victory to her astounding record.
In 1928 she became the first player to win three majors in the same year. She was also the first American to win Roland Garros. Her total of 19 singles majors was the record for 32 years, until Margaret Court surpassed her with 24. But her success was the most phenominal ever, considering that she was 19 of 22 entered, winning 126 of 129 matches (.977), never worse than a finalist.
Major titles (31)- French singles, 1928, '29, '30, '32; Wimbledon singles, 1927, '28, '29, '30, '32, '33, '35, '38; U.S. singles, 1923, '24, '25, '27, '28, '29, '31; French doubles, 1930, '32; Wimbledon doubles, 1924, '27, '30; U.S. doubles 1922, '24, '25, '28; Wimbledon mixed 1929, U.S. mixed 1924, '28.
French Open record: 20-0 %1.00
Wimbledon record: 55-1 %.982
US Open record: 51-2 %. 962
Total: 126-129 %.977