Suzanne Lenglen, Helen Wills and the Wimbledon Tournament of 1924
By Mark Ryan
The forty-fourth edition of The Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon, held from June 23 to July 5, 1924, promised to be one of the most successful and exciting in the tournament’s history. For the first time both the reigning women’s singles champion, Suzanne Lenglen of France, and Helen Wills, holder of the women’s singles title at the U.S. Championships, had sent in entries. Many experts agreed that a final between these two players was the most likely scenario in the women’s singles event.
At just 18 years of age, the Californian Helen Wills would be making her first trip abroad but was already preceded by her reputation as an imperturbable and redoubtable match player, and perhaps the player most likely to end the reign of Suzanne Lenglen as Wimbledon champion. The 25-year-old Frenchwoman had won the women’s singles there for the previous five years and had not lost a completed three-set singles match to anyone anywhere since before the First World War, when she was still in her early teens.
Both Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills had rather quiet starts to the year 1924, in the sense that neither of them played much lawn tennis during the first few months. Lenglen kept to her habit of beginning her season by taking part in some of the tournaments held during the early months of the year on the French Riviera. She restricted herself to mainly women’s doubles and mixed doubles at those tournaments, but did win the women’s singles title at the three tournaments in which she entered that particular event – the Parc Imperial tournament, held in Nice in early February; the Riviera Championships, held in Menton in late February; and the South of France Championships, also held at the Parc Imperial in Nice, in mid-March.
In the early spring of 1924, Suzanne Lenglen departed from her usual routine and travelled to Spain to take part in the international tournament annually held there in mid-April. She won all three events she entered – the women’s singles, the women’s doubles (with the American Eleanor Goss as partner) and the mixed doubles (with the Spaniard Eduardo Flaquer as partner). During her trip to Spain, Lenglen came down with a case of jaundice which sidelined her for several weeks and prevented her from taking part in the French National Championships tournament at the Racing Club de France in Paris in early June, where she had won the three main events open to her in the previous four years.
For a while it appeared that Suzanne Lenglen’s illness might prevent her from taking part in The Championships at Wimbledon. There was much speculation in the press about her participation, but in a short piece, entitled “Mlle Lenglen to Defend Title at Wimbledon” and published in ‘The Daily Telegraph’ in London on June 11, 1924, less than two weeks before the start of the tournament, the newspaper’s renowned lawn tennis correspondent, Arthur Wallis Myers, was able to report the following: “Mlle Suzanne Lenglen advises me from Nice that she hopes to reach London on June 20. Since her illness she has enjoyed a week’s steady practice at the Nice Club’s courts opposite her villa, and with beneficial results. ‘I feel stronger every day,’ she writes; and so there is now a definite prospect that the champion will defend her title in the singles.”
Helen Wills’ name is absent from the records of lawn tennis tournaments for several months from September 1923 until mid-June of 1924, after her arrival in England. In addition to practising lawn tennis, during this nine-month period Wills also attended the University of California at Berkeley, where she was a student of fine arts. She and her mother, Catherine, who invariably accompanied Helen to lawn tennis tournaments at home and abroad, arrived at Waterloo train station in London on the afternoon of Tuesday, May 20, 1924. They had travelled separately from a group of American players, including the members of the Wightman Cup team due to face Great Britain in the second edition of this team competition, due to be held at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon, on June 18 and 19. (In those early day the Wightman Cup competition was usually called the “Ladies’ International Match”.)
On the evening of Wednesday, June 11, 1924, Helen Wills was among the guests at a dinner given by Lady Sophie Wavertree, patron and occasional player of lawn tennis, for the American Wightman Cup team, at Claridge’s Hotel in London. The other guests included Hazel Wightman, captain of the American team, and Dorothea Lambert Chambers, captain of the British team, and her husband Robert.
Many observers were looking to the Wightman Cup in order to gauge the form of Helen Wills in the run-up to Wimbledon. Unlike her teammates, and unlike the members of the British Wightman Cup team, Wills had not taken part in any of the grass courts tournaments held in and around London in the weeks before the Wimbledon tournament. Indeed, although she had no doubt been able to practise in preparation for the upcoming challenges, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Helen Wills was not in the best of form and had not acclimatised to the different conditions and the different lawn tennis balls by the time the Wightman Cup competition began on Wednesday, June 18.
In 1923, when the Wightman Cup competition was inaugurated in mid-August in the newly-opened stadium at the West Side Lawn Tennis Club in New York, the Americans had scored an overwhelming 7-0 victory over their British opponents. One year on, on the Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon, this score was almost reversed, with the British team winning the cup for the first time by the score of 6-1. Helen Wills, the star of the American team, lost both of her singles, against Kathleen McKane and Phyllis Covell respectively, but did manage to help the United States to its only point when she teamed with Hazel Wightman, the donor of the original cup, to defeat McKane and Evelyn Colyer, 2-6, 6-2 6-4.
Wallis Myers’ report on the 1924 Wightman Cup, reproduced in ‘Ayre’s Lawn Tennis Almanack’ for 1925, gives a good idea of Helen Wills’ form during her first two competitive singles matches on British soil. This is his report on the match in which Phyllis Covell defeated Wills, 6-2 6-4:
“The second annual match for the Wightman Cup took place on the Centre Court at Wimbledon [on June 18 and 19, 1924]. When the British and American ladies met on the Stadium Court at Forest Hills the previous August the local atmosphere so inspired the Americans that they made a clean sweep of the seven matches, but the margin in several of them was so small as to suggest a revision of this surprising result when the psychological influence was reversed. The anticipation was realised with almost dramatic vigour on the first day. Mrs Phyllis Covell (who had not played the present American champion in her own country) beat Miss Helen Wills, 6-2, 6-4. The winner did not hit as hard as the loser, but she revealed on this occasion a marked superiority in stroke control and strategy.
“In commenting on Mrs Covell’s play on the Riviera early in the year, when she defeated Miss Elizabeth Ryan twice, emphasis was placed in ‘The Field’ on her sound tactical ability and on her capacity to give practical expression to a concerted plan. Mrs Covell more than justified that judgment when opposed to Miss Wills, for the feature of her play was her strategic acumen. Every shot was played with an eye to its successor; the service, having regard to its break, was pitched on exactly the right spot; the excursions to the net were perfectly timed, the rally was completed by a volleying coup evidently considered in advance.
“Against this carefully organised game Miss Wills, lacking any experience of her opponent’s methods, could only bring the rather haphazard hitting which she had practised against male opponents on both sides of the Atlantic. Steadiness was almost completely absent, and in pressing prematurely for a decision in many rallies she lost essential control. Her service asset was weakened almost to a minimum by a tendency to double fault; more than one game, including the first in which she led 40-0, was sacrificed by this frailty. She drove fast enough on both wings to come in, but the excursion was rarely tempted and Mrs Covell was given the monopoly of the volleying.
“In her extremity Miss Wills attempted the lob; she found her opponent consistently safe overhead. When advancing from 2-5 to 4-5 in the second set the American girl (following the William Johnston method on which her game is founded) hit some beautiful drives into the corners, but this phase of accurate placing was only transitory and Mrs Covell effectively stemmed it by drop volleys, invested with slice, which drew Miss Wills a long way from her base.”
Here is Wallis Myers’ report on the singles match in which Kathleen McKane beat Helen Wills, 6-2, 6-2, during the same 1924 Wightman Cup competition: “A decision was swiftly reached on the second day, for Miss Kathleen McKane won the first match for England against the American champion; and in the end the home side secured a verdict and the Wightman Cup by six matches to one. [...]
“There were twice as many spectators as on the first day, but they were somewhat disappointed by the lack of excitement in the Wills-McKane single. Miss McKane lost but four games in a match in which her plain drive was much more under control than the top drive of Miss Wills, and in which the volleying of the English player, employed from a sounder position, had more decision. Miss Wills gave the impression of having practised only for the three- or four-shot rally; the fifth shot found her ill-prepared. Fine strokes she played in plenty, but they were uncoordinated, and the probability of a reply (which Miss McKane skilfully supplied) was not considered.”
On Tuesday, June 17, the day before the Wightman Cup competition began, ‘The Times’ of London had carried a short article entitled “The French Players for Wimbledon”, from which the following excerpt is taken: “Paris, June 17.–Mlle Suzanne Lenglen has arrived in Paris from Nice, having completely recovered from her indisposition. She declares that she feels quite well enough to play, not only in the ladies’ doubles at Wimbledon with Miss Elizabeth Ryan, but also in the singles. She is leaving for London tomorrow.”
As is customary, the draw for the events at Wimbledon was made on the Friday before the tournament began, in this case June 20. On Monday, June 23, 1924, the first day of the tournament, the lawn tennis correspondent of ‘The Times’, Eustratius Mavrogordato, gave his thoughts on the women’s singles event in the following article, entitled “Mlle Suzanne Lenglen and Miss Helen Wills”:
“In the Ladies’ Championship we had been promised a match in which Mlle Suzanne Lenglen, the holder, would be put to it to retain her title against Miss Helen Wills, the American champion, and the fates have been so far kind as to make it impossible for these two ladies to meet before the final and to smooth the path of the player new to Wimbledon. To qualify for the ordeal of playing Mlle Lenglen, Miss Wills may have to put out, among others, two persistent drivers, Mrs Geraldine Beamish and Mrs Phyllis Satterthwaite; but she can leave it to the French lady to deal with the most successful among Mrs Molla Mallory, Miss Elizabeth Ryan, Miss [Mrs] Phyllis Covell and Miss Kathleen McKane.
“The last two beat Miss Wills last week in the Ladies’ International match without losing a set, but there were signs that Miss Wills was not at her best. She made a lot of mistakes that were not the mistakes of the class to which she obviously belongs; and she showed by the way she shaped at her strokes that she expected to bring off even the most difficult – for short periods she made them in sequence in a way to make the ultimate winning of the point inevitable.
“Her strokes are plainly a product of the best masters, and if a lawn tennis match were decided by the capacity to hit the ball and that alone, there would be no saying what she might not do when accustomed to novel conditions. But on last week’s showing she will have to make many more ‘outright winners’ than Mlle Lenglen to beat her. As soon as she is less liable to be distracted by strange surroundings she will no doubt hit deeper and on a more settled plan, but there is no reason that she should come to move quicker. Mlle Lenglen is faster about the court.”
In those early days of the sport there was virtually no seeding as such at lawn tennis tournaments. However, in 1924, for the first time, a simple form of seeding was introduced, whereby up to four representatives of each participating nation were drawn into four different quarters of a draw. At Wimbledon in 1924, the draw for the women’s singles event was rounded out nicely to 64 (in those days some draws still tended to be small compared to modern sizes). This meant that the defending champion, Suzanne Lenglen, would have to play through six rounds in order retain her singles title. The Challenge Round, which allowed the holder of the men’s and women’s singles title to ‘sit out’ while what was known as the All-Comers’ tournament was played, had been abolished at Wimbledon only two years earlier, in 1922.
The draw for the women’s singles event at Wimbledon in 1924 had some notable and novel features. In addition to the simplified form of seeding, the draw contained nineteen overseas players, including nine Americans (in those days, before international travel became easier and more commonplace, many big tournaments lacked entries from foreign players).
Another striking feature of the women’s singles draw was the number of married players it contained – more than two dozen. This was not very unusual at a time when many women (and men) took part in lawn tennis tournaments well into their ‘forties, and sometimes even into their ‘fifties. Indeed, at Wimbledon in 1924, the oldest player in the women’s singles draw was 48-year-old Englishwoman Mildred Davis (née Coles), who had been born in 1876, in other words one year before the inaugural Championships tournament was held at Wimbledon. Six other women in the same draw were at least 40 years of age.
In addition to the women’s singles event, Suzanne Lenglen had also entered the women’s doubles event with her regular partner, the American Elizabeth Ryan; together they had won that event at Wimbledon for the five previous years. Lenglen had also entered the mixed doubles event with her countryman Jean Borotra. Helen Wills also entered women’s doubles event, with Hazel Wightman.
The Championships of 1924 began auspiciously on Monday, June 23, in warm summer weather. With the exception of two hours of rain, this good weather would hold for the remainder of the fortnight. Both Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills played their first singles match at the Championships on Tuesday, June 24, the first Tuesday of the tournament, then as now, being Ladies’ Day, when the defending champion in the women’s singles event traditionally plays her first match.
Nowadays, the defending champion always plays her first match on Centre Court. However, in 1924 Suzanne Lenglen played her first singles match on Court Number One. This might well have been because that particular court was inaugurated at the Championships of 1924. In any case, Suzanne Lenglen met and defeated the Englishwoman Sylvia Lumley-Ellis in the second match on that court (it was preceded by a men’s singles). Although her opponent was not then among the top rank of English players, Lenglen’s winning score of 6-0, 6-0 indicates that she was certainly returning to form after her recent bout of appendicitis.
Suzanne Lenglen and Sylvia Lumley-Ellis were followed on to Court Number One by Helen Wills and her compatriot Lilian Scharman. Again, this was more of a mismatch than an actual match, and Wills easily beat her opponent, 6-1, 6-0. Had Helen Wills’ form improved since the Wightman Cup? Given the modest oppostion, it was difficult to tell.
The order of play for the third day of the tournament, Wednesday, June 25, included a mixed doubles match featuring Suzanne Lenglen and Jean Borotra. This was scheduled fourth on Centre Court. Lenglen was also scheduled to play her second round singles match, albeit on Court Number One, against the Englishwoman Edith Clarke. Helen Will’s second round match, against the Englishwoman Phyllis Dransfield, was put on an outside court.
Suzanne Lenglen and Jean Borotra duly beat the rather obscure pairing of Miss O.M. Walker and George Fletcher on Centre Court by the score of 6-0, 6-1. Later in the afternoon Lenglen reappeared on Number One Court and defeated Edith Clarke. As in her first round match on the same court she beat her opponent without the loss of a game, 6-0, 6-0. Again, this was not exactly a clear indication of the French player’s form because Edith Clarke was not in the same class as a player as Suzanne Lenglen. No one was. During the same afternoon, on an outside court, Helen Wills defeated Phyllis Dransfield, 6-2, 6-0. It is not an exaggeration to say that, in terms of playing class, this was another mismatch.
On the same day, the third of the Championships, the Englishwoman Kathleen McKane and the veteran American champion Molla Mallory met on Centre Court in a second round match. This match was much more evenly balanced, at least on paper. However, the 28-year-old English player, runner-up to Lenglen in the women’s singles event at Wimbledon in 1923, easily defeated the 40-year-old American, seven times women’s singles champion in her adopted United States (she was a native of Norway), 6-1, 6-0.
Wallis Myers watched at least two of the aforementioned second round women’s singles matches and commented on them as follows in his ‘Daily Telegraph’ column on Thursday, June 26, 1924: “The moving throngs saw all the chief ladies in action. Miss Kathleen McKane not only repeated her victory over Mrs Molla Mallory; she gave her only one game in thirteen. It was a triumph for fine-length driving and concentrated purpose. Mrs Mallory was not the American player I saw perform at Boston and Newport last year. Indeed, she almost seemed to throw games away. Only in the fifth game of the second set was the issue stubbornly joined.
“On the other hand, the reigning champion of America showed a marked advance on any previous form. Miss Helen Wills defeated Miss Phyllis Dransfield decisively. Her service was dominating the court, and all her shots had more accuracy and control.
“I watched Suzanne Lenglen take her two sets serenely from Miss Edith Clarke. It was by no means a poor match. Miss Clarke ought to have won more points; her strokes warranted another game; the uncanny precision of the champion seemed to unnerve her.”
On Thursday, June 26, both Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills played their first round matches in the women’s doubles event. Both encounters were, in fact, second round matches because the two pairs had had a bye in the first round. A total of 38 pairs entered this event in 1924 and as things turned out, both Suzanne Lenglen and Elizabeth Ryan and Helen Wills and Hazel Wightman had been drawn to meet at the quarter-final stage, should both pairs get that far. This prospective meeting was interesting for several reasons, not least because neither pair had been defeated before when playing in an open women’s doubles event.
Suzanne Lenglen and Elizabeth Ryan played the English pairing of Edith Clarke and Enid Head on Centre Court on the afternoon of the first Thursday of The Championships, and beat them, 6-0, 6-3. Helen Wills and Hazel Wightman were scheduled on Number One Court on the same afternoon, to play the veteran English pairing of 36-year-old Doris Craddock and 42-year-old Mabel Parton. The American pair duly won this match, 6-4, 6-0. This brought both pairs into the third round, or last 16, of this event – one match away from a first encounter against each other.
On the first Friday of The Championships of 1924, June 27, Suzanne Lenglen played her third round, or last 16, match in the women’s singles event, on Centre Court, against Hazel Wightman. Although aged 36 by this time, Hazel Wightman (née Hotchkiss) was still a redoubtable opponent, albeit mainly in women’s doubles and mixed doubles events. Somewhat unusually, this was the American’s first ever appearance at The Championships. By 1924 she and her husband George were the parents of five children. The early years of their marriage had temporarily interrupted Hazel’s lawn tennis career.
The match pitting Suzanne Lenglen against Hazel Wightman on Centre Court on the first Friday of The Championships in 1924 resulted in a third consecutive 6-0, 6-0 victory for the Frenchwoman. A number of observers had been looking forward to a competitive encounter, but ultimately there was no doubting the difference in class. (This win gave Suzanne Lenglen the most one-sided start to the women’s singles event in the history of the tournament – 6 sets played, none lost; 36 games won, none lost. This is still a record.)
In ‘The Times’ of Saturday, June 28, Eustratius Mavrogordato reported on the Lenglen-Wightman singles match as follows: “Mlle Lenglen passed through her third round of the singles, as through the two before it, without losing a game. Her opponent of yesterday was Mrs Hazel Wightman, who won the Ladies’ Championship of America four times – the last time in 1919.
“Mlle Lenglen came out of the match in possession of all her secrets. Mrs Wightman was not nervous; she tested her opponent when not preoccupied with more pressing matters; she was obviously thinking as well as hitting, but thinking made no odds. When we are in the nursery we are told to think what we are doing; and it is pointed out to us emphatically that some young Master Herbert Roper Barrett from over the way never does that stupid thing which we, for the fiftieth time, are being rebuked for.
“Mrs Wightman is of the Barrett school; she has learned by experience, and one cannot imagine her making a stupid stroke. It would be presumptuous to pretend to have fathomed Mrs Wightman’s plan while it is in process of being expounded with the racket, but her purpose is clear at the end of the rally, and to have watched her carefully is a liberal education in the game. One can distinguish the thought and the action that follows it.
“The play of Mlle Lenglen, however, suggests that there is a stage beyond thinking what you are doing – to have thought. Mlle Lenglen does not distract herself by thinking on the court – at least, the spectator never catches her at it; she has done all that beforehand, so that – given the conditions – the stroke appears spontaneous and inevitable. We should all make the stroke that Mlle Lenglen makes if we could; there is nothing to imply that she has put herself in such a quandary that only a profound of trigonometry, psychology and Coué-ism can save her.
“When she does make a brilliant stroke, she is supreme in brilliancy as at everything else; once in a while she is caught in the forehand corner when the ball is making for the other; then you see; the ball is hit with an unhurried swing down her backhand line through the gap which her opponent was almost compelled to leave – well, we would all do that, but for the little matter of hitting the ball straight and hard while running fast across its course. But, as a rule, she does not have to; with her a brilliant stroke calls attention to some departure from perfect rightness earlier on; it is a discrepancy as much as a mishit would be.”
Helen Wills also played her third round, or last 16, match in the women’s singles event on the first Friday of The Championships, but on the new Number One Court. Her opponent there was 46-year-old Aurea Edgington (née Farrington), who had been winning singles events before Helen Wills was born in 1905. The result was another easy victory for the 18-year-old American, 6-2, 6-2. Eustratius Mavrogordato also watched this match, and managed to do justice not only to Helen Wills, but also to Aurea Edgington in his ‘Times’ column the following day (this particular section, which is reproduced below, was entitled “A Test for Miss Wills”):
“Miss Helen Wills, like Mlle Lenglen, was asked a question – it was put to her by Mrs Aurea Edgington (who can put posers) – and she, too, found the answer. It is one explanation of Mrs Edgington’s successes that it looks as if she could not possibly ‘take that one’; so her opponent runs in, and then, with what must be despairing effort, Mrs Edgington shoots out her arm on the backhand, and there comes a lob which hovers in an irresolute way in the air and just drops inside the baseline; or else she can only just reach the ball on the forehand, and the opponent runs in to drive a short one to the corner and finds she had forgotten about the cut.
“It is a tedious business sparring with Mrs Edgington, for Mrs Edgington can wait with anyone and hit deeper than most while doing so. There was a chance that Miss Wills might think the ball bewitched, and perhaps she did so for the first game, which she lost to love. But she soon found her answer; she tried no big hits off the enticing ones, but contented herself with hitting the length balls rather harder than Mrs Edgington and wearing her down in the rallies. She won 6-2, 6-2, and was never in danger.”
Their victories in the third round of the women’s singles event brought both Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills to the quarter-final stage of that event, in other words just two matches away from a much-awaited first meeting in any event anywhere. By the end of the first week, Kathleen McKane and Elizabeth Ryan, two of the other favourites for the women’s singles event (both of whom were in Lenglen’s half of the draw), had also reached the quarter-final stage of the same event.
On the first Saturday of the Championships Suzanne Lenglen and Elizabeth Ryan played their third round women’s doubles match on Centre Court, against the Englishwomen Joan Reid-Thomas and Ellinor Weston (née Carr). The Franco-American pairing reached the quarter-finals by means of an easy two-set victory, 6-3, 6-1. On the same day, on Court Number One, Lenglen and Jean Borotra reached the third round, or last 16, of the mixed doubles event by defeating the Anglo-South African pairing of Joan Barrett and Julian Lezard, 6-0, 6-1. (Helen Wills did not play a match on the first Saturday of the tournament).
There was no Sunday play at The Championships until 1972. On the second Monday of the tournament, June 30, 1924, Suzanne Lenglen was scheduled to play two matches – her singles quarter-final against Elizabeth Ryan, which was the second match down for the Centre Court; and her third round mixed doubles match with Jean Borotra, against the English pairing of Christine Tyrrell and Roy Poland; this match was scheduled last on Number One Court. Because all of the quarter-finals in the women’s singles event were due to be completed on the same day, Helen Wills was also due to play, this time against the unheralded player Jessie Colegate (née Russell). This match – Helen Wills’ first appearance on Centre Court in an event at the Championships (she had played on the same court during the recent Wightman Cup matches) – would follow the Lenglen-Ryan match.
Monday, June 30, 1924, was a sunny if rather windy in London, not exactly ideal conditions for lawn tennis, but certainly rain-free. The Centre Court stands were packed when Suzanne Lenglen and Elizabeth Ryan appeared to play their quarter-final. They had met in singles nearly twenty times previously, mainly on the clay courts of the French Riviera, but also three times in the last five years at Wimbledon – in 1919, 1921 and 1922 – and Lenglen had won every match except their first, which took place at the Monte Carlo (Condamine) tournament in early March of 1914, when Lenglen was still 14 years old. In subsequent singles matches, Lenglen had lost only one set to Ryan.
Although she was already 32 years of age in the summer of 1924, it would be wrong to call Elizabeth Ryan a veteran. On her day she was still capable of beating any player, with the exception of Suzanne Lenglen, and was still accumulating the women’s singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles titles at many of the tournaments she entered in Great Britain, Ireland, Continental Europe and beyond (she was one of the most travelled of the top early lawn tennis players). She had certainly been in good, if unspectacular, form during the first week of the Wimbledon of 1924. However, few, if any, observers gave her a chance of defeating Suzanne Lenglen.
In the end the American came very close – as close as she would ever come – to beating the French player in a singles match for the second time. After a typical start in which Suzanne Lenglen won the first four games (taking her tally to forty without reply so far in that event!), Elizabeth Ryan, perhaps feeling that she had nothing to lose, finally got her name on the scoreboard when she won the fifth game. Although Lenglen took the first set, 6-2, Ryan led 4-1 in the second set (after dropping serve in the first game) before Lenglen made a typically spirited recovery and led 5-4.
After some more thrilling play, which had the spectators on the edge of their seats, Ryan broke the Lenglen serve again at 6-6 before serving out to take the second set, 8-6. Thunderous applause greeted this sensational development. It was only the third set Suzanne Lenglen had lost in a singles match to anyone, anywhere, since the end of the First World War. One of them had been to Dorothea Lambert Chambers in the epoch-making Challenge Round match at Wimbledon in 1919, when the 20-year-old Lenglen had dethroned the 40-year-old seven-time Wimbledon singles champion. The other had been at the U.S. National Championships in 1921, when Lenglen, the reigning Wimbledon singles champion, had been drawn to play Molla Mallory, the reigning United States singles champion, in the second round. The Frenchwoman had defaulted that match early in the second set.
Could Elizabeth Ryan possibly achieve the unthinkable and defeat the five-time defending champion on Centre Court at Wimbledon? Unfortunately for the American it was not to be. After leading 2-1 in the third and final set Ryan fell behind 2-4 and thereafter could not quite make up the deficit. Lenglen won a 10-game set and the match, 6-2, 6-8, 6-4. There was probably no keener observer of this match than Arthur Wallis Myers, who wrote a long piece on it that was carried in ‘The Daily Telegraph’ on the following day, Tuesday, July 1, 1924. This piece is reproduced in full below:
“Wimbledon – Great Ladies’ Match – Suzanne’s Narrow Win
“By A. Wallis Myers, C.B.E.
“At 3.40 yesterday afternoon Suzanne Lenglen lost her first game in singles at Wimbledon this year. The champion had won forty games in succession this week and last, including the first four games in the match with Miss Elizabeth Ryan. Half an hour later she had lost her first set in Europe for five years. Another five minutes; her opponent was leading 2-1; it seemed not only possible but probable that Suzanne would lose her first match and her five-year title at Wimbledon. At half-past four, physically exhausted but morally calm, she had saved her championship and won a memorable struggle at 6-2, 6-8, 6-4.
“We are accustomed in lawn tennis matches, as in other speculative affairs, to be governed by precedent. Mlle Lenglen had twenty victories to her credit over Miss Ryan. Indeed, she had never lost a set to her in any match on any surface. History was all on the side of Suzanne. But there were salient facts which qualified the usual prophecy, facts which made one doubt whether on this occasion the chain would not be broken.
“A month ago the French girl had been a prisoner at Nice with jaundice; her physical reserves had not been tested since her illness. She had certainly not met an adversary of Miss Ryan’s physical strength, armed with just those weapons which long experience had told her would best challenger her own. Another circumstance of importance was the marked improvement this year in Miss Ryan’s baselines defences, especially in her backhand corner, which against Suzanne at any rate, had proved a vulnerable point. Miss Ryan had shown this new strength at Beckenham when beating Miss Kathleen McKane; even against Mlle Lenglen at Mentone in March its birth had been visible.
“Miss Ryan’s Great Chance
“I for one expected a close match, and, indeed, ventured to say as much in a foreword I wrote in ‘The Daily Telegraph’ before the championships. Yesterday the champion should have been beaten. Not because Miss Ryan’s stroke production, technique and strategy were superior, not because in any way Suzanne impaired her great and permanent reputation as a mistress of the court. Miss Ryan should have won because, by her patience, fortitude and resource, she had reduced Mlle Lenglen’s physical resistance almost to a minimum, and had forced herself into a winning position from which accuracy, especially overhead, had it been maintained, ought to have carried her to victory. She may never be so favourably placed again. She may never find Mlle Lenglen in mood so accommodating and with that obvious loss of stamina which made her fight the last few games on nervous energy alone.
“Let me add that, contrary to general expectation – though those who know Mlle Lenglen best did not share it – there was no hint at retirement by the champion when she discovered that the match would go beyond its usual limits. Indeed, the complete self-control of this highly-strung artist, even at the moment of her greatest ordeal, was the feature of the struggle. No titleholder since Wimbledon was invented has met and beaten off a challenging menace with more stolidity and, apparently, with less regard for what was at stake. Only when all was over did she play the part created for her by legend and the picture papers. She kissed Miss Ryan on court near the umpire’s chair. Perchance she has established another precedent!
“Now for the match itself a brief review. Suzanne went easily, almost nonchalantly, to four-love. She was not hitting hard, merely piloting the ball, like some shy child, over the net. Miss Ryan, having begun as a baseliner, seemed to hesitate in her tactics and to be ‘wrong-footed’ in consequence. It conjured up a familiar scene. But the faith of Miss Ryan’s friends was not shaken. There was not the usual vigour and confidence about Suzanne’s strokes; when Miss Ryan’s came back there was bound to be a change. It arrived sooner than expected.
“Miss Ryan won the next six games out of nine. She took two; Suzanne took two, and with them the first set. Then Miss Ryan led 4-1. She ought to have been 5-0, for she lost her first game in the second set from 40-0. This was something quite new; no former match had provided it. Miss Ryan making winners, Suzanne making losers, and all the time having her physical reason drained by the perfect drop shots which Miss Ryan threw in judiciously at intervals.
“Yet Suzanne was so composed, apparently so mentally at ease, that you looked for a recovery to come – some access of pace and length. It came – Miss Ryan helped it by volleying lapses, and the score was four-all. We realised a wind was exerting its influence; two fine shots by Miss Ryan were borne just over the line. Suzanne led 5-4, and the crowd sensed the end of their tension. But Miss Ryan responded more gallantly, showing the soundest nerve and generalship. She crossed to the sunny side leading 6-5. In the twelfth game Suzanne threw a point away to balance a doubtful decision. The throng cheered her (it was, perhaps, natural they should); she thanked them by squaring the set at 6-6. But she was visibly tiring; she gave up the chase of many balls that last year would not have eluded her.
“Miss Ryan took the thirteenth game quite easily. Suzanne almost seemed to abandon its quest, and at 15-40 she threw the balls over the net thinking it had gone beyond recall. A double fault made its loss definite. Miss Ryan served and went to 30-0 with what Bill Tilden would call ‘a peach of a drop’. Suzanne, still listless, drove out: 40-0. Three points for the set. I believe if a pin had been dropped on the turf you could have heard it; the silence was intense. Fourteen thousand people did not have to hold their suspense long. Suzanne put a fairly easy ball into the net from 40-15. One set-all and a burst of applause, tinged with general expectancy.
“The final set alternated in figures, as in form. In the first game Mlle Lenglen made a fine recovery of a most insidious drop, but even her vaulting stride could not carry her to another. Miss Ryan was in point of game, but Suzanne won from ‘vantage. The next went to California. Suzanne motioned to the crowd at the side to stop a movement. It was nothing, but she was foot-faulted a little later, and this technical error seemed to depress her.
“Still employing the drop cunningly and increasing the pace on her chops, Miss Ryan led at 2-1. Then, I suggest, the vision of victory first crossed her mind. Possibly the dream – a glorious dream – disturbed her concentration for a vital period. Be that as it may, she lost some of her accuracy in the next three games. Fortified by a sip of her native Cognac, the champion went to 4-2, a little surprised, I daresay, at her good fortune. She double-faulted in the seventh game and lost it.
“There was a tremendous fight for the eighth game. Miss Ryan was removed from it by only a point. What a difference that ace might have made! 5-3. Would Suzanne’s strength last out? It scarcely seemed so, for she lost the first three points in the ninth game. Yet Miss Ryan only got out from ‘vantage. A great effort of willpower and concentrated steadiness gave the champion the tenth game and the match. Her escape had been the narrowest in any completed match since 1919. Then, on her first appearance at Wimbledon, Mrs Dorothea Lambert Chambers had twice been within a stroke of victory. This match was neither so exciting nor of such a high quality, but upon the issue of two or three critical rallies depended the reign of the great Suzanne as champion.”
After the tremendous struggle they had just witnessed between Suzanne Lenglen and Elizabeth Ryan, the next match on Centre Court, the quarter-final opposing Helen Wills and Jessie Colegate, must have come as something of a relief to the spectators because the American won it very easily, 6-1, 6-0.
Although her quarter-final no doubt drained Suzanne Lenglen’s physical resources, it certainly did not deplete them completely because she was back on court on the evening of the second Monday to play her last 16 match mixed doubles match with Jean Borotra against Christine Tyrrell and Roy Poland. The French pair duly won this match, which was played on Court Number One, 6-2 6-3, to move on to the quarter-finals.
On the same Monday, Kathleen McKane had defeated the American Marion Jessup (née Zinderstein), 6-1, 6-3, in their quarter-final, while Phyllis Satterthwaite had beaten her countrywoman, 26-year-old Dorothy Shepherd-Barron (née Cunliffe) in their quarter-final, 6-4, 10-8. The semi-final line-up in the women’s singles event was thus as follows: Suzanne Lenglen vs Kathleen McKane, and Helen Wills vs Phyllis Satterthwaite. Lenglen and Wills were now just one match away from a historic first singles encounter.
But it was not to be, at least not yet. Suzanne Lenglen was not scheduled to play any matches on July 1, the second Tuesday of The Championships. On the afternoon of that day she let it be known that she had pulled out of the mixed doubles event in order to concentrate on the women’s singles (and women’s doubles) events. However, later in the day she announced that, due to ill health, she had withdrawn from all three events. Eustratius Mavrogordato commented on this development as follows in a piece entitled “Mlle Lenglen’s Retirement” carried in ‘The Times’ on Thursday, July 3, 1924:
“[...] The progress of the Championships was most conclusively affected by a match that was not played. Mlle Lenglen withdrew. It was known early on Tuesday that she had found it expedient to retire from the mixed doubles to save herself exertion, and late at night it was announced that she had retired from all events. This was officially confirmed yesterday afternoon.
“It is a tax levied on greatness to be made the subject of malicious reports, and when a combatant retires from an eagerly anticipated contest there are always to be found people to impute some discreditable motive. As the French lady will be an exception to a general rule if she escapes, it is advisable to put the facts on record. An illness in the spring had left her so weak that it was doubtful until a few days before the meeting whether she would be well enough to defend her Championship. In other years it has been suggested that she lacked the skill or resolution to defeat this or that challenger. Her only reply was to overwhelm that challenger, conclusively, quietly, and with the nicest observance of sportsmanship.
“All that is left for those whom she has delighted these six years is to wish her a speedy and complete return to health and the worthiest opponents next year. No one has ever exerted quite the same attraction for spectators.”
There is no doubt that Suzanne Lenglen’s retirement, probably caused by a recurrence of the jaundice that had affected her earlier in the season, left a huge void in the tournament. It meant that there would be no first meeting between Lenglen and Helen Wills, not only not in the women’s singles, but also in the women’s doubles event, where Wills and Hazel Wightman had advanced to meet Lenglen and Elizabeth Ryan at the quarter-final stage.
Suzanne Lenglen’s retirement also meant that for the first time since 1913 Elizabeth Ryan’s name would not feature on the women’s doubles trophy, which she had won five years running with Lenglen, and in 1914 with the Englishwoman Agnes Morton. Indeed, the Wimbledon of 1924 was now effectively over for Elizabeth Ryan because in addition to her defeat by Lenglen in their singles quarter-final, she and her mixed doubles partner, the Australian Randolph Lycett – the defending champions – had been beaten in the second round of that event by Kathleen McKane and Brian Gilbert. (Between 1919 and 1930, Elizabeth Ryan would fail to win at least one Wimbledon title only twice, in 1924 and 1929.)
For 28-year-old Kathleen McKane, Lenglen’s retirement meant that she would not have to play her semi-final against a player she had neither beaten nor taken a set off in any of their previous meetings in singles. At her sixth attempt the Englishwoman would thus have her best chance yet at the coveted title. For good measure, as of the second Wednesday of the tournament, July 2, 1924, she was also still in the women’s doubles event (with Phyllis Covell) and the mixed doubles event (with Gilbert).
As for Helen Wills, as indicated above she too was directly affected by Suzanne Lenglen’s withdrawal from the tournament in that Wills and Hazel Wightman did not have to play their quarter-final in the women’s doubles event against Lenglen and Elizabeth Ryan. The latter match had been scheduled for Wednesday, July 3. So had the two semi-finals in the women’s singles event.
Helen Wills’ opinion on Suzanne Lenglen’s retirement is not known. Given that she too would become one of the greatest champions the sport has ever known, it is likely that she was disappointed at not being able to pit her burgeoning skills against such a supreme player. No doubt her mind was focussed primarily on reaching the women’s singles final. To do so at her first attempt she had, as indicated above, to defeat the veteran English player Phyllis Satterthwaite. Their semi-final match took place on the Centre Court on Wednesday, July 2, and the American duly won it by the score of 6-2, 6-1. The following report on this match by Eustratius Mavrogordato was carried in ‘The Times’ of Thursday, July 3, 1924, under the heading “Miss Helen Wills vs Mrs Phyllis Satterthwaite”:
“The stands were packed for the semi-final match between Miss Wills and Mrs Satterthwaite. Miss Wills had never been pressed in her earlier rounds, but her draw had been an easy one. Her first real trial since the Ladies’ International Match was this match against Mrs Satterthwaite. Mrs Satterthwaite uses a cut drive, which needs careful watching from the pitch. This constitutes Mrs Satterthwaite’s attack. In defence she is indefatigable; and she has won countless matches by wearing her opponent down. She has great experience of match play, and hers is the very game to tease a young player who is new to it into making mistakes.
“Miss Wills came through the ordeal triumphantly. After the first few games, when she was feeling her way, if there was an ordeal it was not hers. It was not merely that she won with the loss of but three games, but the competent way in which she did it. She studied the question set her with demure attention, made a note or two about the form her answer should take, and then wrote it off fluently, in beautifully formed characters, and without a blot.
“For four games the result was in doubt. Mrs Satterthwaite lost the first game mainly by lobbing just out. That game decided nothing, except that Mrs Satterthwaite had got a length. In the second game Mrs Satterthwaite induced Miss Wills to drive out at the end of rallies – and many good players have lost to her by doing that. The third game went to Miss Wills, who varied what had been a colourless, but unperturbed, defence with a volley and a drop – both effective.
“Mrs Satterthwaite won the fourth game, in which she consistently attacked Miss Wills’s backhand. Miss Wills acquiesced, and made no attempt to protect what is normally the weaker side; she made one neat decisive thrust down the line with her forehand – which was a hint to her opponent that there was more than one reason for keeping the ball away from it. She made enough mistakes to lose the game, but they were mistakes of inches.
“In the next game she took to driving harder, but without losing any of her accuracy, and when the faster drive made her openings she used them as they came, finishing off the rally in any way that would serve – with drive, drop, deep volley, smash or stop-volley. She lost one more game in the match, which she finished by reaching and returning a drop which Mrs Satterthwaite could not reach.”
The following day, Thursday, July 3, the women’s doubles semi-finals were played. On Court Number One Helen Wills and Hazel Wightman defeated their compatriots Eleanor Goss and Marion Jessup, 8-6, 6-4. In the other semi-final Kathleen McKane and Phyllis Covell beat Dorothy Shepherd-Barron and 44-year-old Dorothea Lambert Chambers, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4. After their Wightman Cup encounter two weeks earlier Helen Wills and Kathleen McKane were thus set to meet again in the final of both the women’s singles and women’s doubles events at Wimbledon. At this stage of the tournament – the second Thursday – Kathleen McKane was also still in the mixed doubles event with Brian Gilbert.
Looking ahead to the women’s singles final, many experts agreed that Kathleen McKane had a chance of winning the title. Although Helen Wills’ form had undoubtedly improved during the course of the tournament, she had had a very easy draw, and had lost only eleven games in five matches. Indeed only Aurea Edgington (last 16; 6-2, 6-2) and Phyllis Satterthwaite (semi-final; 6-2, 6-1) had managed to take more than three games from her in a match. The young American had yet to face a worthy opponent who would give her a serious test.
Kathleen McKane on the other hand had dropped sets in two of her matches, one of them in the very first round against the 44-year-old English veteran Blanche Colston (aka Lady Roundway), whom she beat 6-4, 4-6, 6-1. McKane had dropped the other set in her last 16 match against another Englishwoman, Honor Woolrych, whom she defeated by the unusual score of 4-6, 6-0, 6-0. There was no doubt that Kathleen McKane had been tested more than Helen Wills, and that the Englishwoman had come through those tests impressively. She was also considered to have the more versatile game in that she could not only play well from the baseline, but was also a skilled volleyer (hence her success in women’s doubles and mixed doubles events). Helen Wills was not really thought of as a volleyer although she was gradually improving in that department of the game.
Although the women’s singles final would lack Suzanne Lenglen, one of the most popular players of all, it would feature an Englishwoman, an occurrence that was becoming a rarity with each passing year. (Then again, Kathleen McKane had been in the same final at the same tournament one year earlier, where it had taken Lenglen to beat her.) The added attraction of the cool 18-year-old American débutante made it one of the most anticipated finals in years, Lenglen or no Lenglen. There was no doubting whose side the spectators would be on although in those days at Wimbledon spectators were much less partisan than they are today. Could Helen Wills keep her cool, play her best game and become that rarest of things, women’s singles champion at her first attempt?
In the end the answer to that question was no. Helen Wills did not become the first débutante to win the women’s singles title at Wimbledon since Suzanne Lenglen had achieved the feat in 1919. That said, the American came very close, possibly agonisingly close to winning (although she did not express emotion on court, the manner of the loss must have hurt; years later, in her autobiography, she would write that it was the only loss that she ever cried over).
The women’s singles final, played on July 4, 1924, had a rather strange start in that Helen Wills won the first game on her serve but then lost the next twelve points to go 1-3 down. However, the American subsequently found what was no doubt her best form of The Championships to take that first set, 6-4, and to build a lead of 4-1 in the second set. In the next game, with Kathleen McKane serving, Wills had three break points for a 5-1 with her serve to come. At this point the gritty Englishwoman dug her heels in and, playing some risky shots, including a number of sorties to the net, held serve to begin what would be a run of five games for her as she took the second set, 6-4. In the final set, play was even until 3-3 when Kathleen McKane obtained the vital break. Although Helen Wills held to 4-5, the Englishwoman, showing great poise and skill, served out in the next game for a famous victory by the score of 4-6, 6-4, 6-4.
On Saturday, July 5, 1924, the following report on the women’s singles final by Wallis Myers appeared in ‘The Daily Telegraph’:
“Thrilling Final at Wimbledon – Miss McKane’s Victory – Queen a Spectator
“American Independence Day, the anniversary of [Maurice] McLoughlin’s great bid [in 1913] for the singles Championship against Tony Wilding, and the stage set for another Californian guest – this time in the ladies’ singles Championship. All the attributes of a great occasion were there. The sun was shining, the Centre Court was packed as it had never been packed before this year, the Queen [Mary] (and with her the Duke and Duchess of York) was in the Royal Box. Commander [George] Hillyard was in his accustomed place (for the final) on the umpire’s chair; the lines were held by distinguished players. All that the day demanded was a great match. This desideratum, at first denied, was supplied. At the end of an hour and a quarter’s play Miss McKane had beaten Miss Helen Wills by two sets to one, each having yielded ten games [4-6, 6-4, 6-4].
“But what an agony of suspense and fluctuation before the Championship point was scored! What a match for both ladies to dream about! What a brilliant break of all-court play which carried the American champion three times within a stroke of 5-1 in the second set – a lead which, had it been secured, must almost inevitably have given her the British Championship as well! What a wonderful recovery of Miss McKane, who, when all seemed lost captured six games in succession and tipped the scales in her favour. Finally, what a thrilling final set, with every stroke of crucial value, with neither player ‘rattled’, yet straining every nerve for victory, with Miss Wills twice needing only a point for a 4-2 lead, and with Miss McKane determined she should not get it, with each country dead level at four all, and with England drawing on a deeper experience, just winning in the end.
“Play of high quality
“Let me emphasize that the play, except in an early phase, when Miss Wills lost twelve successive points, was of a remarkably high standard. I doubt whether any Lenglen match at Wimbledon (except the first in 1919) has provided rallies so keenly contested or strokes of such resource, variety and skill. Helen Wills was as near her American best as I have ever seen her; she redeemed every estimate of her stroke equipment, speed and accuracy formed on the other side, save in her judgment on two or three occasions, when she returned balls that were going out of court, she revealed all the qualities of a champion. She flouted the notion that she could not move quickly over the court; she confounded those who imagined that her form in the international match [Wightman Cup] was her true form, just as much as those who believed, after her earlier Championship matches at Wimbledon, that she could not hit a hard ball to the right place. If you ask why, with all these virtues, and with the commanding lead which they brought her, she did not win, the answer must be that Miss McKane’s volleys in the last set, especially towards its close, were more incisive than her own.
“When the coup-searching came to its crisis, when each player had been moved from a winning position into a losing position by the enterprise of the other, when the good lob had been recovered or the low cross drive countered, when the advance for the kill was finally undertaken and the opportunity to make it was offered, it was Miss McKane who, with her longer experience of net play, stowed the ball away to a spot from which it never returned. Miss Wills made beautiful volleys, more polished in their lustre some of them were, than the volleys of Miss McKane. I recollect one deep smash in the third set which McLoughlin could not have bettered. But the tendency was there – and it had a material effect on the last set – to chop the volley rather than to hit it with a plain-faced racket, as Miss McKane hits it.
“The Match in Retrospect
“I come to the match in brief survey. Miss Wills, serving, took the opening game without a challenge. She lost the next three, offering none herself. Three love games to Miss McKane. The wiseacres all began to talk at once. The struggle had not yet begun. Miss Wills took the fifth game from 15, the sixth from 30, and the seventh from 15. She had found her drive, both forehand and back; Miss McKane’s had temporarily left her – there was an increasing lack of control under pressure. It seemed certain that Miss Wills would go to 5-3 when she was offered, at short range, an easy drive past a volleyer; but she hit the ball too softly, her opponent moved over and intercepted; there followed a tremendous fight for the eighth game. Miss McKane won it in spite of three double faults. A great rally opened the ninth game; the crowd went almost delirious; but Miss Wills had now begun an invincible phase, and she took the first set unfalteringly, and with increasing speed, at 6-4.
“Without serious check, and with wonderful composure, she advanced to 4-1 in the second set. She kept Miss McKane away from the net by perfect lobbing; she hit the chalk with her cross-drives, she used her powerful backhand down the line; she was as sound in defence as in attack. The odds on her winning at this stage were something like six to one. Then came the palpitating conflict for the sixth game. Three times the American was within a stroke of it; but she had no easy chance; indeed, Miss McKane made two of her finest forehand drives to get up to ‘vantage. But its fate virtually decided this set. Miss Wills was never within call of the next three games. Miss McKane took the tenth game to love. She had found new strength in adversity; her forcing drive was operating at its best; the complementary volleys fitted in. Miss Wills saw her great lead wiped out.
“They were dead level at 2-2 in the final set. The pace had dropped a little under the physical strain; it only came back to its maximum when the tussle for the sixth game was waged. 3-all instead of 4-2 for Miss Wills. Miss McKane’s splendid cross-drives and two volleying errors by her opponent carried her to 4-3, and then to 5-3. Could she be caught now? Miss Wills evidently thought so, for she served brilliantly in the ninth game, and won it with this offensive alone. 30-0, and then 30-all in the next game; 40-30 after a tense rally. Then a silence that could almost be felt. Miss Wills attempts a low backhand drive off her body; it hits the band; Miss McKane is champion; the crowds acclaim – and the tea enclosures are choked. One final, and perhaps the most dramatic, was over.”
In retrospect, Kathleen McKane’s victory would be historic in more ways than one. Although illness would keep Helen Wills from taking part in the Wimbledon tournament in 1926, when she returned to Europe for the second time, at every subsequent Wimbledon in which she took part – eight in all – she would win the women’s singles title. Her record would stand until 1990, when the Czech-born American Martina Navrátilová won her ninth singles title (among men, Roger Federer of Switzerland is the only player to have won as many as eight Wimbledon singles titles).
Kathleen McKane would win a second women’s singles title at Wimbledon in 1926 under her married name (her husband was fellow lawn tennis player Leslie Godfree). Since her two singles victories, no British woman except Dorothy Round (1934 and 1937) has won the title twice and only three have managed to win it once, the last being Virginia Wade in 1977.
On the same day that she won the women’s singles title, July 4, Kathleen McKane returned to the Centre Court with Brian Gilbert for their semi-final in the mixed doubles event against their compatriots Ernest Lamb and Ermyntrude Harvey. The former pair won this match in straight sets, 6-2, 6-4. This meant that Kathleen McKane had reached the final of all three main events for which she was eligible – the women’s singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles. The last player to achieve this feat had been Suzanne Lenglen, in 1922, when she won the coveted and rare “triple crown”.
As stated above, there was no Sunday play at The Championships until 1972, so, weather permitting, the women’s singles final was held on the second Friday and the men’s singles final on the second Saturday. The order of play for the Centre Court on Saturday, July 5, the last day of the 1924 edition of the tournament, thus consisted of the women’s doubles final pitting Helen Wills/Hazel Wightman against Phyllis Covell/Kathleen McKane; the men’s singles, featuring the Frenchmen Jean Borotra and René Lacoste; the men’s doubles final, which was an all-American affair in which Watson Washburn/Richard N. Williams were due to take on Francis T. Hunter/Vincent Hunter; and, lastly, the mixed doubles final where the opposing pairs were Kathleen McKane/Brian Gilbert and Dorothy Shepherd-Barron/Leslie Godfree (the latter player being Kathleen McKane’s future husband).
Did Helen Wills have revenge in mind before her rematch with Kathleen McKane in the women’s doubles final? Whether she did or not, she and Hazel Wightman left the court as victors after a rather unspectacular two-set win, 6-4, 6-4. By all accounts the worst player on court that day was Phyllis Covell who had terrible problems with her serve. Helen Wills on the other hand made up for her relatively poor play in the women’s singles final by being the steadier player on her team. Eustratius Mavrogordato watched this match and his report on it was carried in the ‘The Times’ on Monday, July 7, 1924. It is reproduced in full below:
“English expectations – well-grounded or not – were disappointed in the final of the ladies’ doubles, for Miss Wills and Miss Wightman of America beat Miss McKane and Mrs Covell without the loss of a set, and on their form of the day the losers were not ill-rewarded with their eight games.
“But no one who has seen them in their earlier matches would regard their form of the day as the best to which they can rise. It would have been inhuman to expect that best from Miss McKane after her miraculous deliverance of Friday. Unless she had been a machine she would not have turned out her best strokes in succession; and no player of her standing is less of a machine. She would not now be [singles] Champion if nine-tenths of what preoccupies the casual player were not automatic with her; but by comparison with those whom she meets and beats she appears to improvise her stroke according to the ball hit her.
“It is her strength; her well-wishers never abandon hope when she is chasing the ball that, one way or another, she will have it back. It is also her weakness; she misses the easy ball more often than the machine player. With her of all players it must be essential that she should want to play to develop the necessary concentration, and it is inconceivable that she would have wanted to play on Saturday, even with the ‘triple crown’ to be had, as many of us thought, for the taking. She did, however, play well enough to have been on the winning side if Mrs Covell had been playing her best game.
“But a dreadful thing happened to Mrs Covell; it fell upon her in the second game of the match from out of the blue. She is not new to the Centre Court. Most memories of the meeting of 1921 are dim; but there remains a clear picture of Miss Howkins standing up to Mr Tilden in ‘mixed’ and putting the ball back deftly and demurely out of the great man’s reach. She had the less reason to be nervous that in the opening game of the match – the winning of which was mainly her doing – she had shown the most delicate touch in returning the service sharply to the sideline across the forehand of the advancing server. The first two points of the second game went to the American ladies through lobs of perfect length. After that the lobs went just out, and Mrs Covell found herself serving at 40-30.
“Then the thing happened. She could not serve; it would not have mattered if the American ladies had also not been ‘off’. In after years, when Mrs Wightman’s cunning has become legendary, we shall say, when speaking of the wise ones: ‘Ah, but did you see Mrs Wightman lose that game in 1924?’ What we shall go on to say shall not be true, for the Americans did their best to win the game, but could not; they lost it – but not until Mrs Covell had made six double faults. She was obviously unhappy whenever it was her turn to serve. Afterwards, and with the knowledge that the packed stands were henceforward primarily interested in watching for the fault, the prospect of serving must have been a nightmare to her.
“Henceforward, much of the English play in the rallies was like a speech that begins with a stammer and is hurried for fear of a repetition of it. Nevertheless the home pair led 4-2. They got no more games in the set. The decisive game was probably the fifth in the next set, with the score two-all. Mrs Wightman reached 40-15; the score was brought to deuce; an English pull-up which one had been waiting for ended with Miss McKane missing an easy smash.
“One had been expecting that pull-up; for in the rallies the American pair were apt to fail at wide strokes which one saw without surprise returned by their opponents. Perhaps Mrs Wightman expected it, too, for she hit out to win the match before the recovery began. She had enough failures for the score to be 4-all; but then her strokes came off and the game was over. She was the least likely of the four to reach and return the more difficult strokes, but she was the most cool and drastic with the others – as cool as Miss Wills, who played imperturbably throughout.
“Miss Wills wielded the best racket of the four. Her capacity for returning the ball compensated for some lack of that knowledge of where the ball will be hit, which comes of experience in doubles. Her defence was most sound; she served hard and accurately, and she was quick to the net to kill the return to a good service.”
Two matches later, after Jean Borotra had beaten René Lacoste in five sets, and Francis T. Hunter/Vincent Hunter had beaten Watson Washburn/Richard N. Williams, also in five sets, Kathleen McKane returned to the Centre Court with Brian Gilbert for the mixed doubles final against Dorothy Shepherd-Barron and Leslie Godfree. This time Kathleen McKane managed to win a second Wimbledon title as she and Gilbert won the final, 6-3 3-6, 6-3. On Monday, July 7, 1924, Eustratius Marvrogordato wrote of this match in ‘The Times’ as follows:
“In the last match of the meeting Miss Kathleen McKane won her second Championship with Mr Brian Gilbert. They lost the second set to Mr Leslie Godfree and Mrs Dorothy Shepherd-Barron. Mr Gilbert was, as he always is, firm and reliable in all departments of the game. He saved many rallies by his cool tossing back of long lobs he had to run hard to reach. His partner, without being at her best, was enough the Champion to make ultimate defeat improbable. Mr Godfree made few mistakes, and was conclusive in his smashing; the issue of the match depended on Mrs Shepherd-Barron; her overhead strokes are so shrewdly hit and so surprising in direction that when they are coming off no pair can reckon itself safe; but she had not Miss McKane’s capacity to deal with difficult grounds strokes.”
A fascinating yet ultimately very unpredictable tournament that had begun all Lenglen and Wills thus ended mainly McKane.
Last edited by newmark401; Sep 15th, 2017 at 01:19 PM.