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Suzanne Lenglen

(1899—1938)


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(1899–1938)

A French lawn tennis player who won 15 (6 singles and 9 doubles) titles at the Wimbledon Championships, and 2 Olympic gold medals at the Antwerp Games in 1920. Unbeaten at Wimbledon throughout six years, she lost only once in her amateur career, when retiring through illness related to her asthma, in the US Championships. Lenglen turned professional in 1926 after a dispute with the Wimbledon authorities, and defaulting from the tournament having kept Queen Mary waiting for half an hour for a match that never took place. Her sponsor in her professional career was American promoter C. C. (‘Cash and Carry’) Pyle, and in her home country she founded the Lenglen School of Tennis in Paris.

Lenglen's competitive and physical style changed the approach to the women's game: a frail child, her father encouraged her to play tennis to gain strength, and she practised her strokes by aiming for a pocket handkerchief as a target, and also cultivated what were seen as unladylike overhead shots. Her impact transcended the tennis court, as her competitive philosophy and aggressive physical style challenged conventional notions of genteel femininity. Her designer tennis dresses and groomed bobbed hair radiated fashion style and sexuality across and beyond the sporting world. Allen Guttmann (Sports: The First Five Millennia, 2004) has called Lenglen the ‘first sportswoman to become an international celebrity’, famed as she was for her ‘exotic attire and flamboyant behaviour as well as for athletic skill’. Jennifer Hargreaves emphasizes her importance as a symbol of alternative sexuality. Her playing attire ‘made possible an image of the “real” body underneath…and allowed her to move energetically so that people caught glimpses of parts that “respectable” ladies never made visible in public’ (Sporting Females: Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women's Sports, 1994). Spectators at Wimbledon were divided: some enjoyed her radical presence; some saw this as indecent, and walked out in protest. This combination of impacts confirmed Lenglen's status as one of the first modern women superstars of the sporting world.

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