Thursday, February 16, 2017

"The Match of the Century" (Feb.16, 1926)

Before Martina faced off with Chrissie in the 1970s and '80s, Steffi and Monica met to decide slam titles in the '90s, or Serena and Venus moved the Williams Family Practice Session onto the grand slam stages for the past two decades, there was the thrilling notion of a clash between the flashy and dramatic Suzanne Lenglen, the French woman recognized as the greatest women's tennis player alive during the "Golden Age" of sports in the 1920s, and Helen Wills, the calm, big-hitting young Californian who would ultimately inherit her position as the best that women's tennis to offer on the world stage.

The only problem with the idea of their "rivalry," though, was that they only faced off in singles once on a tennis court. That meeting, so anticipated at the time that it was dubbed "The Match of the Century," happened ninety one years ago today, on February 16, 1926.



=Excerpts by color=
Sports Illustrated Classic; "Tennis Everyone?," by Frank Lidz (Fall 1991)
LINK
Sports Illustrated; "The Lady in the White Silk Dress," by Sarah Pileggi (Sept.13, 1982)
LINK
Remezcla.com; "Meet Helen Wills, the Tennis Player who Inspired Diego Rivera and Miguel Covarrubias," by Jessica Lopez (2016)
LINK
BleacherReport.com; "Queens of the Court: Helen Wills Moody, the Garbo of Tennis," by Marianne Bevis (October 22, 2009)
LINK


Suzanne Lenglen was the winner of eight slam singles titles from 1919-26, including six Wimbledon crowns. She compiled a 341-7 match record, and once won 181 matches in a row, combining grace and intelligence gameday tactics in a way that made her the most unique player in tennis, and, in fact, all of sport. In 1920, she won Olympic singles Gold, losing just four total games en route to the victory stand in Antwerp. Lenglen reached the final at Roland Garros (then a French-only event) in 1914 at age 14. At 15, she became the youngest winner of a major championship (it's still a record) when she won the World Hard Court Championships. World War I, though, caused her to miss five years of her career, as the sport didn't appear again in Europe until 1919.


A flamboyant, glamorous, fashion trendsetter, Lenglen was the first true female tennis celebrity. The sport's biggest star attraction in the late 1910's and early 1920's, she was dubbed "La Divine" (The Goddess) by the French press. Lenglen famously gained attention for (gasp) appearing at Wimbledon in a forearm-baring dress cut just above the calf. Predictably, the Brits were shocked by the bold Pastry, who was also known for sipping brandy from her "emergency kit" (a flask) between sets of play.

Lenglen was "a bit of a mess, a baseline Zelda Fitzgerald (the high-spirited "first American flapper") who succumbed routinely to fits of depression and hysteria."


The American star Wills was six and a half years Lenglen's junior, and different from her (near)-contemporary in almost every way. Other than on-court dominance, that is. While Lenglen was flamboyant and craved attention, Wills was quiet and serious, and didn't overtly seek the spotlight. Statuesque and stronger than the French woman, by 1926 the 20 year-old Bannerette had already won three U.S. Open titles and Olympic Gold in 1924, doing so in Lenglen's Paris hometown.

She was a stark contrast to flappers of the era -- an independent woman with power, strength, intelligence, and beauty, and was thus dubbed a rebellious icon for American womanhood. It might come as a surprise to hear that Wills never considered the sport to be her career. Instead, she sought to perpetuate the myth that her true calling -- her real vocation -- was art. Tennis was a mere pastime, something that required minimal effort.

This was not the case, despite the fact that the art career that she so desired wasn’t completely out of her reach. Wills received a degree in fine arts from the University of California, illustrated her own articles for The Saturday Evening Post, published a book of poems (The Awakening), and painted throughout her life. She was a part of the New York World art staff, and a long-term contributor with The Newspaper Enterprise Association, where she wrote a series of articles on issues of interest to young women. But regular office hours quickly began to interfere with her practice time.


Wills is best known for winning 31 Grand Slam titles (including eight Wimbledon and seven U.S. singles crowns), holding the number one world ranking for eight years, and amassing a 180+ match winning streak from 1927 to 1933. She inspired awe in everyone who saw her grace a tennis court. In 1930, for example, Charlie Chaplin described “the movement of Helen Wills playing tennis” as the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.


Between 1923 and 1933, Wills won 17 of her 19 singles Slam titles and was runner up in two more. (And this was at a time when players did not take in the Australian championships because of the time and distances involved in reaching them.)

{from Wikipedia} "Wills was the first American woman athlete to become a global celebrity, making friends with royalty and film stars despite her preference to stay out of the limelight. She was admired for her graceful physique and for her fluid motion. She was part of a new tennis fashion, playing in knee-length pleated skirts rather than the longer ones of her predecessors. Unusually, she practiced against men to hone her craft, and she played a relentless game, wearing down her female opponents with power and accuracy."

In contrast to La Divine, Wills was described as introverted and detached. She rarely showed emotion. She was dubbed "Little Miss Poker Face" and the "Ice Queen," and was said to ignore both her opponents and the crowd during matches.

As a teenager, she was a quiet and reserved girl who admitted in later years that she found relief from an innate melancholy in her painting and her tennis.

Kitty McKane Godfree, the only player to ever defeat Wills at Wimbledon, said, "Helen was a very private person, and she didn't really make friends very much." Wills, especially as she became more successful (shocker), was considered an unpopular public figure, and was desparagingly called "Queen Helen" and "The Imperial Helen." Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman (a four-time U.S. Open champ) offered a reason, saying, "Helen was really an unconfident and [socially] awkward girl -— you have no idea how awkward.... I thought of Helen as an honestly shy person who was bewildered by how difficult it was to please most people."

In 1921, at just 16 years old and still only 5'0", Wills went to the east coast for more competition, and saw the most famous tennis player of the day, Suzanne Lenglen, for the first time. The sick Lenglen was jeered off court by the American crowd, having defaulted against home favorite Molla Mallory. The very next year, Wills was herself up against Mallory in the U.S. Open final, and recorded her last ever loss to her illustrious countrywoman. By the end of 1922, Wills was ranked third among American women. More importantly, she had grown a full seven inches and had gained 25 pounds. She was ready to embark on one of the finest decades of tennis success ever achieved by a man or a woman.

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 de'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 dominated everything, taking the attention away from dozens of women far prettier..."

When it was learned that month Wills was coming to France (in 1926) 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. 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 Ibanez, who had never so much as seen a tennis match.


The ballyhoo began on Jan. 15 when Wills stepped off the ocean liner De Grasse in the port of Le Havre. Dozens of local reports were waiting to pelt her with questions. The attitude of the French press was downright imperial. Americans were viewed as generally inferior and most laughable. Paris-Midi, in fact, had only recently described them as "degenerate and rotten, physically, intellectually and morally. They offend our eyes, our ears and our nostrils." With their noses quivering in anticipation, the assembled French reporters found Wills polite, demure and possibly fragrant. Wills explained that she had come to France not so much to play tennis but to paint. The Frenchmen were charmed by this straightforward Californian. Wills so enthralled the prestigious Eclaireur de Nice that it pronounced her "une petite jeune fille de province" -- a lovely little country girl.


On court, in her scandalously short skirts and jeweled bandeau, Lenglen was a zigzag of wicked zest, a demon who never gave in. Ernest Hemingway thought enough of her to say of a male character in The Sun Also Rises: "He loved to win at tennis. He probably loved to win as much as Lenglen, for instance." Lenglen treated Wills dismissively, calling her a "sweet child." She watched the young American play doubles in Nice but left midway through the match and said, clucking, "Isn't that comical."

(Sportswriter Grantland) Rice and his fellow Americans were mostly homers. The exception was Heywood Broun, a beefy, Brooklyn-born columnist for the New York World. Lenglen ws Broun's kind of woman: She smoked, she drank, she kept her training to a minimum, she was a nervous wreck. "She moves through one of the most exacting of all strenuous games and remains in appearance morbid," he wrote, "Suzanne is the finest of all champions...for she wins and wins and still avoids the reproach of being an ideal or a good example to anyone."



As with everything else, the playing styles of the two women were in direct opposition to one another. Wills was blessed with a natural physical presence, but was seen as being a more straightforward player whose game often lacked what we would now call a "Plan B" course of action. She employed an aggressive serve-and-volley game with powerful groundstrokes that drove opponents deep in the court and served to cover her vulnerable forward movement toward the net; while the light-footed and imaginative Lenglen played a more varied, stylish game, mastered the drop shot and was known for brilliant, eleganct shot-making. She was at her best on grass courts. And then, of course, there were the sips of alcohol during matches, an act which, really, we could do worse than see some player attempt to employ today, am I right? (Wink, wink.)

The longer the meeting of Lenglen and Wills was postponed (in 1926's early weeks) -- 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 arrives. 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."

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 (mother) 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 underline her exhaustion by placing one hand on her hip, the other over her eyes.


(She was) perhaps sluggish from lack of sleep after a long night arguing with her overbearing father, who opposed her playing in the match. Or she may have been rattled by the incantations of spectators who shouted, shrieked and whistled during every rally. The London Daily Mail noted: "Miss Wills took no refreshments during the match, but Mlle. Lenglen drank several glasses of water." Actually, Lenglen was quaffing chilled cognac, a fact not lost on the TIME reporter, who wrote, "As her cells took up the liquor, courage spouted through her veins, empurpled her falcon face. And her strength and spring seemed to return. Her cat cunning footwork began to work again."

The best reportage of the clash itself was by Al Laney (Paris Herald). In his account, he remarked on the relucatance of Wills to backhand balls down the line to Lenglen's forehand. Lenglen's soft, sharply angled returns dragged Wills up to the net, leaving most of the court open.


"A thing that surprised me," she wrote in Fifteen-Thirty, "was that I found her balls not unusually difficult to hit, nor did they carry as much speed as the balls of several other of the leading women players whom I had met in matches. But her balls keps coming back, coming back, and each time to a spot on the court which was a little more difficult to get to."

In the second set, Wills began to anticipate her opponent's shrewdly played shots. She took three of the first four games. But her composure evaporated after one of Lenglen's shots that had clearly landed out was called in. Lenglen evened the set at 4-4. At double match point in the 12th game, Wills pasted a crosscourt forehand to Lenglen's forehand corner. "Out!" someone shouted. Lenglen skipped to the net and shook the hand of her rival. She was mobbed by hundreds of fans and showered with carnations, orchids and American beauty roses.


In the midst of this pandemonium a linesman, Lord Charles Hope, almost unnoticed, approached the umpire's chair to say that the ball had been good, that he had not called it out (the audible call had indeed been made by a spectator).

The umpire, one Commander George Hillyard, changed the score to 40-30. In a few minutes the court was cleared and the players returned to their positions, one drained, the other revivified.


Lenglen came unraveled, dropping the next three points and the game. Six-all. But Lenglen was nothing if not resilient. Within 15 minutes she was again serving at match point: 7-6, 40-15.

At that crucial moment she double-faulted, she who was said to have double-faulted only six times in seven years! The game went to deuce. But then, from deep within her well of experience, Lenglen drew two winners in a row and the match was hers, for the second time (taking the set 8-6).

Again the crowd pressed in to congratulate her. Standing within the wall of people, Lenglen sobbed convulsively.

Lenglen sank onto a bench, exhausted, and later, when she was led by friends to a small office near the dressing rooms, she collapsed onto a desk that was covered with neat stacks of bank notes, the proceeds from the sale of tickets. Hysterical now, she began to tear them into little pieces.

Later in the afternoon she met Wills again, this time in the doubles final (once again, the French woman was victorious).

News of the match swamped the front pages. SUZANNE WEEPS, WINS AND FAINTS, screamed the London Daily Herald. "One of the most grotesque and thrilling and momentous games on record," crowed James Thurber. The London Morning Post likened Lenglen's play to "the rhythmic silence of Bernhardt or an arabesque of Karsavina" and suggested that each of her conquests should be celebrated in verse "like the victorious swordplay of Cyrano de Bergerac."

But the unexpectedly close contest chastened the editor of L'Echo des Sports, who wrote, "We had grown to consider the French champion as a class apart; that short of accident her position could not be threatened by any rivals. Yesterday's match proves that Suzanne is not in a class of her own above all others; that her defeat can be classed among the possible if not the normal eventualities."


As John Tunis wrote in the Globe of Lenglen's having to replay match point: "Without a word, without a murmur, without any protest visible or otherwise, she returned to her task...There was the real champion of champions."

Unwittingly, Tunis was writing Lenglen's epitaph. To the world at large the Wills match was Lenglen's greatest triumph, but a few observers, like Tunis, looking past the bouquets to the shattered figure and then over to the taller opponent in the sun visor standing unnoticed and unperturbed amid the confusion, sensed the truth, that at long last Suzanne's successor has appeared. Lenglen surely knew it, too.


The London Evening News put the match in proper perspective: "It seemed as if the earth itself would pause in its rotation, as if all the international excitement would end in an appeal to the League of Nations. Anything might have happened, including a war between the United States and France." But with the match at last over the Evening News declared, "the universe can now go on as before."


It is believed by some that Lenglen purposely avoided Wills the rest of the year in 1926. Wills' emergency appendectomy during Roland Garros that spring sent her out of Paris and kept her from playing Wimbledon, as well. At SW19, in what would be her final appearance there, Lenglen unknowingly kept Queen Mary waiting in the Royal Box for her appearance in a match. The Frenchwoman had been told the match would start much later in the day, and fainted upon hearing of the error. The act was viewed as an "insult to the monarchy." Lenglen withdrew from the tournament, and never played there again.

Lenglen then turned professional after the '26 season, taking up U.S. entrepreneur Charles Pyle's offer of $50,000 to tour the U.S., where she played in a series of exhibition matches vs. U.S. Open champ Mary Browne. Criticized for her decision, and AELTC at Wimbledon revoked her honorary membership.


Lenglen, though, described her decision as "an escape from bondage and slavery" and said in the tour program, "In the twelve years I have been champion I have earned literally millions of francs for tennis and have paid thousands of francs in entrance fees to be allowed to do so... I have worked as hard at my career as any man or woman has worked at any career. And in my whole lifetime I have not earned $5,000 – not one cent of that by my specialty, my life study – tennis.... I am twenty-seven and not wealthy – should I embark on any other career and leave the one for which I have what people call genius? Or should I smile at the prospect of actual poverty and continue to earn a fortune – for whom?" Concerning the amateur tennis set-up of the day, Lenglen said, "Under these absurd and antiquated amateur rulings, only a wealthy person can compete, and the fact of the matter is that only wealthy people do compete. Is that fair? Does it advance the sport? Does it make tennis more popular – or does it tend to suppress and hinder an enormous amount of tennis talent lying dormant in the bodies of young men and women whose names are not in the social register?"

Lenglen won all 38 matches she played on the tour vs. Browne, and was exhausted by the time it was over. Rather than rest and return to the game later, she retired to run a Paris tennis school. Health issues were with Lenglen throughout her life and career (she was forced to withdraw from the '24 tournament in the QF due to health problems associated with jaundice). She suffered from chronic asthma as a child, and picked up tennis partly as a way to gain strength to combat her numerous health problems. In June of 1938, Lenglen was diagnosed with leukemia. She went quickly as three weeks later, she went blind, and on July 4 she died in Paris of pernicious anemia at age 39.


At Roland Garros, both a show court and the women's championship cup bear Lenglen's name.


By her return to tennis in 1927 (after her appendectomy), Wills was unbeatable. Not only did she win all three slams between Wimbledon that year and Wimbledon in 1930, she did so without conceding a set. The Wills game had become truly formidable. (Her practices against male players) helped to develop the powerful, athletic and unflagging play that dominated all-comers. Indeed as late as 1933, she played, and beat in straight sets, the eighth ranked American male player Phil Neer in an exhibition match, 6-3/6-4.

On both the forehand and backhand, she was able to drive the ball with speed, pace, and depth, and had a serve that could pull her opponent wide of the tramlines. Though she didn’t attack the net with any frequency, she was also a capable volleyer.


TIME magazine, which featured Wills Moody on its cover twice, said: “There was nothing frivolous about Little Miss Poker Face. She stood her ground like a tank, drilling out bullet serves and powerful baseline drives." The lack of emotion on court at which this extract hints was interpreted by many as an aloof coolness, and neither endeared her to the media nor won great warmth from spectators. However, it did reflect Wills Moody’s naturally introspective personality, as well as her ability to channel herself with remarkable concentration into her tennis. In her autobiography, she said, "I had one thought and that was to put the ball across the net. I was simply myself, too deeply concentrated on the game for any extraneous thought."

In style, too, she had class. Not for her the bohemian bandanna and flowing coat sported by Lenglen. Wills Moody wore a pleated knee-length skirt, white open neck blouse, and a white visor—a trend-setter of her day. She had an effortless and unhurried walk, a wonderful bearing, and yes, looked remote.



Wills went on to dominate the sport more thoroughly after Lenglen's 1926 exit. She added sixteen additional slam singles titles after '26 to up her career total to nineteen, inheriting Lenglen's crown -- and replacing her in the minds of many -- as the greatest player in the sport's 20th century era. She won her record eighth Wimbledon title in 1938, a mark that wasn't surpassed until Martina Navratilova won her ninth crown fifty-two years later in 1990.


Wire Structure Tennis Player representation of Wills
(by Alexander Calder, 1927)

In retirement, Wills Moody set up her own art studio, wrote extensively, and played tennis into her 80s. She continued to follow the game in her later years and admired the tennis of Martina Navratilova. As well she might. It had taken more than half a century for a woman to win more Wimbledon singles titles than the multi-layered Wills Moody. Navratilova was that woman.


What more might burnish the Wills Moody reputation? That she reached the final of every Grand Slam singles event she played during her career? That she played in the Whiteman Cup 10 times and lost only two matches? That she won 12 Grand Slam doubles titles? That she wrote and illustrated her own coaching manual (example above)? Or that, when she died at 92, she left her $10 million fortune to the University of California, where she is now remembered by the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute?


While Lenglen died young, Wills lived to be nearly 100. She died in 1998 at age 92 in Carmel, California.

So, who was better? Lenglen or Wills?

Movie legend Charlie Chaplin's beliefs about Wills notwithstanding, Elizabeth Ryan, who faced both in her career and played doubles with both women, said, "Suzanne, of course. She owned every kind of shot, plus was a genius for knowing how and when to use them."



The Goddess and the American Girl: The Story of Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills,
by Larry Englemann (1988)

There was an entire book devoted to the lives of the two tennis greats who played just once: The Goddess and the American Girl: The Story of Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills.

Below is an extended excerpt from the book from Tennis.Quickfound.net, where additional excerpts can be found. What I've pulled out focuses on the Lenglen/Wills match. I especially liked the mention of Lenglen's "emergency kit" and its immediately positive impact on her game in the heat of battle.

Further text from the book (along with some discussion) can be found on a forum thread on Tennis-Warehouse.com.

[From The Goddess and the American Girl]

The "MATCH OF THE CENTURY"
In the fourth game Lenglen seized control of the [1st] set. She exchanged long backhand drives with Wills, staying behind the baseline on her backhand side, clearly tempting her to go for the easy winner down the forehand side. But Helen Wills did not go for those winners. She hit ball after ball deep to Lenglen's backhand... one newsman wrote that Helen Wills played as though she believed Suzanne Lenglen's weakness was her backhand. It wasn't... Lenglen took... a 3-2 lead.

Lenglen won the 1st set 6-3. Between sets she had "two deep swallows" from her "emergency kit" -- said to be iced cognac. "There was a noticeably new spring in her walk when she returned to the baseline to receive Helen's serve."

Wills served the opening game of the second set. She sliced her first service wide to Lenglen's forehand, drew the Maid Marvel off the court, then moved in quickly and took the return with a winning volley to the backhand side. The crowd loved it. She took three more points in rapid succession and without much difficulty. The last point of the game was nearly unbelievable: a beautiful topped backhand shot straight down the line. The shot completely outwitted Lenglen and left her standing flatfooted in the backcourt. Wills had raised the level of play once again.

[After 7 games the score stood at Wills 4, Lenglen 3...] Before serving the eighth game, Suzanne Lenglen took another gulp from her emergency kit. Then she served and won the first point. But Helen Wills again came back and took two points and the lead. The fourth point of the game involved an exceptionally long rally. Then Lenglen returned one of Wills's long forehand shots with a powerful forehand angled return. Helen moved for the ball near the juncture of the service line and the sideline. But then she held back on her swing and watched the ball bound well outside. Newsman Don Skene, sitting near where the ball came down, watched it hit wide by "three inches at least." Associated Press correspondent Ferdinand Tuohy also had no doubt about the ball. "It struck far outside," he wrote.

Cyril Tolley, the line judge, remained silent. Helen Wills stood for a moment near where the ball went down, listening for the call. Then, in an extremely rare gesture, she abandoned her silence and her serenity and her poker-faced look. In a loud and clear voice, almost a desperate shout that betrayed her anger, she demanded of Tolley, "What did you call that ball?"

"Inside," he responded. "The shot was good!"

Fred Moody, Helen's regular Riviera escort, was sitting near the line too, and he knew that the ball was out. He had no doubts at all. "The ball was out and Helen was robbed..."

In the eleventh game Lenglen... broke Wills's service at 30 and appeared to be in control of the match. She now led 6-5 with her own service coming. Then, with renewed confidence she jumped out to a 40-15 lead and double match point in the twelfth game. She hit her first match point down the middle to Wills's backhand and then stayed back for the return. There were several long exchanges as Helen tried pull Suzanne into the forehand corner with some powerful crosscourt blasts. Eventually, Wills sent a sizzling drive deep into that corner. Lenglen moved over for the return, hesitated, and then stopped. Then she heard a wonderful wonderful wonderful sound as a loud and clear voice roared "Ouuuut!" Suzanne Lenglen flung the remaining two tennis balls she held high into the sky and skipped quickly to the net, a smile of relief on her face, her right hand extended. Helen Wills met her at the net and grasped her hand.

The tennis court was almost instantly engulfed by a mob.

Meanwhile, from the far end of the court Lord Charles Hope frantically fought his way through the crowd, swimming through the shouting celebrants to the umpire's chair. When he was within a few feet of Commander Hillyard, he shouted out a shocking statement. "The shot was good!" he said. "I didn't call it out!"

...once Hillyard was certain that he had heard Hope right, he turned apologetically to Suzanne. "The match is not over," he said cautiously. "That ball was good."

Suzanne Lenglen gave the umpire a stunned look as the remark registered. The she responded in a calm and deliberately measured tone, "Then we must go on."...

...Helen Wills... saved the second match point and brought the game to deuce. Then with her hard drives and sharp crisp angles she took two more points and the twelfth game. Six to six.

...Suzanne Lenglen [now leading 7-6] served cautiously in the fourteenth game, placing each service with meticulous care... Finally, with one of her pretty placements she arrived once more at match point. This was fifteen minutes after she believed she had won the match.

She served to Wills's backhand once again and took the strong return with her forehand, punching over a drop shot just to the left of the center line. Wills responded with a running desperate save that was high over the net. Too high... Lenglen... caught it near the service line, shoulder high and slapped it back at an angle across the court for a winner. The match was over.


[YouTube description]
Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills played only once, at a small tournament in the south of France in 1926. It was billed as the Match of the Century, and 3000 spectators and media from all over the world crammed into the stands at the Carlton Club. Lenglen won the first set 6-3 and led 6-5 40-15, and on the next point she thought she won the match when she heard an "Out" call on one of Wills' drives. As spectators crowded the court and bouquets of flowers were given to the victor, a linesman made his way through the crowd to tell the chair umpire that the "Out" call came from someone in the stands, and that the ball was actually good. When Lenglen heard this she was mortified but said, "Then we must continue playing." The court was cleared, and play resumed. Wills won the game to tie the set at 6-6, then Lenglen needed to call on all of her reserves to win the next two games for the match. In this video, you will see Lenglen (left side of screen) shake hands with Wills as photographers crowd the court. Then you will see Wills put on her dark sweater, and then remove it. There is then another sequence of photographers coming onto the court, and if you look closely you will see that Lenglen is now on the right side of the screen when the two players shake hands (for the second time).


In 2016, I put together a daily series of all things Lenglen, with one selection appearing on each day's "The Daily Backspin: RG Edition" during that season's competition at Roland Garros, from May 22 until June 5.



"Day-by-Day: Finally, Lenglen" [LINK TO COMPILATION]

All for now.

4 Comments:

Blogger colt13 said...

Great stuff as usual.

Actually more familiar with John Tunis as John R. Tunis, the children's sports author.

Thu Feb 16, 01:42:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Yeah, you know, reading about all this sort of showed how many writers/authors famous in others areas (or who would soon be) were newspaper or sportswriters in their earlier days, such as another who was quoted in here while writing about Lenglen/Wills at the time, James Thurber (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty).

Also thought how Hemingway casually referenced Lenglen's competitiveness in a complimentary way in one of his novels was a sign of how prevalent she was in the culture at the time, too.

Thu Feb 16, 02:51:00 PM EST  
Blogger Diane said...

This was just wonderful, Todd. I learned so much about HWM. And I want to read that Englemann book.

Thu Feb 16, 05:53:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

I managed to find a copy of it last year after I did the RG series, but I haven't gotten around to reading any of it yet. I hadn't gotten too much into the Helen Wills information when I originally did the research on the match, but I, too, got much more interested in her this time around when I collected the information about her for this. Maybe I'll finally get to the book now. (I have it setting out, at least.) :)

Thu Feb 16, 09:59:00 PM EST  

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