Before there was Billie Jean, Chris, Martina or Steffi, there was Suzanne Lenglen.
Eighty-nine years ago today, Lenglen completed another dominate performance at Wimbledon, cruising to a 6-2, 6-0 victory in the final over Elizabeth Ryan.
It was her third of five consecutive singles titles at Wimbledon, and one of six she would take home in a remarkable playing career that never saw her lose at the All England Club.
She also won the doubles title in each of the same years (1919-1923, 1925) and took home the mixed doubles championship in 1920, 1922 and 1925.
As staggering as her dominance was, Lenglen’s tale is a tragic one, both for how short her life was, and how sadly she was forced to leave the tournament she dominated so thoroughly.
As a girl, she was a ballerina and started playing tennis under her father’s relentless tutelage.
She came to Wimbledon for the first time in 1919, and despite never having played on grass before, won the crown by disposing of defending champion and seven-time Wimbledon champ Dorothea Lambert Chambers.
Chambers was 40 years old at the first meeting, Lenglen half that. Lenglen won a marathon 10-8, 4-6, 9-7 match. The two met again in an earlier round the following year, and Lenglen thrashed Chambers 6-3, 6-0. Lenglen was known as “The Goddess of Tennis” over her rule, not because of particularly attractive looks, but because her ballet abilities and lighter, more flexible clothing allowed her to exhibit grace rarely seen on the court.
The only time she did not win Wimbledon was in 1924, when she missed the entire season due to illness, a harbinger of things to come.
In 1926, Lenglen played against Helen Willis at Cannes. Lenglen emerged with a 6-3, 8-6 win, the only time she would face Willis, who went on to win Wimbledon eight times, the US Championships seven times and the French Championships four times.
At Wimbledon that same year, Lenglen was not informed of her starting time in the third round, and was even less aware that Queen Mary had decided to attend her match. When she showed up an hour late for the match,
Lenglen was booed for insulting the crown, and chose to withdraw from the tournament. She would never play at Wimbledon again, opting to turn professional.
Unlike Chambers, her first Wimbledon championship opponent, Lenglen would not have the fortune of playing into her 40s. She died of leukemia in 1938 at age 39.
Although she is gone, Lenglen is definitely not forgotten. In 1994, Roland Garros Stadium, home of the French Open, debuted a secondary court, known as the Suzanne Lenglen Court. The stadium holds just over 10,000 spectactors, and a statue of Lenglen stands out front.