The world’s first global sporting celebrity

Lenglen mixed with European royalty and Hollywood stars but commanded just as much, if not more, attention as any of them. In 1926, a contest in Cannes against rising US star Helen Wills – seen as her biggest rival, even though they’d never played each other before – was dubbed the Match of the Century, with tickets changing hands for extortionate prices, and those unable to get inside the venue climbing nearby trees to get a glimpse of the action. Lenglen, once again, triumphed.

If Lenglen were playing today, her success on court would translate to tens of millions in prize money. As it was, tennis was then still an amateur sport, with those who chose to earn money from it barred from most major tournaments, including Wimbledon. In 1926, Lenglen – who hit out at the elitism of an amateurs-only rule that favoured the wealthy – decided to turn professional and embark on a lucrative US tour, calling the move “an escape from bondage and slavery”. In fact, cast out from prestigious events and widely criticised for her decision, it was the beginning of the end of her career. It also meant she never competed at Stade Roland Garros, which only became the site for the French tournament in 1928.

In the 1930s she worked in a fashion store and later as the director of a French tennis school, but aged 39, she died suddenly of pernicious anaemia, three weeks after falling ill. Today, as well as both a court and a walkway named in her honour, a statue of Lenglen stands in the grounds of Roland Garros, and the women’s singles trophy is known as the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

“On the court, I think it’s hard to overstate what she did for bringing attention to the women’s game,” says Humberstone. As for fashion, Suzanne made the tennis court the new catwalk. “The athletic wear of one week would become the formal wear of the next.”

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The glamour of Lenglen’s era feels long-gone. Luxury fashion houses might be dressing players off-court, but sponsorship deals with big sportswear brands means they arrive for matches wearing logo-ed hoodies, rather than fur coats. Players with the same sponsor can even end up in exactly the same outfit, making it hard for viewers to distinguish who they’re watching – never an issue with The Goddess.

But Lenglen’s spirit can still be felt every time a player feels inspired to push the boundaries and express themselves on court. “We just have to look at the controversy over Serena Williams’s catsuit [Williams was banned from wearing her black superhero-style outfit at future French Open tournaments after appearing in it during the 2018 French Open] to find parallels to the sort of controversy that Lenglen’s revolutionary fashion choices would provoke,” says Humberstone.

Lenglen’s lasting impact on the game – from changing the way women dressed and how aggressively they played to putting women’s tennis in the spotlight and paving the way for female sport superstars – is undeniable. As Humberstone says: “All of the things we take for granted about modern sports stars, we can trace back to Suzanne Lenglen.”

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