Athletics aside, I’ve always appreciated tennis for granting women flexibility for stylish sportswear. Come to think of it, I’m hard pressed to name another physical activity that utilizes headbands, dresses, pleated skirts and designer equipment bags as sporting culture. So naturally, we make a racket of oncourt looks. But far before Serena’s catsuits, Venus’ lacy negligee and Bethanie’s animal print, there was Suzanne Lenglen.
Lenglen was born in 1899 in Compiegne, some 70km north of Paris. By the age of eight, Lenglen showed early signs of athletic ability, excelling in running, swimming and cycling. Her first try at tennis was in 1910. Within a month, her father constructed a backboard for her to practice against. He soon decided to train her further himself. His methods worked around a more aggressive masculine play over the women’s patient placement game at the time.
The result revolutionized women’s tennis. Lenglen played with the speed and strength of a man, executed with a feminine grace. For the most of her career, she was regarded invincible.
Just four years after her first stroke, Lenglen played in the final of the 1914 French Championships at the age of 14. While the outbreak of World War I at the end of the year left most tournaments suspended, Lenglen continued a strict regimen of practice by playing with male tennis stars recuperating their wounds in Nice. When the war ended, Lenglen emerged a national hero and went on to winning 31 Championship titles until her retirement in 1926.
Prior to Lenglen, female tennis matches drew little fan interest. When she took to court, devotees began lining up by the hordes. She was a deadly accurate shot, sported extremely agile footwork and had incredible ball control.
And she was great entertainment. Her temperament drove spectators to tears. But even the fainthearted couldn’t look away. After all, she introduced glamour to the court.
Lenglen’s earlier tennis outfits went along with her time. She paired short-sleeved white blouses and mid-calf white cotton skirts with a wide brimmed bonnet for sun protection. Her twist to the status quo was in skipping traditional corsets and heavy underwear.
What set her further apart was a trademark cropped bob she kept until her retirement. Early into her career, she began wrapping it around a wide silk scarf. Her version of a feminine sportsband was the first of its kind.
At her 1920 Wimbledon finals, she made headlines with a change in appearance. Decked in full makeup, Lenglen walked onto court sporting a full-length fur coat only to unsheath it to reveal a tight-fitting sleeveless top and a scandalously short skirt. God forbid, it was knee-length! Of her outfit, Bill Tilden remarked, “Her costume struck me as a cross between a prima donna’s and a streetwalker.”
Her daring wear was crafted by Jean Patou, a designer most revered for eradicating the flapper look by lengthening women’s skirts. Once he started designing her cutting edge tennis wear, Lenglen became a pinnacle athletic figure for the Jazz Age.
Her career was about the time women’s suffrage met its peak; when greater opportunities for equality started to emerge. What Lenglen contributed to her time was incredibly significant. She turned women’s tennis from a game to a sport through and through.