Suzanne Lenglen & Helen Wills Moody

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Excerpts from The Goddess and the American Girl: The Story of Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills
    by Larry Englemann, 1988, Oxford University Press, NY Out of print, but still available used from Amazon.com via the link above.

    The Goddess and the American Girl differs from most sports biographies in having a useful index, rare in this genre. It also has a useful, comprehensive list of sources (although the text is not linked to the sources via annotation). Although the book focuses on the lives of two subjects, it also contains much information about other players, such as Molla Mallory, Helen Jacobs, Hazel Wightman, and Alice Marble.
    The information presented in the book is excellent, but the presentation itself is unfortunately verbose. The 440 pages would make more interesting reading if cut to 300, or even fewer, pages, without necessarily losing any real information.
    But although the writing is laced with superfluous sentences and phrases, The Goddess and the American Girl is fairly clear and readily understandable nonetheless. Numerous tennis matches of great historic importance are described in substantial, if wordy, detail, making this book well worth reading. The index and source list also make it a very useful reference.

The photos of Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills on this page are from Wimbledon.org
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Suzanne Lenglen

Suzanne Lenglen: Early Years (pages 7-8)

    Suzanne Rachel Flore Lenglen was born in Compiègne, France on May 24, 1899... Papa Lenglen, a businessman of some means, managed the omnibus concession he had inherited from his father. The enterprise prospered, and soon after Suzanne's birth Papa sold it and moved with his wife, Anais, and their daughter to a rustic villa in Maretz-sur-Matz near Compiègne. There the Lenglens lived a life of pleasant leisure, dividing their time between the new home in the Oise and a small vacation villa in Nice...
    ...Papa later remembered the fateful day--in June, 1910--when he presented his daughter with her first tennis racket. It was an inexpensive instrument he had purchased in a toy shop in Compiègne...

Lacoste Watches Lenglen (pages 5-6)

    Tennis star René Lacoste remembered first falling under her spell in 1921. In the spring of that year young Lacoste traveled with his parents to Saint-Cloud. After promising to return in a few minutes, Lacoste was permitted to enter the Stade Français to watch part of the final match for the World Hard Court Championship between Suzanne Lenglen and the American champion, Molla Mallory... "At first," Lacoste said of his initial glimpse of the French woman, "I was disappointed, as were most of those who saw her for the first time, after having heard so much about her." He expected to see a woman execute extraordinary tennis strokes. But Suzanne did not. He found "she played with marvelous ease the simplest strokes in the world. It was only after several games that I understood what harmony was concealed by her simplicity, what wonderful mental and physical balance was hidden by the facility of her play."...

Lenglen's Health (pages 46-47)

    Suzanne Lenglen stood about five and a half feet tall. She was a muscular, large-boned girl with gray eyes, raven hair, and a sharp, birdlike profile. She had an unusually long nose and large irregular teeth that protruded unhandsomely from her mouth even when she smiled. Paul Gallico recalled that she had "a hatchet face and a hook nose"; while Hazel Wightman, a lifelong friend of Suzanne, described her by simply saying, "She was homely--you can't imagine a homlier face." Bill Tilden summed up her appearance by observing, "Heaven knows no one would call her beautiful."
    Yet despite her physiognomy, she had a rather attractive and healthy demeanor in the early 1920s. Because she eschewed the traditional long-sleeved blouse and wide-brimmed hat of the other players, her face and arms were deeply tanned. But the pressure of practice and play gradually eroded her physical health as well as her emotional stability. By the mid-1920s, when she stood at the pinnacle of her career, she looked thirty years older than her actual age. There were deep dark circles under her eyes and her skin was wrinkled and creased. The constant exposure to the sun caused her complexion to deteriorate rapidly. She found it necessary to wear ever heavier layers of powder and makeup...
    And yet nearly eveyone who watched her perform pirouettes on the tennis court remarked that her lack of physical beauty was largely overcome by her grace and poise and movement...

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Suzanne Lenglen
Lenglen's First Wimbledon Title (pages 18-19)

    The defending Wimbledon singles champions still played only in the Challenge Round of the tournament in 1919. The other players fought their way through preliminary qualifying rounds, while the defending champion stood aside waiting to see who might emerge victorious from the pack. In this year, Dorothea Lambert Chambers watched warily as Lenglen stroked her way toward the defending champion and the Challenge Round...
    In 1919, Mrs. Lambert Chambers had an unparalleled Wimbledon record. She had won seven singles titles and was favored to take an unprecedented eighth in this tournament. Although she was forty years old, twice Suzanne's age, that statistic was deceptive. By 1919 rules, Mrs. Lambert Chambers had not been required to play through the tournament. She played a single match, the Challenge Round...
    ...In the second game Lenglen found her range, and the timidity she betrayed in the opening game evaporated. She broke her opponent's service, won her own, broke again, and held her own again... But then at 4-1 Mrs. Lambert Chambers surged back... and took the lead at 6-5. In the twelfth game Mrs. Lambert Chambers moved to set point. But Lenglen found her own range again...
    ...Then, in a final energetic surge, Lenglen held her own service one more time in the seventeenth game and broke Mrs. Lambert Chambers in the eighteenth to win the first set 10-8.
    ...As the two women changed courts at the end of the fifth game [of the 2nd set], Papa suddenly stood up and tossed a small vial out onto the apron of the court--an unprecedented action... no official intercepted the object. Suzanne bent down and retrieved the vial, opened it, and sipped from it. Then she deposited it at courtside near the umpire's chair. Following the match reporters were told that the vial contained a sugar solution. But Suzanne and Papa still later said that it contained Suzanne's special stimulant--iced and sugared cognac... from the 1-4 deficit Suzanne evened the score at 4-4... Mrs. Lambert Chambers took two more games and with them the second set...
    ...[At 5-5 in the third set] Mrs. Lambert Chambers won the eleventh game and then jumped out to double match point... Suzanne lunged desperately for the ball and touched it with the wooden tip of her racket. The ball fluttered over the net like a wounded bird, dropped to the turf, and died... the second match point... Lenglen suddenly blasted a perfectly disguised backhand drive down the line that left Mrs. Lambert Chambers standing flatfooted in the middle of the baseline...
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Suzanne Lenglen

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Helen Wills
Helen Wills: Early Years (pages 61-78)

    Helen Newington Wills was born in Centerville, California, in Alameda County, on October 6, 1905. Her father, Clarence A. Wills, a native Californian, was born and raised in Antioch and had graduated from the University of California Medical School. In 1923 he was a surgeon at the Alameda County Hospital in Oakland. Helen's mother, Catherine Anderson Wills, was born in Stanhope, Iowa, and raised in Winters, California. She also was a graduate of the University of California, where she majored in Social Science and was trained as a teacher. Her only student was to be her only child.
    Helen Wills was kept out of the public school system until she was eight years old. Before that time she was tutored at home by her mother... [later] at the University of California, Helen earned her Phi Beta Kappa key and was awarded an academic scholarship.
    The bond between Helen and Catherine Wills was special and powerful. They were best friends... Catherine Wills sat at courtside at Berkeley while Helen practiced and went with her daughter to all of her tournaments in Europe and America from 1921 until 1930. At courtside she fulfilled the role Papa Lenglen played for his Suzanne, but with a major difference. Catherine Wills encouraged Helen by her quiet prescence alone. She said nothing during a match, sent no signals, made no gestures, gave no advice, volunteered to criticism...
    Helen Wills, who became an avatar of health and strength as an adolescent, was not a robust child...
    Dr. Wills bought his daughter a tennis racket when she was eight years old and played with her on the dirt courts adjacent to the Alameda County Hospital. He hit with her every afternoon and tried to teach her the fundamentals of the game.
    ...Helen learned her tennis by swinging a 15-ounce wooden racket with a 5½-inch handle. And though in later years she would switch to a lighter racket, she still preferred the large handle.
    ...While Helen was growing up, tennis had beocme the most popular participation sport in California...
    In 1917 Clarence Wills entered the U.S. Army. He served as a physician for one year in Europe with the AEF. During that time Helen and Catherine Wills moved to Vermont, where Helen attended a private school, Hopkins Hall, and Catherine served as a house mother for the institution. Helen brought her tennis racket to Vermont but couldn't play because the courts at the school were being resurfaced...
    After the war the Wills family returned to California and took up residence in Berkeley, the community built around the University of California. They bought a house on 1200 Shattuck Avenue, near Live Oak Park, a wooded region of the town. Helen once more played tennis with her father and competed on the public courts at Live Oak Park...
    It was while she was playing at Live Oak Park that Helen was spotted by William C. "Pop" Fuller, who supervised the junior tennis program at the Berkeley Tennis Club...
    ...In August, 1919, Clarence Wills presented Helen with a junior membership in the club as an early fourteenth birthday gift
    Fuller didn't use a tennis racket in teaching Helen for fear that she would copy his own faulty style... He confined himself to throwing balls to her...
    "Helen was among the first to stand up against my new-fangled barrage," he recalled, and although I have found out since that most of my girls have to overcome a curiously feminine fear of a thrown ball, I didn't notice that Helen-of-the-pigtails batted an eyelash at my unusual procedure. Even then she was the 'Little Poker Face' that the world called her subsequently."
    It was that lack of emotion--the poker face--that struck so many spectators and opponents and caused them to wonder how Helen could concentrate so deeply... Sportswriter Will Grimsley visited her in the late summer of 1977. She laughed with him about her reputation for being poker-faced and said it was because of her father's advice. "My father, a doctor, always told me not to wince or screw up my face while I was playing. He said it would put lines in my face."     ...Helen Wills name first appeared in local newspapers in the summer of 1919, when she won the Bay Region Tournament in her age group... her play... was said to resemble in style that of another prominent Californian, Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman. Six months later, in the spring of 1920, Helen met Wightman for the first time.
    ..."There was one little girl who attracted my attention at once. She was about fourteen years of age, very pretty and prim in her pig tails. She hit the ball with definite skill and earnestness that stamped her as far superior to the others. Her figure, her concentration, her poise were remarkable in a child so young.
    "...Because of this little girl I prolonged my visit to Berkeley to three weeks. We had a regular routine of three hours a day, four days a week. We would spend hours on serves, volleys, smashes, and other strokes."     Wightman worked with Helen Wills as teacher, amateur psychologist, and finally doubles partner. In tournament competition the team of Wills-Wightman was never beaten. "Nobody has derived more genuine pleasure from the rise of Helen Wills than I," Wightman affirmed years later.
    ...In 1921 Helen Wills won the California State Women's Championship... Then she won the National Girls Championship at Forest Hills... she stood a little over five feet tall...
    Following her victory, she saw Suzanne Lenglen for the first time... Helen and her mother were given seats at the end of the court in the middle of the front row for the match. "At the time when I saw the Mallory-Lenglen match," Helen recalled, "my game was in the transition stage. Seeing the best women's tennis in the world concentrated in one match was an invaluable experience. After that I knew the goal for which I hoped to aim, the kind of tennis I wanted to play."
    [In the 1922 National Women's Singles at Forest Hills, Helen] won her way to the finals and then lost 6-3, 6-1 to Molla Mallory...
    Suddenly she was the young sensation of the day...
    Ed Sullivan, who wrote about tennis for the New York Evening Mail in 1922... came up with her most famous nickname, "Little Poker Face."
    ...At the close of the 1922 season, Helen was ranked third among American women by the USLTA.
    ...Her appearance at Forest Hills [in 1923] was a revelation because of her dramatic physical change. She had grown five inches between 1922 and 1923 and had put on twenty-five pounds so that she now stood just over five feet seven inches and weighed nearly 150 pounds... She came to the net often and volleyed... And she had acquired a more powerful service than any other woman...
    ...5000 turned out to see her crush defending champion Molla Mallory 6-1, 6-2, in just thirty-three minutes... after only four games it was clear that she was in command of the match...
    Mallory tried to force Wills to play her game, the backcourt duel. But she came to the net again and again and caught Mallory's shots for winners...
    [Norwegian-born Molla Mallory] had won the national title six times since 1915--seven, if one counted the special wartime tournament that she won. She was called "Iron Molla" and was the player who in 1921 had shattered Suzanne Lenglen's hopes of an American title at Forest Hills... now she in turn had been battered by a seventeen-year-old California girl...
    Wills reached the Wimbledon singles final in 1924, but was upset by Briton Kitty McKane, who won 4-6, 6-4, 6-4. Wills would never again lose at Wimbledon in singles. Suzanne Lenglen had withdrawn from the tourney pleading illness, after narrowly defeating her doubles partner Elizabeth Ryan in their quarterfinal. Lenglen frequently withdrew from tourneys this way, leading to suspicions that she fell ill whenever she thought she might lose.
    Helen Wills and Hazel Wightman did win the doubles title at Wimbledon in 1924, and then Helen went on to win the 1924 Olympics singles gold medal. The 1924 Olympics were in Paris, but Lenglen had withdrawn due to illness again.
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Helen Wills

    After 1923, demand for Lenglen and Wills to play each other kept growing. They finally met in the final of a tourney at the Carlton Club in Cannes, France, on February 16, 1926. There were 4000 spectators.

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 noticably 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 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 Will'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 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 wtih 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.

    Suzanne Lenglen won 6 Wimbledon singles titles in her career. She played in the US Nationals at Forest Hills only once, and then only one match, on Tuesday, August 16, 1921. Lenglen was scheduled to play Eleanor Goss in the opening round, but Goss defaulted shortly before the match was to start. Because the draw was unseeded, her 2nd round opponent was defending champion Molla Mallory. Tourney officials moved that match up to Tuesday, purportedly so that the crowd of 8000 expecting to see Lenglen play would not be disappointed. Mallory won the 1st set 6-2, then, after serving a double fault to go to 0-30 in the 1st game of the 2nd set, Lenglen retired from the match, telling the umpire, "I cannot go on. I am really too ill." Lenglen would never again play in the US Nationals at Forest Hills.

    Although Lenglen won the "Match of the Century" versus Helen Wills in 1926, Wills fame grew, while Lenglen played less and less. During the 1926 Championships at Wimbledon Lenglen was not informed of a schedule change, then said she could not play the match at the rescheduled time. Officials claimed they did not receive notice of this. Queen Mary, for whom the schedule had been changed so she could see Lenglen play, was kept waiting for 90 minutes when Lenglen did not show up, then told the match would be postponed. After defeating Mrs. Evelyn Dewhurst 6-2, 6-2 in the rescheduled match, Lenglen withdrew from Wimbledon, pleading illness again.

    Later that year Lenglen turned professional, playing a series of exhibitions in the US in late 1926 and early 1927. She did not regain her amateur standing, and never played Helen Wills again.

    Between 1927 and 1933 Helen Wills won 180 singles matches in a row without losing a single set.

    Helen Wills retired from tourney competition in 1938, at the age of 33, having won 8 Wimbledon singles titles, as well as 7 US National singles championships at Forest Hills, and 4 singles titles at the French Nationals. Only Martina Navratilova has won more Wimbledon singles titles (9). Wills also won 4 US and 3 Wimbledon doubles titles, and 2 US and 1 Wimbledon mixed doubles titles. Wills had married Fred Moody in 1928, and divorced him in 1937. She married polo player Aidan Roark after she retired in 1938.

    Wills defeated Helen Jacobs to win her 8th and last Wimbledon singles title on July 2, 1938. Just before leaving the dressing room for the final, the players were informed that Suzanne Lenglen was gravely ill in Paris. Lenglen died 2 days later, on July 4, 1938.

    Helen Wills died on January 1, 1998, at the age of 92.
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Helen Wills

Suzanne Lenglen page at the International Tennis Hall of Fame
Great Wimbledon Champions: Suzanne Lenglen
Helen Wills page at the International Tennis Hall of Fame

Find more books by Larry Englemann at Amazon.com



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