The Reluctant Queens of the Court

After avoiding each other for years, Helen Wills and Suzanne Lenglen met in an unimportant tournament in Cannes
May 13, 1962

The most eagerly awaited and universally talked about tennis match ever played did not take place at Wimbledon, Forest Hills, Melbourne or Sydney. Tilden didn't play in it, neither did Budge, Vines, Kramer, Sedgman, Hoad or Gonzalez. Matched instead were two young women—Suzanne Lenglen of France and Helen Wills of California. They played on February 16, 1926 in the finals of a small regional tournament sponsored by the Carlton Club of Cannes. All over the world, people who had scarcely even given a thought to tennis before waited upon the outcome. When the match was over, the results were printed, not on the sports pages, but on the front pages of most of the world's newspapers.

It was unthinkable that the match would not someday be played, but it had remained unplayed so long that an almost unbearable tension had set in among the partisans of the two players. Aside from the fact that the match brought together two world-ranking tennis players, it also pitted what Miss Wills's supporters liked to think of as American simplicity and innocence against French guile and sophistication.

The two players had virtually impeccable records. Suzanne, then 26, had lost only one singles match since 1919—a default to Molla Mallory of the United States in the second round (seedings were not used then) of the 1921 American championships at Forest Hills after Mrs. Mallory had won the first set 6-2. Suzanne had won at Wimbledon in 1919, 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923 and 1925. Miss Wills had won the U.S. title in 1923 when she was only 17 years old and had retained her title the next two years. She later won four more U.S. singles titles. Helen exemplified power, particularly off her forehand. Suzanne played with craft and the grace of a dancer; she covered the tennis court with an effortless glide.

When Helen arrived on the Riviera in the winter of 1926 everyone knew why she was there but nobody was sure when she would play Suzanne. As boxers, milers and other athletes are still doing today, neither girl hastened to commit herself to a match with the other. In the previous tournaments, Suzanne confined herself to the doubles if Helen entered the singles, or if Suzanne entered the singles, Helen played in the doubles. They didn't find themselves on the opposite side of a net until the finals of a tournament at Nice, and then it was only in mixed doubles.

The two girls maintained the fiction of a high personal regard for each other. Suzanne, who had a gift for being patronizing, told reporters she thought Helen was "a sweet child." But later she began psyching Helen. After watching her in a mixed doubles match Suzanne remarked most audibly, "Isn't that comical?" and went off for tea. They also sought to outploy each other in their dress. Once Helen asked photographers to delay taking pictures of her for a day until a couple of new outfits arrived from Paris. The distinguished American diplomat and author Brand Whitlock found his diplomatic prowess tested when he was dragged into the controversy. Someone had said that Helen would be handicapped because her skirt was longer than Suzanne's, which, in the delicious phrasing of one writer, "just kissed her knees." Whitlock remarked that Helen's skirt was merely decently long, and when reporters asked him if by that he meant that Suzanne's was indecent, he took refuge in the assertion that a few inches one way or another would not decide the feminine tennis championship of the world.

Reporters assigned to the two players were hard pressed at times to sustain interest, as tournament after tournament went by without pitting Helen and Suzanne in the singles. To keep in trim they limbered up with similes. One described Suzanne as "charging along on tiptoes like a high-strung racer," while Helen "walked flat-footed like an Indian or a detective." Suzanne wore a "fixed, frozen smile like a toothpaste advertisement," while Helen, "pale and tight-lipped, was the Coolidge of tennis."

Finally, to the vast relief of everyone, both players sent in their entries for the Carlton Club tournament, to be played on the club's pink clay courts, with only limited gallery space. The club was operated by the Burke brothers, tennis professionals, and, presumably speaking for them, one of their associates, Bernie Hicks, said in a notable display of candor: "We are out to get the coin. It's purely a question of dough." Hicks was not an Oxford man. In pursuit of their aim the Burkes sold exclusive newsreel rights for $100,000, and wangled $4,000 out of a tennis ball manufacturer for the privilege of letting him provide the balls for the match. The newsreel deal fell through when both Helen and Suzanne insisted that the match be open to all motion picture cameras.

Never ones to encourage needless expense, the Burkes prevailed upon some Englishmen to put up a handsome gold cup for the winner. It was reported that the largest contributor, Sidney Beers, had simply dipped into his winnings of $200,000 at the Cannes gaming tables. Around those tables the match became as consuming a topic of interest as what color or number was coming up next.

The commercial aspects of the match were further accentuated when rumors began floating about that Suzanne's father, Papa Lenglen (who had taught her not only to play tennis but to know the value of a franc), had seen to it that his daughter would be cut in for $12,000 of the gate receipts, which ultimately totaled around $40,000. An Englishwoman, who also knew the value of a franc as well as a shilling, got her hands on a large block of 50-franc tickets, which she later peddled for 1,000 francs each.

The match was called for 11 o'clock in the morning. Years later Miss Wills was to recall that the night before, after a dinner of clear soup, filet mignon, green peas, boiled new potatoes, ice cream and cake, she went up to her room and, despite the repeated strains of the season's top hit, Valencia, which floated up from the terrace below, slept soundly.

The Riviera produced its best weather for the match, and long before play started all the regular seats were taken and spectators were clinging to nearby trees, fences and rooftops, from which tiles had been removed in some cases. Hundreds more simply stood outside in the streets, hopeful of hearing the umpire's call of the score as the match progressed. No one ever did figure out how many people either saw the match or were in the vicinity.

The quality of the play never quite came up to expectations. The circus atmosphere, the long weeks of tension, the tendency of spectators, unschooled in the niceties of tennis etiquette, to cheer wildly, to the particular discomfiture of Suzanne, did little for the players' concentration. Early in the match crowds outside, seeking to batter their way to a view of the court, pushed forward so violently that they nearly toppled one of the backstops. Suzanne, a native of nearby Nice, apparently knew how to deal with people of her district. She walked to the end of the court and spoke sharply to the surging tennis fans. Even though they were separated from her by a wall of opaque canvas, they were thoroughly cowed and minded their manners.

Next, French gendarmes pursued some minor lawbreakers up and down the trunks and through the branches of a row of eucalyptus trees near the court. Miss Wills later recalled her amusement at this parody of the chase footage in a Keystone cops comedy. But she found little more to amuse her as the match unfolded.

Both she and Suzanne began by playing cautiously, and that style prevailed through most of the match. Although Suzanne was known for her daring, she was content to try to outsteady Helen, which she did. Helen made 26 errors to Suzanne's 14 in the first set. Suzanne placed her shots with a precision that disconcerted Helen and kept the slower California girl from getting into position for her killing forehand, the shot she depended upon as a point winner.

Frequently Suzanne employed soft and sharply angled shots to force Helen to run diagonally toward the net and one sideline, thus leaving vast areas of her court undefended. Suzanne won the first set 6-3, but stopped play several times to remonstrate with the noisy gallery, which was overwhelmingly for her. "After all," she said after the match, "tennis is not baseball or boxing."

In the second set Helen began anticipating some of Suzanne's cannily directed shots and ran to a 3-1 lead. Her strategy of seeking to exhaust her older opponent, who was something of a hypochondriac, appeared on the point of fruition. Suzanne, never one to conceal either her emotions or her real or imagined pains, began clutching dramatically at the region of her heart. When she found herself down 3-1, she strode to the sidelines and helped herself to a stiff shot of cognac. Stimulated, Suzanne evened the set at 3 all, but soon fell behind. Helen, ahead by one game, smashed a hard forehand down the line that the crowd, partisan though it was, thought to be good. But the linesman, Cyril Tolley, a noted British golfer, ruled the ball out. Suzanne rallied, and at 6-5 reached match point.

Then an incident occurred that some were inclined to compare with the false armistice of November 7, 1918. Helen hit a ball deep, and someone in the stands yelled "Out!" The players and the crowd assumed the call was official. Spectators swarmed over the court and photographers posed the two girls at the net. But the officials ruled that the ball had been good. Helen then won the game and the set stood at 6-6. Such an incident usually left the emotional Suzanne seething. A crisis of nerves appeared in prospect. But she seemed unperturbed and ran out the set 8-6, and with it the match.

Her admirers, with a foresight born of supreme confidence, had provided themselves with huge bouquets of roses, which they pressed upon her. But the caliber of the match had left Suzanne dissatisfied. "I am not at all proud of the way I played," she said. "All these flowers don't please me. I don't deserve them." Later she wrote, in an analysis of the match: "I never took a chance. I placed my shots but I never tried to impose my game. I simply returned the ball." In the course of the match she had forced Helen into 31 net balls and 32 outs, while she was making two fewer outs and 18 fewer net balls.

While Suzanne sat laden with the bouquets of roses, Helen stood momentarily alone and unnoticed. Then a young American, whom she had met casually after her arrival in France, approached her and said: "You played awfully well." His name was Fred Moody, and Miss Wills was later to marry him. Her only comment at the time was: "There will be other tennis matches. There are other years coming."

But there never was another match between Suzanne and Helen. They were expected to meet a couple of weeks later in the finals of the French championship at St. Cloud. But Helen underwent an operation for appendicitis and was forced to withdraw. Suzanne won over Mary K. Browne in the finals, and that summer turned professional. She earned more than $100,000, to the deep satisfaction of Papa Lenglen.

On July 2, 1938 Helen, then Mrs. Moody, won the Wimbledon championship for an unprecedented eighth time. Two days later Suzanne Lenglen died in Paris of pernicious anemia. She had won only six times at Wimbledon, but—more important—she had won at Cannes on February 16, 1926.