A studied moment after Martina Navratilova had won the women's singles title at Wimbledon this year, an impish figure rose from his accustomed position in a corner of the press section, extracted from his pocket a winning bookmaker's ticket and brandished it. "So easy," he sighed. "Now we have paid for another visit to London."
The winning bettor was Gianni Clerici, 52-year-old tennis correspondent for II Giorno of Milan, novelist, ultimate author of The Ultimate Tennis Book (translated into six languages), squire of Lake Como, the Italian Andy Rooney and a man who knows his women's tennis.
Turn to page 62. The story that begins there, written by Associate Writer Sarah Pileggi, is a distillation of considerable research done by both Pileggi and Clerici. "Suzanne Lenglen is the most interesting personality I've ever explored," says Pileggi. "It's amazing that no one has written extensively about her before this, but it's no wonder that Clerici was so fascinated." Clerici's full biography, Suzanne Lenglen, The Prima Donna of Tennis, three chapters of which were made available to Pileggi for the purposes of her article, will be published next May in France. For American readers, Pileggi here provides an aperitif.
Clerici himself was first motivated to research La Belle Suzanne by her better-remembered male colleagues, the Four Musketeers. Idly watching Chris Evert one day a few years ago, Clerici remarked to René Lacoste, the mightiest Musketeer, that she must be the finest player ever. Lacoste replied that Evert would be no match for Lenglen.
September 12, 1982
"But René," Clerici came back, "do not be so sure. We all prize our own times."
"No, Gianni," the Crocodile said. "Suzanne is for all time."
Indeed, on another occasion, when Clerici suggested to Jean Borotra and Henri Cochet that he might write his next book about them, about the Musketeers, Borotra snapped, "No, Gianni! You must never write a book about anyone but Suzanne."
It helped, of course, that Clerici speaks half a dozen languages and that everyone in the game knows him. He even played Wimbledon twice, the first time in 1953. "I play singles on a far court against a Yugoslav, the worst player in the world. Ah, but I have driven from Como in my Fiat, and soon I get some cramps, so after I lose the first set to the worst player in the world, I ask the umpire if I can change my shirt, and he says yes—why, I do not know—and when I get to the locker room everyone say, Gianni, what are you doing, and I say I am taking a break, and they tell me breaks are not allowed at Wimbledon and I am the only player ever to take a break. Which still I am.
"Then, the next year, Orlando Sirola and I are playing Mervyn Rose and Rex Hartwig on Court 1. This is the year they win the doubles, and early on, I chase a ball and fall into the stands; right into the lap of a beautiful lady. Very beautiful. So, I kiss her hand. And the lady say her name. And so and so. And I play a whole match and never once win my serve.
"The lady was quite beautiful."