RG Story: 1919: Suzanne Lenglen’s first Wimbledon title

 - Lauriane Labes

A few days ago, Simona Halep just won her first Wimbledon title. One hundred year earlier, so did Suzanne Lenglen.

Suzanne Lenglen à Wimbledon 1919©Collections FFT

Suzanne Lenglen had just turned 20 when she won her first Wimbledon title. It was 1919 and the legendary tournament, organised by the hugely popular All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, was still played on Worple Road, just two miles away from today’s Centre Court. The championships, which were not played during the war, were back after a four-year hiatus.

At the time, Suzanne Lenglen needed no introduction and spectators flocked to see the young French phenomenon in action.

Completely unfazed

In the first round, the schedule was disrupted and the organisers decided to have Suzanne Lenglen play on the Tuesday, a day which was usually reserved for the men. On Court 4, more than 1,000 spectators rushed to the stands to watch her match.

Completely unfazed, Suzanne came out on court looking surprisingly relaxed and sailed through her first encounter, and all of her following matches, right up to the Challenge Round. There, she came up against Britain’s Dorothea Lambert Chambers, who was 40 years old and the defending champion, with seven Wimbledon titles already under her belt.

The British public’s expectations were high for their countrywoman, who had reigned supreme over London’s grass courts ever since her first victory in 1903. Nevertheless, the spectators had closely followed Suzanne Lenglen’s flawless campaign, with no sets dropped since the start of the tournament.

The atmosphere of the match was tense, especially since Queen Mary and King Georges V were attending the encounter, which pitted youth against maturity, a pioneer against the old guard. Suzanne, with her hat and white dress, which came to her mid-thigh, heralded a new style that was in sharp contrast to the classic attire worn by Dorothea Lambert Chambers.

A tennis legend was born

For all that, the duel that ensued was not so clear cut. The two players battled hard throughout the match. Suzanne sneaked the first set but lost the second, despite bringing it back to 4-4 when she had been trailing 1-4.

This exceptional comeback was supposedly due to the sip of cognac that Suzanne had taken from her father, who was sitting in the stands. To his great delight, Suzanne went on to win the third set. The match ended with the score line 10-8 4-6 9-7, and a tennis legend was born.

Suzanne Lenglen devant la facade du All England Lawn Tennis CLub©Collections FFT

Up until 1925, Suzanne Lenglen dominated the Wimbledon tournament, winning five other titles in singles and nine in women’s and mixed doubles.

As a nod to this story, a century later, Romania’s Simona Halep won her first Wimbledon title by beating the Unites States’ Serena Williams, who is 38 years of age and has seven Wimbledon titles to her name.

Serena Williams and Simona Halep smiling while exiting Centre Court at Wimbledon 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT