The match lived up to its hype

"THIS girl must be mad," Suzanne Lenglen remarked when she learned Helen Wills was playing the Riviera circuit and forcing a long-awaited showdown. "Does she think she can come and beat me on my home courts?"


Suzanne Lenglen... winning a gruelling second set and the match.-GETTY IMAGES

Suzanne Lenglen defeats Helen Wills 6-3, 8-6 in Cannes, France, final in 1926.

"THIS girl must be mad," Suzanne Lenglen remarked when she learned Helen Wills was playing the Riviera circuit and forcing a long-awaited showdown. "Does she think she can come and beat me on my home courts?"

Destiny would allow only one meeting between the two greatest women players of the game's first 75 years. From 1919 on, "La Grande Suzanne" was invincible. She had captured six Wimbledon, six French titles and had lost only twice in tournaments, defaults caused by illness.

If Lenglen's reign was at its peak, Wills' talent was just beginning to crest. She had won the American championships in 1923, 1924 and 1925. As unbeatable as Suzanne, Helen would not lose a set in singles from 1927 to 1932 and eventually wind up with eight Wimbledon and seven U.S. crowns.

Al Laney, one of America's best sports journalists, described the much-heralded clash of immortals:

"This was the meeting of two girls, one French, the other American, in an otherwise unimportant tournament on the French Riviera. Only a girls' tennis match, but it was blown up into a titanic struggle such as the world has never seen before. By the time it came off, it was of worldwide interest and never again in the history of sport was such an event allowed to be played in such ridiculous and fantastic circumstances. It could have filled Yankee Stadium as it turned out."

Picture the scene. After the Great War, Lenglen had become a truly national figure, the symbol of resurgent French pride. She would defend that against the challenger from the New World. One could hardly find two more contrasting personalities either: Lenglen with her fiery, operatic Gallic temperament and Wills's unemotional, reserved demeanour that earned her the nickname of "Little Miss Poker Face."

Their dress and games followed suit. Symbolising the post-war's new freedoms, Suzanne wore a skirt that scandalously exposed her thighs, a low-cut blouse, and her famous brightly coloured bandeau. Helen appeared in a school-girlish, white middy blouse and pleated skirt, and her trademark white eyeshade. On the court the Frenchwoman showed a stunning all-court audacity spiced with balletic movement and acrobatic leaps; the stolid, unimaginative Californian blasted unerring ground-strokes into the corners.

Hundreds of reporters and cameramen had flocked to the little Carlton Club in Cannes. The stands were filled with distinguished guests — kings, barons, counts, rajahs, authors, capitalists, and financiers. A mob seethed and struggled to get in or at least get a glance at the match somehow. Some climbed eucalyptus trees, others stood on top of motor cars, and many watched from nearby rooftops. The fortunate or well-connected who bought seats paid a then-astonishing $12 (four times as much as the highest-priced ticket for a Forest Hills final) to see the super-spectacle. The atmosphere was positively electric.

The match lived up to its larger-than-life billing. Suzanne, the heavy (3-1) favourite, played near-perfect tennis to win the first set 6-3 against the somewhat nervous Helen. High-strung Suzanne, who was said to have been kept up until 2:30 the previous night by her parents reminding her of the honour at stake the next day, felt the pressure, too, and frequently sipped brandy during the changeovers.

Helen Wills... giving the champion a run for her money.-GETTY IMAGES

The intensity of the fray was relieved by comedy emanating from a eucalyptus tree where small boys hid in the leafy branches. "At intervals they fell out, or were dragged down by red-faced gendarmes who disturbed the peace more than the boys," recalled Wills in a Saturday Evening Post piece seven years later.

In the second set, Helen sped up her powerful groundstrokes and jumped ahead 3-1. The crowd grew noisier as they witnessed the tide turning. Had the grand diva finally met her match?

Here the twenty-year-old American made the fatal mistake of changing her attacking strategy. While Helen eventually resumed her hard hitting, Suzanne, who was tiring and having coughing spasms, pulled in front and finally reached 6-5, 40-15, double match point.

Then came the most contentious and dramatic moment of all. After a long rally, Wills smacked a forehand into the corner that caught the Frenchwoman flat-footed. "Out!" was heard — the match was over. Suzanne ran to the net to shake hands. But, no, the linesman, Lord Charles Hope, pushed through the frenzied mob of people to tell the umpire, Commander George Hillyard, that a spectator had made the call and that the ball had clearly been good.

The umpire reversed the call. Without a murmur or protest, a tense Lenglen returned to her task, like a true champion. She lost that game for 6-all but took command with a variety of teasing shots, and on her third match point, put away a smash off a deep lob. She had won 6-3, 8-6.

The exhausted champion collapsed on a bench and burst into tears. Her tyrannical mother cruelly chided her, "Good God, how badly you played." Meanwhile, Helen stood alone and ignored amidst the tumult. Suddenly a young man vaulted over the balustrade and congratulated her. "You played awfully well," he said. It was Fred Moody, whom she married four years later.

Fascinating Facts

* In the 1920s Suzanne Lenglen was the first woman player to wear lipstick on the court at Wimbledon.

* Suzanne Lenglen was the first world-class woman tennis player to train regularly with men.

* Helen Wills Moody wrote five mystery novels, and as a syndicated writer, she interviewed famous aviator Amelia Earhart on the same day she won the final at the 1932 French Championships.

* Suzanne Lenglen was so outstanding in the early 1920s that the French Davis Cup Committee asked permission to include her on their nation's team.

* Bill Tilden admitted that Suzanne Lenglen was the only player who was a bigger draw than him.