My top 10 tennis books: #3 The Goddess and the American Girl
Originally published by Examiner.com June 20, 2011.
# 3 The Goddess and the American Girl, The story of Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills by Larry Engelmann (1988) 464 p.
Larry Engelmann is a historian and a freelance writer. He is the author of 4 more books (Daughter of China: A True Story of Love and Betrayal, Feather in the Storm: A Childhood Lost in Chaos, Tears Before the Rain: An Oral History of the Fall of South Vietnam, They Said That!: The Wit and Wisdom of Modern Celebrity Culture), and resides in San Jose, California.
The Goddess and the American Girl is a prime example of a brilliant dual biography. It follows the careers of both women turned tennis legends from the day they first set foot on a tennis court. 90 years ago, before Suzanne Lenglen (1899 – 1938) and Helen Wills (1905 – 1998), there were no female sports celebrities. Engelmann writes, “Lenglen, a French woman lionized by her countrymen as The Goddess, and Wills, called Queen Helen, or The American Girl, revolutionized women’s tennis with the introduction of power strokes and graceful, almost balletic movements. In the process they virtually invented the celebrity athlete.”
The reader needs to be reminded that the appearance of Lenglen and Wills on the international sports scene came only a mere 20 years after women were not allowed two bounces of the tennis balls anymore. During the nineteenth century women were allowed two bounces because they wore long skirts and were not able to move as quickly across the court. But when those two ladies appeared on the European and American scene in the 1920s and 1930s, they became better known and more admired than any movie star, politician, or royal family member.
It is a well known fact that Lenglen was introduced to the game of tennis by her father. “Papa” Lenglen was her mentor who reigned over her career with an iron fist, but is also credited with adapting power tennis to the women’s game. Stories about his unrelenting forcing of Suzanne’s progress are legendary. Making his daughter hit running forehand balls onto an unfolded handkerchief on the other side of the net, under the threat of “no dinner tonight” are as well known as his threats during matches while sitting at the net post coaching her.
Lenglen won 31 Grand Slam titles between 1914 and 1926. A flamboyant, trendsetting athlete, the right-hander Lenglen was No. 1 in 1925-26 the first years of world rankings. She won Wimbledon every year but one from 1919 through 1925, the exception being 1924, when illness led to her withdrawal after the fourth round. Her 1919 title match, at the age of 20, with 40-year-old Dorothea Douglass Chambers is one of hallmarks of tennis history. During her reign as undisputed Queen of the court she won 270 consecutive matches and gave up only two sets doing so.
Not only were her performances on the court noted, however. She garnered much attention in the media when she appeared at Wimbledon with her dress revealing bare forearms and cut just above the calf, while all other players competed in outfits covering nearly all of the body. Staid Brits also were in shock at the boldness of the French woman who, because of her rather fragile health condition, compounded by her cigarette smoking habit, also casually sipped brandy handed to her by her mother, between sets to raise her spirits. Some called her shocking and indecent, but she was merely ahead of time, and she brought France the greatest global sports renown it had ever known.
Prior to Lenglen, female tennis matches drew little fan interest, which quickly changed as she became her sport’s greatest drawing card. Tennis devotees and new fans to the game began lining up in droves to buy tickets to her matches. Temperamental, flamboyant, she was a passionate player whose intensity on court could lead to an unabashed display of tears. But for all her flamboyance, she was a gifted and brilliant player who used extremely agile footwork, speed and a deadly accurate shot to dominate female tennis for seven straight years.
Helen Wills beat Suzanne Lenglen’s Wimbledon record although she lost the only match in which they came face to face. Engelmann quotes James Thurber describing that much touted singles match at Cannes in 1947 as ‘one of the most grotesque and thrilling and momentous games on record.” In 1938, Wills set a record of 8 Wimbledon singles wins – unparalleled until Martina Navratilova tied it in 1987, and added a record ninth in 1990.
Helen Newington Wills Roark, also known as Helen Wills Moody, has been described as “the first American born woman to achieve international celebrity as an athlete.” She won the following Grand Slam singles titles: 7 US Championships, 8 Wimbledon, and 4 French Open between 1923 and 1938. Including numerous doubles and mixed doubles titles she won 31 Grand Slam titles altogether, in addition to 2 gold medals at the 1924 Olympics in Paris.
With a winning streak of 150 matches without giving up one set, Helen Wills was the international star player from California, who was known for her phenomenal concentration on court. Her getting down to business attitude, rarely smiling or showing any kind of emotion during a match, earned her the nickname “Little Miss Pokerface”. It was reported that one Wimbledon final had her play on and attempting to serve after she won the Championship point and the umpire had called her the winner already. She just was way too concentrated to bother with counting her games or observing the score board.
Engelmann states that, “Wills dominated women’s tennis as few athletes in any sport have done; winning every singles match she entered from 1926 to 1933. Like Lenglen, she was introduced to tennis by her father and played a man’s game.” But there the similarities end. Whereas Lenglen was homely and prone to nervous fits, Wills was a great American beauty and heartthrob, a California girl whose health and good looks defined the American “New Woman.”
Engelmann’s fascinating writing style contrasts these first two stars brilliantly and details not only the women, their lives, families, matches, and friends, but the whole international sports world of the 1920’s and 1930s. The book jacket states, “Filled with anecdotes about tennis tournaments and the famous of the day – including Charlie Chaplin, Joseph Kennedy, and Bill Tilden – it is at once social history, sports history, and entertaining biography.”