It has been a good while since I first read that the recently deceased journalism legend Gianni Clerici had written a book, or better an elegy, about the long-gone French queen of tennis Suzanne Lenglen, remarkably entitled “The Diva”. I’ll put it down right here, right now : I have actually never read it, let alone even approached the idea of buying it.
That has nothing to do with its author, whose production is of the the finest level and among the most enjoyable to read, especially in his native Italian language. Simply put, it is down to me not having ever watched this French glory playing. Sheer ignorance from my side, if you want. But one thing is being told Federer is a player to watch, another surfing the web and open one of the billions YouTube videos highlighting his set of a trillion skills. Wouldn’t you agree the second option is far more effective in igniting your inevitable fall in love with his artwork (if you own a heart of some sort). In writing though, tennis Cupids work way less effectively at first glance, and you would be excused if in the end you are left untouched by an elegy on a player.
Acknowledging the above, and since in full trust of Mr. Clerici’s own judgement, at some point in time I started wondering whether there was any least significant video documentation on the Diva, in order to supposedly validate all the fuzz around such an almost invincible player of the roaring 20’s. Now, I have never liked watching old reels of tennis, which is in my opinion a sport born to be enjoyed in full HD, if not 4k. Back in the 2000s, I seldom had any YouTube encounter with tennis at all. One can only cherish the view only provided that both the ball and the fundamentals are clearly intelligible, and not lost at a shallow sea of huge pixes.
Quite remarkably though, I eventually came across a set of restored videos, courtesy of Pathé, specifically depicting Lenglen’s astonishing abilities with her wooden racket. And above all, the undeniable elegance of her physical gestures, definitely deserving this testament of her skills to be in HD format.
Since an image, or better, a video is worth a thousand words, let’s take a look at such phenomenal vision. And let’s praise Pathé for their extra-effort of taping Lenglen at an unusually high frame rate:
One would think that back in the tennis neolithic times every single shot was inevitably flat. Possibly. However, here Lenglen is clearly visible while brushing the ball to give it sidespin, with remarkable wrist action. Also, the impact takes place at the toss peak (sort of Ivanisevic-style); considering that back then the lawbook used to force players to hold at least one foot constantly grounded, shortening the ball trajectory, the overall result is an extremely compact and quick serving routine, though nowhere nervous: a flawless shot.
Her dominant forehand
The first forehand is instead as classic as ever, an almost ideally-conceived drive-through forehand: closed stance, left frontfoot, weight shifting forwards, not the least pendulum effect of the racket, whose head transitions almost perfectly parallel to the ground. The grip would seem like a continental one.
Nonetheless, if you take a look at the second one, surprise surprise, here comes an open stance shot: this means that she was anyway ready to handle the most aggressive shots on her right side.
On her left side comes a one-handed backhand again played with a continental grip, hence looking more prone to be a chopped shot. In fact, the racket flies towards the ball with impeccable timing and harmony. What is extremely remarkable is the post-impact movement conclusion, as if she was more of a ballerina than an athlete: her final stance presents arms wide open and a back-kicking left leg, her weight having been perfectly transferred to the front.
On the fly
Volleying was the art of necessity for all tennis players worth their salt. No wonder then if Suzanne Lenglen could master this art remarkably as well. The first execution we see is as clean as you may get it, and Stefan Edberg could not have produced a better example: compact swing, bent knees, body leaning forward, impeccable sweet touch. The cherry on top of the cake is the eventual split step to gain control of the net in the unlikely case her opponent had been able to catch the beautifully place ball.
Watch a few more of her forehand volleys, all seemingly being excuisite putaways, and you will see Lenglen keep on bouncing up and down with her split-steps. Now, the flawless movements by this Queen, apparently attached to little or no weight at all, matches the analogue movement by no-one else but the King, i.e. Roger Federer. Could you think of anybody else hopping around the court with apparently no effort at all? The video editor already suggested to pay attention to her “dancing feet”, and this is exactly the same term used on many YouTube videos depicting the extraordinary floating movements of the Swiss Maestro. As with him, the balletto motion is always following the shot, regardless if it is a classic volley, a drive-through volley, or a low half-volley.
The one possible difference is the erratic behaviour of Lenglen’s left arm, which is left hanging around uselessly while the rest of the body performs the action: more recent players have been preferring to give it the task to stay bent and close enought to the right one , in order to maintain the volley shot as compact as possible, with the body mass all directed to one direction only. Please also note how she does not even lift her left arm to aim at the ball while preparing her smashing, which is nowadays considered a typical mistake of beginners prone to giving away easy points to close out.
However, starting at 10:08 you may admire the dance show reaching its climax: backhand volleys… and it all comes together here! Touch, dancer figures, twist moves, split-steps, all perfectly sequencing the way very few players have been able to follow up with (possibly Martina Navratilova did, but more probably we have to go for Rudolf Nureyev). At 10:26, the pinnacle is a shot that many think to have come to life only in the 1990’s with Patrick Rafter: well, no. The Aussie gentlment did not in fact invented the backhand smash, and he must ackowledge that the French Divina actually had practiced it a good seventy years ahead, in all its same twisting gorgeousness.
Finally, in the day when Novak Djokovic has captured his 10th singles title at the Australian Open, could we miss to notice any analogy with Suzanne Lenglen? Oddly as it may sound, still she was also ahead of her time in terms of body elasticity, paving the way for the physical approach to tennis we nowadays admire in the Serbian legend. Just take a look at how she ends that full-front smash at 12:07: her body leaning backwords, the lifts her left leg in order to counterbalance it, with her toes reaching her head height and her other leg firmly standing with her foot on the ground! And no sign of tearing her abdomen, as in fact (or not) happening at times to the big Belgrade champion.
That said, I need to wrap up what we have just watched. We should all be extremely grateful threefold to Pathé: first, for having ventured themselves into producing this video back in the day (notably understanding the uniqueness of Lenglen’s sport skills); second, for having had the vision to appropriately deploy technical equipment ahead of its time in order to capture the nuances of this French phenomenal powerhouse; third, for having eventually made it available to eveyone via the YouTube platform. Until I could actually see her play, I had originally thought her unmatched on-court record (long story short: she went unbeaten everywhere fefore turning to the US professionism) must have been due to the then limited set of valuable female opponents. I originally had several doubts that she could be consistently in the same hall of fame of Margaret, Billie-Jean, Chris, Martina, Steffi, and Serena. After watching this reel, I now no longer have any question mark on top of my head: she was one of her own sort, her role in he history of our sport dramatically pivotal. Athletically and technically, she was what we call a classic, i.e. anticipating and showing the future of the discipline. Her springing legs combined and her effective handling of the racquet clearly set new standards for the sport and would still stand out today.
Then what? When recognising the skills of today’s players into a slender lady of a century ago, one may only picture himself go back in time and, like an outdated gentleman, tip his hat off to the Divine ballerina.