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Remembering the Riviera

The Golden Days of Tennis on the French Riviera
by Leigh Walsh
Tuesday 27 May 2014

A new book from the Wimbledon Museum Library's Honorary Librarian, Alan Little, charts the history of tennis on the French Riviera. Wimbledon.com reviews The Golden Days of Tennis on the French Riviera (1874-1939)...

The year was 1926. The venue: the Carlton Club at Cannes on the French Riviera. The opponents: Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills.

The legendary Lenglen was dominating the women’s game at the time. With 11 Grand Slam titles to her name – she would go on to win a 12th that same year before relinquishing her amateur status – the Frenchwoman was sweeping aside opponents with merciless ease and when she travelled to the French Riviera each year, her supremacy continued. 

Wills, an American starlet who had proved herself at home winning the US Championships from 1923-25, was on the cusp of becoming the new Queen of the women’s game, a reign which ended up lasting the best part of a decade.

The American’s keenness to test herself against Europe’s finest brought her to the South of France, which was abuzz with excitement about the impending possibility of a clash with Lenglen. The pair were kept apart at the first few tournaments that year due to varying schedules and the poor health of Lenglen’s father, but when their paths finally collided for the one and only time, their encounter was billed as the match of the century:

“[It was] announced that Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills would both play in the singles at the Carlton Club tournament beginning the following Monday, 8th February, 1926,” writes Alan Little in his new book The Golden Days of Tennis on the French Riviera (1874-1939).

“This began an upsurge of worldwide interest that had hitherto not been accorded to ladies’ tennis. Scores of journalists descended upon Cannes, all working overtime to obtain their exclusive stories of the daily happenings of the two players.

“The remote possibility that the two star players would not meet in the final was ignored by the authorities as they set about doubling the seating accommodation around the main court to 3,000, by erecting a temporary stand.”

Luckily for the organisers, their faith in two of the world’s top tennis players was repaid when the pair advanced through the draw as anticipated. On the day of the final, “every vantage point was taken up by spectators”, writes Little. “Some sitting perilously on roofs of adjoining buildings and others perched on the braches of trees.”

The Frenchwoman, who’d been previously accused of trying to avoid a meeting with Wills, asserted her dominance early, taking the first set 6-3. Wills surged into a 3-1 lead in the second set with some aggressive tennis, but Lenglen gradually reeled her back before taking the second set 8-6 and with it the match.

The contest wasn’t without its drama, however. At 6-5, 40-15 in the second set, Lenglen thought she had clinched victory when Wills struck the line with a winner and a spectator called it out. The players shook hands, writes Little, but after some assistance from the crowd, the umpire announced the match would continue, and when it did Wills leveled things at 6-6. Lenglen held tough, however, like she did many times during her career, triumphing on her fourth match point to take the second set 8-6. 

“The court was swamped with people and attendants brought on huge baskets of flowers,” writes Little. “A weeping Suzanne Lenglen was too agitated to take much notice. The old regime had maintained superiority over the new. To some historians this was the ‘match of the century’.”

The story of Lenglen and Wills’ only career meeting in Cannes is one of a number of magnificent tales told in Little’s new publication. The author delves into the history of tennis in the French Riviera, from its beginnings in the garden of Villa Victoria – a replica of a rustic English cottage in Cannes owned by Thomas Robinson Woolfield, who is credited with bringing Lawn Tennis to the area – to the first international level event held in Nice in 1895.

A century ago, the French Riviera was the destination for many of tennis’ greatest players and Little explores some of the main protagonists from that time in the book.

The decorated Renshaw twins, William and Ernest, who transformed the game in the late 19th century, called the coastal region home every winter for some 16 seasons. They attracted players from far and wide to the south of France, including Americans, who came to practice with the twins in the hope of learning from the best.  

Following on the heels of the Renshaw twins were the Doherty brothers, Reginald and Laurie, who won nine Wimbledon singles titles between them. They raised the level of play in the area further, visiting every year for a decade. It was Laurie who won the first staging of the Championships in Monte-Carlo, which lives on today as an ATP Masters 1000 event each April.

Star names like Henri Cochet, Fred Perry and Bill Tilden also spent time in the region. Tilden’s one and only visit was a memorable one. He played every week from January 6th – April 27th in 1930, entering 15 tournaments and winning 14. Then there was Simone Mathieu, the Frenchwoman who won 36 consecutive tournaments from 1935-37.

The fascinating nuggets of information make The Golden Days of Tennis on the French Riviera (1874-1939) an invaluable resource for tennis enthusiasts and researches. The annals are brought to life with images of the courts, clubs and players that made that era a golden one.

As Little explains, the Open Era brought about the rapid decline of the vibrant tournament scene in the Riviera. But for the 65-year period from 1874-1939 the popularity of tennis grew as the region prospered. The coastal region was a playground for the rich and famous and the destination of choice for many of tennis’ leading figures.

The Golden Days of Tennis on the French Riviera (1874-1939) is available from The Wimbledon Museum Shop, The All England Club, Church Road, SW19 5AE.

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