What Amazing Lessons Did I Learn From Some Fearless Legends of Tennis?
By Rich Neher
I researched a lot of old tennis books, Wikipedia, the New York Times, and the International Tennis Hall of Fame for this article to get an idea of what made those masters of tennis become so successful that we call them legends today. I had to go back as far as the beginning of the last century and found plenty of individuals so successful, and so dominating in their time, I believe they need to be called true legends. I also found more or less acceptable videos of most players (except Mrs. Lambert Chambers) on YouTube. So I set out to analyze what did these players have that made them so successful.
Dorothea Douglass Lambert Chambers, UK
1878-1960, 7-times Wimbledon winner
Although Lambert Chambers won the 1911 women's final at Wimbledon 6–0, 6–0 - this was in no way a sign of how all her future
matches would go. (Btw, the only other female player who won a Grand Slam singles final without losing a game was Steffi Graf when she defeated Natalia Zvereva in the 1988 French Open final). Mrs. Lambert Chambers was a powerful right-handed player from both forehand and backhand, had very accurate passing shots, put up irretrievable lobs, and had plenty of touch on her drop shot. But one of her most outstanding features was her endurance.
In the Wimbledon final of 1919 the sturdily conformed, long-skirted 40-year-old matron, Dorothea Katherine Douglass Lambert Chambers, seven times champion between 1903 and 1914, faced the slim new kid half her age, audacious, skimpily dressed (for the time) Suzanne Lenglen. They battled through the longest final up to that time, counting 44 games. Lenglen's win signaled the changing of the guard at Wimbledon, but everyone who thought Lambert Chambers was finished, was dead wrong. In 1921, at age 41, she was the oldest finalist at Wimbledon and lost to Lenglen again. As Britain's Wightman Cup captain in 1925, at 46, she helped her side win, 4-3, at Forest Hills by beating 30-year-old Eleanor Goss, 7-5, 3-6, 6-1. She also captained the team in 1926. She was entered into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1981.
I have only one comment: Hats off to a woman who was winning so many matches and Grand Slams over a period of over 25 years, with such a power game, and in full-length women's clothing. I will never again complain about my tennis outfit and that I could have won that match with a better pair of shoes, and a dryer dri-fit shirt!
FOOTWORK, BALANCE, ACCURACY
Suzanne Rachel Flore Lenglen, France
1878-1960, 7-times Wimbledon winner
Suzanne Lenglen was a French tennis player who won 31 Grand Slam titles between 1914 and 1926. A flamboyant, trendsetting athlete, she was the first female tennis celebrity and one of the first international female sports stars, named La Divine (the Goddess) by the French press.
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 the 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 her performances on the court were 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 also casually sipped brandy between sets. 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.
Lenglen died young at age 39 after only 3 weeks of illness.
Next time I'm having a not so great day on the tennis court, which could easily be improved by better footwork, I'll remember Suzanne Lenglen's quote from her book "The Right Set": Your feet are the point from which the footwork is done. You must be easy upon them. Do not allow them to hold the ground flatly, for then movement in any direction will not be instant - never run too fast, run with short steps. Wow, I call this profound advice from a Legend who took Ballet lessons as a child!!
DOMINANCE, INFLUENCE, ADAPTABILITY
William Tatem "Big Bill" Tilden, U.S.A.
1893-1953, 3-times Wimbledon winner
If a player's value is measured by the dominance and influence he exercises over a sport, then William Tatem "Big Bill" Tilden II could be considered the greatest player in the history of tennis. An American tennis player who was the World No. 1 player for seven years, Bill Tilden dominated the world of international tennis in the 1920s. In the United States' sports-mad decade of the 1920ies. Tilden was one of the five dominant figures of the "Golden Age of Sport", along with Babe Ruth, Howie Morenz, Red Grange, and Jack Dempsey.
Nobody had a more devastating service than Tilden's cannonball or a more challenging second serve than his kicking American twist. No player had a stronger combination of forehand and backhand drives, supplemented by a forehand chop and backhand slice.
There has perhaps never been an era in tennis more dominated by a single player than Tilden in the 1920s. From 1920 through 1926 he led the United States team to 7 consecutive Davis Cup victories, a record that is still unequaled. Among his foremost achievements, he won the U.S. National Championship (precursor to the US Open) 6 times in succession and 7 times altogether (1920-1925, 1929), doubles 5 times, and mixed doubles 4 times. He traveled by ship to England to compete at Wimbledon six times (1920, 1921, 1927-1930) and won three times (1920, 1921, and 1930). He never won the Australian or French singles championship because prior to 1938 (when Don Budge won the first Grand Slam), these were not considered prestigious titles as they are today. Prior to 1938, the most prestigious tennis titles were the Davis Cup, Wimbledon, and the US Championships.
Big Bill Tilden's dominance meant that he was "the gate" for tournaments, clubs, and the USLTA (U.S. Lawn Tennis Association). The crowds came to see him and he knew it very well. That's why he often got away with bullying linesmen and umpires into changing calls - both for and against him. He would stare linesmen down and ask them to change the call. He would threaten to walk out and not come back. Umpires generally gave in at that point because Big Bill walking out would mean considerable financial losses for the organizer. He was also a showman with worldly flair, toying with his opponents to prolong matches, just to give the audience what they came and paid for.
While today's technological advances have changed the game so much, one has to admire the sheer brashness of Bill Tilden. He used his dominance and his influence on and off the court. In between all those negative reports about him staring down linesmen and getting the umpires to change calls, there is one positive report that is worth mentioning in my opinion. I am quoting from Frank Deford’s great book “Big Bill Tilden – The Triumphs and the Tragedy”.
"However abrasively Tilden might so regularly strike people, however rude and unfeeling he could appear to be, there was always this incredible measure of kindness within him. Years later in Los Angeles during the war, when he learned that a young Mexican-American prospect would not be permitted to use the fashionable Los Angeles Tennis Club courts, it was Tilden who put himself on the line, who told the club manager, Perry Jones, a powerful USLTA official, that he would blow the whistle publicly and pull out a lot of other players if the kid’s ban continued. Only then did Jones bow and let Pancho Gonzales play on his courts."
And the rest is history regarding Pancho Gonzalez. I am quite impressed with Bill's adaptability. When Bill Tilden lost most of one finger on his right hand he adapted, learned how to deal with it, and moved on with determination. He started to slice forehand and backhand shots and drove his opponents crazy until they were able to handle those shots. Be flexible, adapt well to changing situations, and be determined and assertive - the Bill Tilden way.
Helen Wills Moody, U.S.A.
1905-1998, 8-times Wimbledon winner
Helen Newington Wills Roark, also known as Helen Wills Moody, was an American tennis player. She has been described as "the first American born woman to achieve international celebrity as an athlete."
Helen 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 scoreboard.
100% concentration is hard for any tennis player. So much is going on in your mind every day. The job, the relationship, tennis elbow, bad line calls, you name it. When I realize I’m not focusing at all on the game at hand, I follow two masters of concentration. First I remember what David Breslow teaches. He is a renowned teacher, speaker, author, and former Director of Mental Toughness at the USTA’s National Tennis Center. He teaches how to clear your mind and concentrate only on ONE thing, e.g. your footwork. The second master of concentration I usually follow is Helen Wills. In “The Goddess and the American Girl” Larry Engelman describes how she chanted the words “EVERY POINT” to herself on every shot, in every game she ever played. Very impressive and I can confirm that those methods absolutely work.
Btw, I can highly recommend that book "The Goddess and the American Girl" (The story of Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills). Billie Jean King wrote, "A fascinating account of two of the greatest and most intriguing tennis players who ever lived."
HONORARY MENTION 1 - TENACITY, AGGRESSIVENESS
ALICE MARBLE, U.S.A.
1913-1990, 2-times Wimbledon winner
Between 1936 and 1940, Alice Marble won 18 Grand Slam championships: five in singles, six in women's doubles, and seven in mixed doubles. However, it's also off the tennis court where Alice left her mark.
In her second biography, Courting Danger, she mentions that she agreed to spy for U.S. Intelligence against the Nazis in 1945. The entire affair, including her being shot in the back by a Nazi agent, is shrouded in mystery to this day.
Marble greatly contributed to the desegregation of American tennis by writing an editorial in support of Althea Gibson for the July 1, 1950 issue of American Lawn Tennis Magazine. She said that, if Gibson were not given the opportunity to compete, "then there is an ineradicable mark against a game to which I have devoted most of my life, and I would be bitterly ashamed." Gibson, age 23, was given entry into the 1950 U.S. Championships, becoming the first African-American player, man or woman, to compete in a Grand Slam event.
In the April 2021 issue of TENNIS CLUB BUSINESS, we featured a LEGEND OF THE PAST article by Emmy Caporale titled "Marvelous Ms. Marble."
HONORARY MENTION 2 - FLUID, GRACEFUL, BLUDGEONING BACKHAND
DON BUDGE, U.S.A.
1915-2000, 2-times Wimbledon winner
Don Budge is most famous as the first player — of any nationality, male or female, and still the only American male — to win the four tournaments that comprise the Grand Slam of tennis in a single year. Budge was the second male player to win all four Grand Slam events in his career after Fred Perry and is still the youngest to achieve that feat. He won ten majors, of which six were Grand Slam events (consecutively, male record) and four Pro Slams, the latter achieved on three different surfaces.
My all-time favorite tennis book is "A Terrible Splendor" by Marshall Jon Fisher. Marshall writes, "Before Federer versus Nadal, before Borg versus McEnroe, the greatest tennis match ever played pitted the dominant Don Budge against the seductively handsome Baron Gottfried von Cramm. This deciding 1937 Davis Cup match, played on the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon, was a battle of titans: the world's number one tennis player against the number two; America against Germany; democracy against fascism. For five superhuman sets, the duo’s brilliant shotmaking kept the Centre Court crowd–and the world–spellbound."
We'll continue the Tennis History Series with more Legends of the Past: Bobby Riggs, Pancho Gonzalez, Maureen Connolly, Althea Gibson, Tony Trabert, and Ken Rosewall.
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