It was late summer 1926. International tennis was thriving, contributing its flair and substance to what would become known as the Golden Age of Sport.
At the pinnacle of world tennis were the three great national championships--Wimbledon, the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills, and the French championships on clay, which had been opened to non-French players in 1925 and were already recognized as a premier event. Meanwhile the annual Davis Cup competition equalled, perhaps surpassed, these events in general interest worldwide, while British and American women competed annually for the Wightman Cup.
Two superstars ruled over the times. At the top of the world rankings in every year 1920-1925 had been the American William Tilden, who led the U.S. to annual Davis Cup triumphs throughout the period. Meanwhile, the French champion Suzanne Lenglen captured six Wimbledons starting in 1919. The only woman of comparable ability was the American champion Helen Wills, six years younger, who lost to Lenglen narrowly in their classic lone meeting, in the final at Cannes in 1926.
The great tournaments and the Cup competitions were for amateur players only. Amateur standing was regulated by rules and interpretations established by tennis officialdom--the national tennis associations and the International Lawn Tennis Foundation (ILTF), based in London. An amateur was not permitted to receive prize money, though expense payments were allowed along with certain monies from sporting goods companies or other benefactors. A player's income from published writing was a grey area. Individuals who earned pay for teaching tennis were deemed professionals. A few "pro-am" events had been allowed--pitting a teaching pro against a regional-level amateur, for example, or perhaps a doubles exhibition. "Open" tournaments were forbidden.
Tennis provided a stage for Suzanne Lenglen, probably the most magnetic and celebrated star in tennis history. Born in 1899 in Paris, Lenglen had been rigorously trained by her father, a demanding teacher, and had grown into a player of unsurpassed stroking accuracy.
Lenglen captivated an American writer who watched her week-long triumph in the 1926 French championships: "Her racket meets the ball in its center and she places it with almost unerring accuracy at will. Hers is a placing game, and she can hit her mark almost always.... She covers court swiftly, concentrates closely, and therefore anticipates well." The writer also noted her universal popularity, and her obvious pleasure in occupying center stage and receiving applause. "She is tall and graceful, and she dresses beautifully," he wrote, citing the matching color of her sweater and headwear.
Lenglen easily defeated Californian Mary K. Browne in the Paris final, amid intermittent rainfall on a sodden court. Browne pulled off some "lovely volleys," according to our American observer, but for the most part her approach shots scarcely troubled Lenglen amid the slowish conditions. Browne won only one game. Afterwards, Lenglen "gloried in the series of ovations she received, in the taking of photographs, in everything that accompanied and accentuated her triumph."
It was Lenglen's last victory as an amateur. A few weeks later she withdrew from Wimbledon, highly distraught although blameless in failing to appear for a match before the Queen. Then in early August, following several months of discussions, she agreed to accept an anticipated $100,000 for a series of professional matches in North America. Explaining her decision in syndicated articles soon afterwards, Lenglen criticized the evasions and "subterfuges" that enabled top stars like herself to remain amateurs. Tennis, she believed, should follow golf in its rules on amateurism. She assured her readers that whether amateur or pro, she would "always try to play that same brand of tennis."
C.C. PYLE AND HIS TROUPE
The promoter whose perseverance and checkbook won over tennis's brightest celebrity was an American, Charles C. Pyle. The enterprising Pyle had grown up in small-town Ohio and had supported himself at Ohio Wesleyan partly by selling advertising in the college paper. He had been an enterpriser in the movie business and was now heavily involved in pro football, having signed to a contract the legend Red Grange. At age 44, Pyle looked like a successful businessman. During his negotiations with Lenglen and her father, according to Pyle, when Suzanne hesitated because as a pro she might lose friends and social position, Pyle answered that "money never hurt anyone's social standing."
But who would be a competitive opponent for Lenglen? Helen Wills or Molla Mallory might have been suitable--indeed, a Wills-Lenglen tour might have ranked among tennis history's most lustrous episodes. Pyle approached both Wills and Mallory, but neither was interested. Instead, Pyle signed Mary Browne, Lenglen's recent opponent in Paris, for a reported $30,000. Browne was a fine player, age 35, who had won the U.S. nationals 1912-1914 and was the U.S. Wightman Cup team captain. She was also a ranking golfer. In signing, Browne explained that she needed the money and that she felt it honest to play as a pro.
Pyle meanwhile tried to sign several male players. He sought Tilden, who declined an on-the-spot offer by Pyle to double the amount under discussion. William Johnston also turned down a Pyle offer. Paul Foret signed, but the number-four French player was hardly the headliner needed. Then in late September, Pyle staged a grand banquet on the liner Paris. Understanding that Pyle was going to announce a new signing, those present applauded and cheered when the young American star Vincent Richards and his wife strode theatrically into the room. Richards agreed to join Pyle's troupe for a four-month circuit of North America.
The new signing was another coup for Pyle. Richards--later called by Tilden "the greatest volleyer the world has ever known"--held many doubles titles including the current French and U.S. championships. Richards was also a fine singles player, having won three of four matches against Tilden in the season just ending. The USLTA ranking committee would nominate him the top-ranked American for 1926.
The defection of Richards, just 23, was a serious blow to U.S. amateur tennis. Of the four players who had recently defended the Davis Cup against France, Richards was the only one under the age of 32. Meanwhile during 1926, Henri Cochet won the French title, Jean Borotra won Wimbledon, and Rene Lacoste won Forest Hills. All three French stars were in their twenties. Richards offered no excuses for his decision, explaining that in justice to himself and his wife, he had to turn pro. "I intend to play just as hard as when I was an amateur."
To round out his troupe, Pyle also signed teaching pro Harvey Snodgrass along with Howard Kinsey, who had been Richards's partner in winning the French doubles.
There was mixed support within the tennis world for the actions of Lenglen and Richards. An editorial in New York Times noted that professional matches could attract spectators, and that "no-one will begrudge Mr. Richards the money which he may make out of his skill." S. Wallis Merrihew, editor of American Lawn Tennis and the individual whose writing on Lenglen in Paris we quoted earlier, wrote that there could be no reasonable objection to pro competition where players would receive their just due. Merrihew, however, strongly disliked "promoters who know nothing of tennis and simply wish to make money." He predicted failure for the planned tour, owing to "the character of those back of it." Meanwhile the USLTA president announced flat opposition to Pyle's wish to hold an open tournament within a year.
SATURDAY NIGHT, OCTOBER 9, NEW YORK
The dark, green canvas stretched tightly over the specially built flooring of linoleum. The white lines were stark clear under klieg lights. Except for the farthest reaches, every seat in the three tiers of Madison Square Garden appeared filled. The gallery, which numbered 13,000, "was thoroughly behaved and knew its tennis," wrote Allison Danzig in New York Times. Although the playing area outside the lines was barely adequate, conditions were generally good for the players, deemed Richard Lowenthal, whose account appeared in American Lawn Tennis. Lowenthal judged that the bounce was similar to that of a "fairly fast clay court." Tilden was in the audience and was applauded when he walked across the court.
The first match pitted Vincent Richards against Paul Feret. Richards played steady tennis, working the corners and advancing to net occasionally. Feret played well, hitting some fine backhand winners, but Richards's superior consistency was the deciding factor, wrote Lowenthal. The crowd applauded often, especially for volleys by Richards. The American won 6-3, 6-4.
The main event began with introductions of the two women. At 5' 2", Browne was the shorter and slightly broader of the two. With close-cropped dark hair she misleadingly looked younger than Lenglen, whose facial lines were deep.
Lowenthal summarized the play. Browne tried hard but found herself always on the defensive. Lenglen's relentless and marvelously placed shots to the corners "cruelly chased" the American until, run ragged, Browne would finally miss. The crowd found the long rallies stirring, but it was soon clear that Browne had no chance against "the flawless tennis that the French marvel was flashing."
Danzig agreed. Lenglen's absorption in the play was total, he wrote, her movement was "with the lightness of thistledown." Hers was "one of the most masterly exhibitions of court generalship that has been seen in this country," Danzig concluded. It was Lenglen over Browne, 6-1, 6-1.
Afterwards, the four men paired for a set of doubles. Mixed doubles followed, Lenglen-Richards defeating Browne-Kinsey, 6-2. Lowenthal reported that Lenglen dominated play and that the crowd greatly appreciated the many extended exchanges.
Our two eyewitnesses disagreed in their final assessments. While Danzig wrote that the evening's tennis had been worthy of championship play, Lowenthal deemed that the tennis was below par, the spirit lifeless. "It didn't make any difference to anyone who won," he complained. Lacking a competitive element, he concluded, the pro tour idea was sure to fail.
Danzig again reported positively on the next day's play, Sunday, before a Garden crowd of about 5,000. Browne started well against Lenglen, leading two games to one and playing aggressively, but Lenglen soon found her game and easily prevailed, 6-2, 6-1. Merrihew himself, who missed the opening night, attended. (Disliking his sideline seat, the dean of tennis-publishing sat instead with Tilden behind a baseline.) Merrihew wrote that the gallery was knowledgeable and the play professional, but otherwise he found things "amateurish." The introductions were circus-like (the announcer mispronounced Lenglen's name), he noted, and the officials were incompetent. He especially disliked that the chair umpire was Browne's brother and was not so identified. In an editorial, "The Rubicon is Crossed," Merrihew sternly disagreed with the notion that the new pros might some day be reinstated as amateurs:
"They have made their bed. Lie on it they must, however hard it may become or however scant the covering it contains."
BRINGING TOP-LEVEL TENNIS TO MANY
After New York, the players performed in Toronto two days later, then in Baltimore on October 14, then in Boston and Philadelphia. The linoleum-and-canvas tennis court, which weighed over 2,000 pounds, travelled by train with the troupe. Attendance ranged from 8,000 in Boston Arena to a chilled 3,000 in an unheated Sesquicentennial Auditorium, Philadelphia. After six dates, Pyle announced that 41,000 spectators had attended, that financial receipts were a "very satisfactory" $83,400. One-nighters followed, in Montreal, Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Cincinnati, and, on November 18, in Chicago. The original format was retained. First, Richards would play either Foret, Kinsey, or Snodgrass, then Lenglen would play Browne, and the evening would end with men's and mixed doubles.
Richards usually but not always won his singles, often in three sets. Lenglen's dominance over Browne, however, remained unbroken, though crowds in every city took Mary's determined play to heart. Everyone admired the way she fought for every point, and lively applause followed her many remarkable gets and the occasional points and games that she won. People wondered whether the heroine could last the full four months. The mixed doubles proved popular, though on at least one occasion, in Baltimore, two of the men played against Lenglen-Richards, resting Browne. (The two men won.) To raise fan interest, money bonuses were announced for players winning sets from Richards and for Browne if she won a specified number of games against Lenglen. Pantomime performances by Nick Altrock and Al Schacht, renowned clowns of baseball, mimicking the tennis players, invariably "brought down the house."
A few days before each engagement, generous stories appeared in the local sports pages telling about the forthcoming matches. The players were photographed and interviewed soon after they arrived in each new city. The accounts of the matches by the local reporters were often detailed and perceptive.
Nearly all observers judged the evening's entertainment favorably, impressed by the often enthusiastic audiences, the high quality of play, the wonderful effort by crowd-favorite Mary. Most writers disliked the circus-like atmosphere but also reported that the crowds didn't seem to mind. Many commented that meaningful competition was absent, and, interestingly, several wrote that few customers would pay again merely to watch the same players. The reporter from Baltimore Sun, after seeing Richards's "clear superiority" and watching Lenglen beat Browne 6-0, 6-0, noted approvingly that "Mr. Pyle's headliners do not ease their game to fool the gallery."
Unquestionably the main attraction in selling tickets was Lenglen, and unquestionably the European superstar was no disappointment. Crowds enjoyed "the poetry of her motion," her "dash and verve," her "acrobatic style." Occasionally Mary Browne made things competitive, winning the first four games in Chicago, for example. But whenever Mary surged, Suzanne always raised her game still higher.
Interviewed for Boston Globe, Richards predicted that pro tennis would succeed. He said that Pyle knows what he is doing, and he predicted that there would be tours of Europe and Australia along with pro tournaments which would stir great interest. If open play between the top pros and amateurs is permissible in golf, he posed, why not in tennis?
To his credit, the conservative Merrihew warmed to the growing evidence. He acknowledged that the tour was obtaining considerable success. "There is not the slightest doubt," he wrote, "that these exhibitions have filled a want." Whereas tennis officialdom had given no help at Madison Square Garden, he noted, gradually the tennis fraternity about the country had come forward, volunteering as linesmen, for example. Merrihew printed a letter from a Denver enthusiast:
"I had never before seen tennis of this grade, and two minutes after they started playing I was unconscious whether they were pros, amateurs, or royalty! I didn't care. I was simply carried away by the wonderful tennis; that was all."
MARY BROWNE ON LENGLEN
When the tour ended in February, Lenglen had defeated Browne, 38 matches to zero. Browne told in several accounts what it had been like to face Lenglen.
Lenglen had unusual foot speed and a rare tennis mind, Browne explained, but what put her in a class by herself were her superior control and tactics. Lenglen seldom hit with extreme power, though she assuredly could, and she seldom moved to net though her volleying ability was superior. Lenglen had been trained--indeed drilled--from girlhood not only for accuracy but also on the sequence of shots, the combinations, on understanding the likely target of her opponent's reply. Her shots always cleared the net by a good foot, Browne continued, as she maneuvered her opponent out of position without seeking immediate winners. She moved her opponent from corner to corner, occasionally shortening her drives at acute angles thus forcing up-and-back movement.
Comparing Lenglen to the other women players, Browne noted that Helen Wills had "strokes of greater severity." But in no other department of the game, she continued, were any of the other women comparable, though several were close in natural ability. What set Lenglen apart, Browne concluded, was the intensive training that she had endured in years past.
Browne noted that crowds during the tour had been surprised by the seeming softness of Lenglen's game. Browne explained that Lenglen's shots carried unsuspected pace and spin, which she varied. "I can assure you that her soft balls are most difficult to return cleanly. At times they appear almost to float over the net, but as you set about confidently to kill them something goes wrong." Browne wrote that although she and Lenglen had become friends during the travelling, Lenglen was absolutely determined never to lose, unmistakeably raising her competitiveness on those two occasions when Browne managed to win a set.
TOURING THE WEST AND SOUTH
Perhaps the high point had already passed. From Denver the troupe entrained for the Northwest, performing on consecutive evenings in Victoria, Vancouver, and Seattle. Finally arriving in Portland, Lenglen was exhausted, worn out by a cold, the recent matches, and her inability to sleep. Against Browne Saturday night, December 4, Lenglen took her accustomed lead in games 5-1. But then Browne came back to equalize at 5-all. Games reached 8-all, then 9-all after Browne nearly broke through. Lenglen finally closed out the long set 11-9.
But the second set was not played. Lenglen refused assistance but retired to the dressing room and was later seen being "carried" to a waiting car. It was reminiscent of Lenglen's 1921 appearance in America--her only visit as an amateur--when she had retired, unwell and in tears, after falling behind Molla Mallory at the Nationals. According to the Portland reporter, many witnesses at Portland believed they had seen a streak of temperament caused by fear of defeat.
But 36 hours later the superstar was once again in her glory, arriving by train at the San Francisco Bay terminal dressed in fur scarf and red hat, carrying an armful of red roses. According to the writer from the Chronicle, she was "slender, animated, and a perfect actress--all graciousness and affability." Asked whether Browne's game was improving, Lenglen replied charmingly that "Mary has had 21 lessons from a past master...." With Lenglen were her mother, her personal maid, and her trainer, along with the rest of the 14-person troupe. Though clearly tired, she soldiered on through the chill ferry ride crossing the Bay. Later in the day, in her hotel, she told a reporter from the Examiner how much she was enjoying the tour, that she was already in love with San Francisco, and that she would assuredly choose the West if she ever moved to America.
That night, December 7, the weakened Suzanne fought off Mary, 8-6, 6-2. The sports editor of the Chronicle wrote that Lenglen "plays mostly on her toes, just as any topnotch fighter would in the ring." The Chronicle's Blanche Ashbaugh told how Lenglen "takes her forehand high with a stiff arm, and bears down on it with her whole body," and how in doubles Lenglen increased the speed and depth of her serve in order to move forward to net.
"Brownie's" long-time California friends noticed that Mary's play was much improved from before. Two nights later in Oakland, the match was again competitive, 6-2, 7-5. Helen Wills attended both events, and called on Lenglen at her hotel.
It was well that nearly three weeks intervened before the next performance. One newspaper reported that a physician told Lenglen that she must take a long rest at the end of the tour. Commenting on her excess nervous energy, Lenglen told a reporter that "it is when I am on edge that I play my best." On December 28 before 7,000 Los Angeles fans "shoehorned into the Olympic Auditorium," Lenglen smothered Browne 6-0, 6-1. Then at Houston Browne won a total of four games, and then again at New Orleans on January 9--the exact number required for her $100 bonus.
But the misfortunes were not over. At New Orleans, a weakened Richards was diagnosed with jaundice, perhaps incorrectly. Sidelined, he accompanied the troupe to Florida where he stayed while the others went to Havana. Back in the Northeast with the tour, Richards resumed doubles play, but now Lenglen became confined to her hotel with tonsillitis, forcing the rescheduling of performances in Hartford and Newark. Thereafter Lenglen played doubles only, albeit very entertainingly, though she retired early at New Haven and declared fatigue after just one set of mixed in the tour finale at Providence, February 14. Crowds had become small.
But the off-court tennis wars were heating up. In early February the USLTA voted to overturn the recommendations of its rankings committee and strip the new pros of their 1926 amateur rankings, even though the amateur season had effectively ended prior to the apostasies. As John Kieran of New York Times saw it, the solons had decided they would not grant the pros the slightest weapon--i.e., Richards's Number One ranking.
Richards replied with scorn, announcing that he would lead an insurgency on behalf of the "honest professionals" against the masters of the "sham amateurs." Having just toured the country, he believed he knew the temper of the regional tennis organizations and that a showdown in the USLTA against the "New York clique" was near. The barrage alienated many of Richards's friends, Kieran wrote. Indeed Tilden, who had been sympathetic to the pro tennis idea and had strongly denounced the USLTA's shallow action, now in print bitingly attacked Richards's allegations.
Meanwhile, C. C. Pyle announced that despite a net profit from the recent tour he was, at least for now, leaving pro tennis. On February 15, his representative in New York explained that Pyle was abandoning his plan to take the troupe to Europe. He accused Lenglen of entering discussions with other promoters and unfairly asking Pyle for increased moneys. He made known that Richards, Snodgrass, and Browne had tentatively agreed to Pyle's terms for Europe if Lenglen could be signed.
Merrihew said it this way in December: "A showman pure and simple has been able to give pleasure and instruction to a large number of people. The game will be none the worse, and perhaps better, for the experiment." As Merrihew and many others recognized, without meaningful competition pro tennis as mere exhibition could not long thrive.
Lenglen returned to Europe immediately. She would play a few exhibitions in England later in the year, but no extended tour comparable to Pyle's materialized. Helen Wills Moody would thereafter dominate the women's game. Tennis fandom was left to wonder how long Lenglen might have held off the American power baseliner. Lenglen died at 39. Mary Browne became a widely respected teacher of the game. Howard Kinsey would sue Pyle over moneys.
Vincent Richards led in forming an association of tennis pros, and in fall 1927 he won the first U.S. Pro championships, held in New York, defeating Kinsey in the final. John R. Tunis wrote in the New York Evening Post that Richards now appeared a "keen, well-conditioned athlete," displaying superb touch on low balls. Richards was indeed missed when the U.S. lost to France in the next four Davis Cup challenge rounds. Although Tilden won four of his eight singles matches in these rubbers, no other American won a singles match.
The idea of open tournaments remained alive. Proposals for open tennis were supported by USLTA but were defeated by ILTF vote in 1930 and on several later occasions. Richards worked to keep the pro game alive, and things looked up when Tilden turned pro, defeating Karol Kozuleh and Richards in the 1931 tour. Ellsworth Vines displaced Tilden as pro champion in a 1934 tour, then defeated Perry in 1936 and 1937 tours, and narrowly lost to Budge in 1939. Women returned to the tours when Alice Marble turned pro in late 1940.
A treasured boyhood memory was in watching my first pro tennis, in about 1940 at Asbury Park. Among the performers were a still-slender Tilden and a not-so-slender Vincent Richards.
(Note: The above material is drawn largely from the magnificent collection of newspapers, periodicals including American Lawn Tennis, and out-of-print books located at Library of Congress.)