This Sporting Life

Suzanne – The Jazz Age Goddess of Tennis by Tom Humberstone 

Suzanne - The Jazz Age Goddess of Tennis by Tom Humberstone 
Suzanne – The Jazz Age Goddess of Tennis by Tom Humberstone 

1914 and Europe was beginning its descent into the abattoir of war. Young men turned away from their jobs and homes and went to the battlefield. Thousands of women were needed to work in arms production and they filled the factories. For many it was a taste of independence that they liked. A revolution was underway which would begin to transform the role of women in society. Women at last began to win the right to vote in country after country. They also began to win a new prominence in other areas of life, areas like sport. 

Suzanne Lenglen was one of those pioneers. In the often stuffy and privileged world of lawn tennis she challenged the sporting establishment. In wider society she exemplified the new found freedoms that women were experiencing. Tom Humberstone’s book follows Suzanne as she grows throughout her career. From early days under the strict and demanding tutelage of her father to the glamour and attention of New York and Wimbledon. 

Panels from Suzanne - The Jazz Age Goddess of Tennis by Tom Humberstone 
Sport and War

Suzanne rejected the corsets and ankle-length skirts of the time in favour of elegant and athletic apparel that enabled her to move freely on the court, as well as looking very chic. She travelled around the world and didn’t hesitate to speak up for herself. UItimately she even rejected the privileged world of amateur tennis for paid tours – filling football stadiums with eager spectators.

Tom Humberstone sets the social and political background skilfully. We see the barriers faced by Suzanne and get a real sense for the strength it must have taken to overcome them. At the same time we are aware of the wider injustices in society – in one scene Suzanne goes to the famous Cotton Club to enjoy some jazz, and we see a group of young black men being turned away. 

The colour palette of the book features soft reds, pinks and oranges. We have a sense of the warmth of the sun in the French Riviera and the life that pulses through Suzanne as she takes on the world. The book feels alive, not like some dusty newsreel of a long forgotten individual.

Her visit to the United States also sees some elegant storytelling from the author. We see the journey of a bottle of wine as it makes its way from the vineyards of France to be shipped to Canada and then smuggled into the U.S. All so that Suzanne can enjoy her courtside pick-me-up. No isotonic drinks in those days. The journey of the bottle serves to set the scene and show the reader the context of American society.

Panels from Suzanne - The Jazz Age Goddess of Tennis by Tom Humberstone 
The journey of a bottle

The struggle between Suzanne and her father is in some ways an echo of her fight against a patriarchal society. But we also see that the ambition that made him push her to train and play so hard is very much present in her as well. She is tough, like her father and that can sometimes make her selfish and even ruthless.

Tom Humberstone’s illustrations certainly do justice to Suzanne Lenglen’s distinctive face and athletic physique. They also take on the tricky task of portraying a tennis match in panels and manage to make it seem tense. No easy feat! We see the ball strike the court just as it struck the coin laid as a marker by her father during her youthful training sessions.

In other panels we see Lenglen moving around the court, her muscles straining. Later we see the same body dancing joyfully to jazz.

Panels from Suzanne - The Jazz Age Goddess of Tennis by Tom Humberstone 
Suzanne Lenglen on the court

The colour palette of the book features soft reds, pinks and oranges. We have a sense of the warmth of the sun in the French Riviera and the life that pulses through Suzanne as she takes on the world. The book feels alive, not like some dusty newsreel of a long forgotten individual.

Whether you are a tennis fan or, like me, had never heard of Suzanne Lenglen you will enjoy the story of her determined rise to the top of her sport and the pioneering impact she had on the world. Tom Humberstone has produced a beautifully illustrated book that brings to life the era and the dramatic changes underway in society. 


Suzanne – The Jazz Age Goddess of Tennis by Tom Humberstone is published by Avery Hill and is available now.

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