Simonne Mathieu, more than just a tennis great
Simonne Mathieu’s record of 13 Grand Slam titles – ten of which were won at the French Open – is bettered by just one French player: the great Suzanne Lenglen. Yet there was much more to the prolific Mathieu than her ability to wield a racquet. A woman of character and conviction, she was a staunch member of the Free French Forces during the second world war. We tell the story of a woman who starred at Roland-Garros in the years leading up to the war and marched alongside Général de Gaulle on the day of Paris’ liberation.
The biggest star of French women’s tennis in the near 80-year period that separated the pioneering exploits of Suzanne Lenglen and the modern-day achievements of Amélie Mauresmo and Mary Pierce was none other than Simonne Mathieu. Such was her strength of character that she bounced back from six French Open women’s singles final defeats (including three consecutive against the same opponent, German's Hilde Sperling) to finally win her home Grand Slam event at the seventh attempt, in 1938. Mathieu swept the board at the French that year, also winning the women’s and mixed doubles, and returned 12 months later to retain her singles title. Boasting the finest Grand Slam record of any French player of either sex bar Lenglen, Mathieu was the most tenacious and resilient of competitors.
A fighter on the court, her largely defensive game was built around her exceptional stamina and posed the kind of physical challenge her opponents rarely faced elsewhere. Mathieu has also gone down in history as a fighter off the court. Prevented from winning more titles by the outbreak of the second world war, she made for London following France’s surrender on 22 June 1940 and offered her services to General de Gaulle. He entrusted her with the task of setting up a women’s corps of French volunteers, who would serve in the Free French Forces as pilots, doctors and the like. In becoming the corps’ commander, Mathieu also took care of recruitment and training. Though she did not see any action during the war, she travelled with De Gaulle to Algiers in 1943 and was by his side once more in the victory parade held to mark the liberation of Paris on 26 August 1944.
Presiding the first tennis match to be played in liberated Paris
Three weeks later, on 17 September, Mathieu strode on to the Central Court at Roland-Garros to umpire the first tennis match to be played in liberated Paris. She did so in her French Free Forces captain’s uniform, presiding over a battle of the generations between the legendary “Musketeer” Henri Cochet and Yvon Pétra, the spearhead of France’s new wave (he'll won Wimbledon two years later). Having made her contribution to the city’s hard-won liberty, it was only fitting that she should have the honour that day of uttering the word “Play”, one laden with symbolic importance and which the freedom-fighting Mathieu was only too happy to say.
Having turned 36 by this time, Mathieu’s playing days were behind her. She moved into administration, heading up the French Tennis Federation’s (FFT) women’s commission, and also taking charge of France’s women’s team. One of the players she selected was Françoise Dürr, who still speaks with excitement about the day Mathieu called her up to the national team for the first time.
The FFT paid their tribute to Mathieu by naming the French Open women’s double trophy after her. It was an event she won six times in all, four of them consecutively between 1936 and 1939. French tennis’ governing body has gone one step further today, naming in her honour the court that will be built as part of the extension of the Roland-Garros complex to the Serres d’Auteuil botanical gardens. The Court Simonne-Mathieu will be the venue’s third show court, after the Central Philippe-Chatrier and the Court Suzanne-Lenglen. All three are giants of French tennis. And all three are so much more than that.
Vœu adopté par le Conseil de Paris : le nouveau court de Roland Garros se nommera donc « Court Simonne Mathieu » pour rendre hommage à cette grande femme : joueuse émérite et résistante qui libéra Paris pic.twitter.com/nwtZkkuLUy— J-Francois Martins (@jfmartins) 22 novembre 2017