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René Lacoste - a French tennis legend

Article published on the 2008-06-06 Latest update 2008-06-07 09:00 TU

Rene Lacoste and Bill Tilden in 1927Roger Viollet

Rene Lacoste and Bill Tilden in 1927
Roger Viollet

As the French Open at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris comes to an end, Judith Prescott visits an exhibition at the Roland Garros Tenniseum museum which celebrates the life of French tennis great, René Lacoste. And she discovers a gentler era when tennis was more about style than strength.

Lacoste's achievements on the tennis court are well-known, but he was also a talented inventor and a highly successful businessman. The crocodile emblazoned on his famous polo shirts are as instantly recognisable today as McDonald's Golden Arches or the Coca Cola bottle.

René Lacoste was born in 1904 and dropped his studies at one of Paris's most prestigious colleges to pursue his passion for tennis. In a short career spanning just four years between 1925 and 1929, he won seven Grand Slam singles titles and was twice part of France's winning Davis Cup team - in 1927 and 1928.
Michael Guittard, an archivist at the Tenniseum, says that Lacoste was always looking for ways to improve the game and put his talent as an engineer to use.
"Lacoste was a fabulous inventor who designed a metal racket used by top players including Jimmy Connors and Billlie Jean King," he points out. "He also developed the lance-balle, the machine that shoots balls over the net. This invention reflects Lacoste's personality. He was a perfectionist and when he played he would practice over and over again. It was tiring for his partners so he created this machine."
Guy Forget, a three times Davis Cup winner and one of the best tennis players France has ever produced, knew Lacoste personally and agrees that he had very high standards.

He remembers when Lacoste gave him a new racket to try and it turned out to be different from anything Forget had seen before.
"He came to me one day and showed me a new racket which had a really strange shape, like a guitar," says Forget. "He said it was a prototype that was going to help me play much better. So I tried it and it felt really good and a year or two later we won the Davis Cup."
Of course, the Lacoste name is inextricably linked to the Lacoste Polo shirt. Guittard says Lacoste modelled the shirt on those used by polo players in England. At a time when tennis was played in long-sleeved shirts and trousers, a short-sleeved shirt made from a material that allowed the air to circulate was a real revolution.
"It was Lacoste that introduced these shirts into the game," he explains. "He was nicknamed  le crocodile  because of his tenacity on the tennis court.  He asked a friend to design a crocodile to be embroidered onto the shirt and that was the beginning of the Lacoste polo shirt and the Lacoste Society."
During his years as a top tennis player, Lacoste never turned professional. He played for his own pleasure. After his tennis career was over, he joined his father's fim. Later he set up a company of his own where he put his engineering skills to other uses, including the design of the nose for the Concorde supersonic jet.
The photographs and black-and-white film of Lacoste and his contemporaries back in the 1920s are a far cry from tennis today. But Guy Forget believes it's difficult to compare different periods of the game.
"You really can't compare John McEnroe with Roger Federer," Forget says. "They are all really great players and they were playing their best and winning all the big tournaments. I think if Lacoste and the others were playing today, they would be the best players in the world."