Born: July 2, 1904
in Paris, France
Died: October 12, 1996
The famed Four Musketeers (René Lacoste, Jacques Brugnon, Jean Borotra, and Henri Cochet) who dominated tennis in the 1920s and into the early 1930s as individuals and members of France’s Davis Cup teams had distinctively different personalities and playing styles. What they shared in common, however, was winning. The foursome won 20 major singles and 44 doubles and mixed doubles titles. The youngest of the Musketeers, a collective nickname the group earned from Alexandre Dumas’s book, The Three Musketeers, was René Lacoste. He was the quiet champion, unassuming and late to begin playing tennis at age 15. He wasn’t as skillfully refined as his colleagues, but perhaps the hardest worker of the group. In a brief seven-year career that ended when he was just 24 years old, Lacoste won 11 majors (seven singles, four doubles), and in some circles was considered the best of the four players.
He was known as “The Crocodile,” a nickname he earned from the American press after he reportedly made a bet with the French Davis Cup captain. Lacoste said that he was promised a crocodile-skin suitcase if he won an important match. The moniker resonated with American tennis fans who appreciated Lacoste’s hard charging and relentless game. The Frenchman embraced the name, saying, “the nickname highlighted by tenacity on the tennis courts, never giving up my prey.” The crocodile, which was designed by friend Robert George and then affixed onto a blazer, became a fixture in Lacoste’s life. It was the trademark logo of his famous short-sleeve cotton polo shirts and clothing brand.
Though not blessed with superstar-like athletic talent, Lacoste still had terrific skills, and he turned himself into a world champion the old fashioned way: through determination, training, fitness, and a journal of copious notes that he kept on each of his opponents. Lacoste preferred playing from the baseline, where he could employ strategic changes in pace. He would hit short, and mix in a pinpoint lob with accurate passing shots. Lacoste had a fertile mind and a yearning to become a champion. He won three times in singles in Paris (1925, 1927, 1929) and twice at Wimbledon (1925, 1928) and the U.S. (1926, 1927). Playing in a generation of talented players, it took Lacoste just five years to realize his dream of winning a championship. It was common for French players to meet one another in a major final, and at Roland Garros in 1925 fellow Musketeer Jean Borotra was Lacoste’s opponent. Borotra had defeated Lacoste in the 1924 Wimbledon Gentlemen Singles Championship final, 6-1, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-4, but in Paris, Lacoste registered an easy 7-5, 6-1, 6-4 victory.
Borotra would become Lacoste’s persistent and formidable opponent in major singles finals. Lacoste defeated him at Wimbledon in 1925 (6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 8-6), the U.S. National Championships in 1926 (6-4, 6-0, 6-4) and his last major title at the 1929 French Championships (6-3, 2-6, 6-0, 2-6, 8-6). Lacoste won 70 percent of his major singles finals opportunities, an impressive statistic, with five coming against fellow Frenchmen. Two titles came over one of the game’s greatest champions, Bill Tilden, at the 1927 French and U.S. Nationals. Tilden still had four strong amateur years left before turning professional and Lacoste dealt him a 6-4, 4-6, 5-7, 6-3, 11-9 loss at the French and an 11-9, 6-3, 11-9 defeat at Forest Hills. The U.S. match showcased a new Lacoste strategy: he shortened his usual long stroke, and used Tilden’s power against him. The tactic repeatedly nullified Tilden’s forays to net, and allowed Lacoste to successfully defend his title. Lacoste’s 1928 Wimbledon title was earned over compatriot Henri Cochet, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.
When it came to doubles play, Borotra turned from adversary to companion, and the pair won four major doubles titles at the French Championships in 1924, 1925, and 1929 and Wimbledon in 1925. He also teamed with Borotra to win a Bronze Medal in doubles at the 1924 Olympic Games held in Paris, France.
Lacoste was a member of France’s Davis Cup team from 1923 to 1928, helping the squad win back-to-back championships in 1927 and 1928, both times over the United States. He captained the team from 1931 to 1933, earning championships in 1931 over Great Britain and in 1932 over the U.S.
For many, playing against Lacoste was akin to playing against a backboard – every shot was returned – and was known as a “human ball machine.” In fact, after losing to Lacoste at the 1927 U.S. Nationals, Tilden remarked, “I never played better. That Frenchman is a machine.” Lacoste developed the first hand-cranked ball machine which he called “lance-balle” to propel tennis balls. In 1963, Lacoste shook up the racquet manufacturing and technology world by inventing the steel tennis racquet, which would over the next two decades gradually eliminate wood racquets. The racquet revolutionized the entire equipment category from strings to grips and vibration dampeners.
Due to declining health, Lacoste wound down his playing career in 1929, forming his clothing brand four years later. Lacoste had preferred to play in short-sleeved polo shirts rather than the traditional dress shirts, and put his energies into his small apparel company that grew into an industry giant. His clothing line entered the U.S. market in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the brand caught on as a symbol of high fashion and status.
Lacoste’s wife Simone Thion de la Chaume, was a French amateur golf champion, winning the 1927 British Ladies Amateur. His daughter Catherine won the U.S. Women’s Open in 1967, the only amateur to date to win the championship. In his autobiography, Jack Kramer ranked Lacoste as one of his top 21 players of all time. He was a world top 10 ranked player from 1924 to 1929, reaching the No. 1 position from 1926-27.
Lacoste and his three fellow Musketeers were inducted together into the Hall of Fame in 1976.