"The Crocodile" or "The Alligator"
(2 July 1904, 12 October 1996)
beginnings: Not everyone has such an understanding father as
the young René Lacoste, who agreed to his son giving up preparing
for the Polytechnique (one of the most prestigious engineering schools
in France) to concentrate solely on tennis. In 1922, in the amateur era,
it was a risky gamble, and his son’s future did not look very secure, but
Mr Lacoste Senior was the manager of the Hispano-Suiza factories and did
not have too many financial problems, so gave his son a year to show what
he was capable of! The young René would far exceed his father’s
expectations... he was imaginative and a shrewd businessman who brought
us the ball throwing machine (1927), the shirt that bears his name (1933),
the anti-vibration pad (1960) and the metal racket (1963).
Unlike his colleagues Borotra and Cochet, talented self-taught players who used their natural qualities by inventing most of their shots, René Lacoste secured the services of a renowned coach, Darsonval, and worked relentlessly at his game. He did not appear to have any of the natural qualities that made the players of his era, but he had his admiration for Suzanne Lenglen, a passion for the game and an almost obsessive desire to train. He was the first tennis player to include bodybuilding, running and skipping in his training. He spent hours hitting the ball against the walls of his family home (which had to be resurfaced every year). In response to his coach who criticised him for training too much, he invented a ball throwing machine! With these methods, which were modern for the time, his concentration, clear-headedness and consistency, he was to make fast progress: taking part in the world clay-court championships in 1922 and being selected for the Davis Cup for the first time in 1923, at the age of eighteen.
Prototype of the first ball throwing machine
Photo from an Australian newspaper of
that era. René Lacoste presents his invention.
first successes: He quickly became a pillar of the French team
and a regular on trips to America for the inter-zone finals of the Davis
Cup. He reached the final of the French championships in 1924, beaten by
Borotra, and became French No. 1 the following year, winning the first
French internationals one after the other and one month later, Wimbledon.
Partnered with Borotra, with whom he formed a remarkable team, he also
took the two doubles titles, thus achieving a European grand-slam in that
Having been severely beaten by Patterson and Johnston at the Davis Cup at the end of the year, 1926 started badly for him, when he was beaten three sets to zero by Cochet at the French internationals. Having lost his confidence, he did not go to Wimbledon to defend his title, went back to his relentless training regime, worked on his shot technique and finally rediscovered his form. He was about to move to America when he secured his first victory against Tilden in the Davis Cup. Soon after he won his first American championship in Forest Hills and became world No. 1 along with Borotra and Cochet.
Lacoste with Suzanne Lenglen,
Second success at Forest-Hills,
|The peak: Lacoste was then at his peak and stayed there. He beat Tilden three times in 1927, thus confirming his domination of world tennis, confirmed by the Davis Cup victory, a second title at Forest Hills in 1927 and Wimbledon in 1928. In 1929, he won the Roland Garros thanks to two superb victories over Tilden and Borotra. He was only twenty-five and everyone predicted a long reign for him over world tennis..|
Lacoste, retired player and captain
of the French Davis Cup team,
with his wife, 1932
|Early retirement: His victory at the Roland-Garros in 1929 was, to everyone’s surprise, his last official match. Ill with chronic bronchitis and worried about humidity, exertion and bad weather, René Lacoste stopped all sports all of a sudden. It was a great loss to the French team, which was deprived of its youngest and most promising player. He would often be seen, wrapped up in thick overcoats with a scarf and hat, still taking an interest in tennis and in the future of the French team. Thinking he had recovered, he came back to competition in 1932 and got through three rounds at the Roland-Garros, but fell ill again and gave up tennis once and for all. He then became Davis Cup captain and selector in the 1930s, then President of the French Tennis Federation until 1942. From 1933, he successfully developed the Lacoste brand, selling cotton shirts to sportsmen.|
|The "Crocodile": The real story of the "Crocodile" dates back to 1926. René Lacoste liked to talk about how his nickname became a world famous symbol. “The American press nicknamed me “The Crocodile" after a bet that I made with the Captain of the French Davis Cup team. He had promised me a crocodile-skin suitcase if I won a match that was important for our team. The American public stuck to this nickname, which highlighted my tenacity on the tennis courts, never giving up my prey! So my friend Robert George drew me a crocodile which was embroidered on the blazer that I wore on the courts.”||
Lacoste in the USA,
First appearance of
the famous crocodile. 1926
René Lacoste does not seem to have impressed his contemporaries
with the quality of his game. Everyone said that he had a boring style.
His technique was entirely based on this simple and logical principle:
it is enough to get the ball in one more time than your opponent!
In practice this tactic led him to stay at the back of the court, wearing down his opponents with the variety of his long and short shots, accurate to the millimetre. He did not naturally go into the net, but knew how to do so when circumstances required it. He was the first tennis player to perfect his technique, not in order to win a point or to quickly take his opponents, but solely in order to place and secure his shots, eliminating practically any risk of errors in his game. Along with being the first Stakhanovist of tennis, he had the asset of the intelligent game-play of a mathematician. He spent hours observing his future opponents, writing his observations down in a notebook and preparing his matches in advance by perfecting game tactics designed for his opponent. Cool, focused and always clear-headed, René Lacoste tried to return the ball a few millimetres from the line, switching shot lengths and wearing out his opponents by making them run miles from one end of the court to the other!
such an opponent, only attacking players who could play very quick shots
and finish points on a volley had a chance of beating him before they were
tired out. And they had to avoid being lobbed! Cochet,
and to a lesser extent Borotra and
were the only players who could counter this wearing out tactic, and they
had to be on top form to do so!
This style of play, which
it could be said was invented by René Lacoste, made such a mark
on his era that his nickname "The Crocodile" became a common synonym for
returners. In general, a crocodile is boring, tenacious, with tireless
legs, appears artless, never runs unnecessarily after a ball and tries
to annoy his opponent by alternating long balls, short balls and lobs.
His shots are always slow, but he speeds them up from time to time, always
when it is not expected! Lastly, he never gets angry. However, no-one really
wants to meet one...
|Tilden’s opinion: "The implacable irregularity with which this boy with the impassive face responds to all of my attacks has a disastrous effect on my nerves. I am filled with the overwhelming desire to throw my racket in his face. There is something merciless about an opponent such as this who does not leave the court until his job is done. His nickname "Crocodile" is perfect for him. Every time I go onto the court, I know that I am preparing for a physically and morally exhausting battle."|
inventor and business man: In 1933, René Lacoste and André
Gillier, the owner and chairman of the largest French hosiery company at
that time, set up a company to produce the shirt embroidered with a logo
that the champion had created for his personal use on the tennis courts,
and some other shirt designs for tennis, golf and marine sports. It was
the first time that a brand was visible on the outside of a garment, an
idea which has since continued. The shirt immediately became a revolution
among the tennis players of the time, who were wearing traditional warp-knitted
The company developed... It went international in 1952 (Italy, United States) and diversified.
|1963: René Lacoste
invents the first steel tennis racket: a revolution in tennis which challenged
the supremacy of the wooden racket and opened the way for today’s models.
The racket had a revolutionary round head and a “split shaft”. Its features
were a unique distribution of mass, high manoeuvrability, and an original
patented system for fixing the strings, giving better performance, particularly
with cheap synthetic strings. The racket won 46 Grand Slam titles between
1966 and 1978. Distributed in the United States by Wilson, it was used
by Jimmy Connors and Billie Jean King.
1968: Launch of a Lacoste Eau de Toilette under licence with Jean Patou.
1982: Opening of the first Lacoste boutique in Avenue Victor Hugo, Paris.
Lacoste then specialised and successfully developed top of the range sports products.
is his list of grand slam achievements: 7 singles, and 3 men’s doubles.
|Enlargement of an image
of a packet of English ‘Lambert & Butler’ cigarettes, 1926.
The photograph was taken at Wimbledon, probably during his final against Borotra in 1925. For once, Lacoste is not wearing his famous golfer’s cap.
This card is after René Lacoste’s victory at the American indoors championships in february 1926.
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