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René Lacoste,

"the Crocodile"

Born 2 July 1904 in Paris, died 12 October 1996, Saint-Jean-de-Luz (France)

An incredibly successful tennis career, an almost scientific curiosity for the sport, and a name that has become a famous brand the world over… Throughout his entire life, René Lacoste embodied the perfect harmony between a man and his passions.

One story perfectly encapsulates the impact and the standing that René Lacoste has had on the history of tennis. Whenever he came to Paris, Jimmy Connors would make sure that he paid his respects to the most famous of the French tennis Musketeers on his home turf.

"Jimbo" was never known for his warmth or empathy, but he absolutely worshipped Lacoste, both for his on-court smarts and also because he had invented the metal racquet back in 1963. This would be distributed in the United States by Wilson, whose famous T2000 would accompany the eight-time Grand Slam champion throughout most of his successful career.

Much in the way that one would request an audience with the Pope, a humble, modest Connors would go and listen to his master’s voice – a rare occurrence, since the only other advice he would heed came from his mother Gloria and his grandmother Bertha.

His credo – hard work

The son of a director of the Hispano-Suiza automobile manufacturers, Jean-René Lacoste was born just after the new century was ushered in, in 1904. He studied at the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique engineering school, but soon realised that this was not his calling. His passion for tennis was all-conquering, and it was that which he would come to study, treating it like a science and unearthing all of its secrets.

He realised that he was less talented than some of his contemporaries – his friend Henri Cochet, for one – and so practised all the more assiduously, imitating much of Suzanne Lenglen’s technique. According to Cochet, Lacoste’s rise to become the world’s top player at the end of the 1920s was the result of boundless energy. "He gave all of his leisure hours to tennis, and all of his will. And so it was that René became an incredible ball-returning machine," Cochet wrote of his brother in arms.

Read more: Henri Cochet's profile

Lacoste picked up two Wimbledon titles (in 1925 and 1928) and another two at Forest Hills (1926 and 1927), to add to the three he won at the French Internationals – indeed, he made the final every year between 1925 and 1929. He won in 1925 at Saint-Cloud, and in 1927 at the Racing Club de France. That second victory was particularly sweet, coming as it did in front of a capacity crowd and against the seemingly invincible "Big Bill" Tilden. Lacoste won 11-9 in the fifth set, saving two match points in the process.

Cut down in his prime

It was less of a contest when the Frenchman again defeated his American rival the following September in Philadelphia, helping France secure its first Davis Cup title. In 1928, the Musketeers retained their crown in the brand new Roland-Garros stadium, which had been built to enable them to defend their title. Lacoste’s playing career, however, came to an abrupt halt at that point, rounded off with a third and final win at the French in 1929. At the age of just 24, he was forced to give up all sporting activity due to problems with his lungs.

Read more: The Roland-Garros stadium history

Though he would captain the Davis Cup team from 1931 – 1933, Lacoste had already begun to set up a new career during his playing days, giving his love of creativity and invention free rein. On-court, he quickly found that he got very cold due to his shirt being drenched with sweat. He therefore began researching different types of material that would help combat this problem.

In 1926, he met André, the head of Gillier milliners in Troyes who had come to buy a Hispano-Suiza from Lacoste senior’s garage. The short-sleeved piqué polo shirt, which allows the skin to breathe, was the first result of their collaboration. In 1933, Lacoste teamed up with Gillier to mass-produce this polo shirt, with the touch of genius being to top it off with a little crocodile as the logo. The reptile came from a nickname that he had picked up during one of his first trips to the United States, where he had been involved in a bet with a crocodile-skin suitcase up for grabs for the winner.

A statue at Roland-Garros in his own lifetime

Not content with achieving worldwide success in the clothing industry, Lacoste continued to invent and innovate. He created the first ball machine (a name inspired by Bill Tilden, who nicknamed Lacoste"human ball machine"), the metal racquet, which won 46 Grand Slam titles, the vibration dampener in racquet handles… His last invention was a racquet with a kinked frame, which improved the sweet spot. This model was called the Equijet, and was popularised by Guy Forget who used it when France won the Davis Cup in 1991. Lacoste’s spirit of invention created a link between the Musketeers and the Yannick Noah generation, who won their title 59 after their predecessors.

Lacoste died in 1996, in his house at Saint-Jean-de-Luz. A statue had already been erected in his honour at Roland-Garros stadium, where for many years up until 1992, he awarded the French Open trophy to the winner. What a shame that Connors never made it past the semi-finals in Paris...

René Lacoste's profile at the French Open:

  • 31 wins, three defeats.
  • Three titles (1925, 1927, 1929) and two finals (1926, 1928). René Lacoste also won two titles at Wimbledon (1925, 1928) and to at Forest Hills (1926, 1927).
  • Six participations (the first in 1925, the last in 1932).
  • Notable wins over Jean Borotra (1925 and 1929 finals, semi-finals in 1926), Jacques Brugnon (quarter-finals in 1927), Bill Tilden (final in 1927, semi-finals in 1929), Jack Crawford (quarter-finals in 1928), John Hawkes (semi-finals in 1928), Sidney Wood (round of 32 in 1932).