A nurse in the First World War and a member of the French Resistance during the Second, four-time French Open winner Jeanne Matthey lived a life about which the general public and tennis fans know relatively little. We tell the remarkable story of a remarkable woman.
The heroic Jeanne Matthey
ONE WOMAN, ONE STORY. We tell the remarkable story of a remarkable woman and four-time RG winner
Born in Egypt in 1886 to a Swiss father and a French mother, Jeanne Matthey moved to France with her family in 1900, taking up residence on Boulevard Malesherbes, an affluent Paris thoroughfare. Sport played a central part in the family’s recreational activities. Jeanne’s brothers played football, while she and her sister devoted their energies to tennis.
Talented but self-effacing, the young Jeanne quickly made a name for herself on the courts of the Racing Club de France, where her family were all members. In 1909 she won her maiden French Championship (as the French Open was formerly known) and went on to become one of the country’s leading women players, retaining the title for the next three years before losing to the top French seed Marguerite Broquedis in the 1913 final.
Part of a resistance network
No sooner had Jeanne reached the peak of her powers than her career was curtailed by the outbreak of the First World War. Whereas her life had to this point been taken up with tournaments and family engagements, she decided to leave the courts behind her and volunteer as a Red Cross nurse.
After spending four years at the front, during which time she became a head nurse, Jeanne returned to Paris on suffering serious wounds to her right arm, which would prevent her from holding a racquet and playing tennis again. She had, in any case, decided to devote her life to helping others and lived out her principles by playing an active role in the Second World War, forming part of a resistance network in which she had the task of relaying messages.
Caught and tortured by the Gestapo, Jeanne refused to give her captors any information and was sent to a concentration camp in Germany. Though she survived the ordeal, the ill treatment she suffered during her internment left her much weakened.
The story of a truly unique woman
In 1972, on being spotted at Roland-Garros, Jeanne laughed as she told reporters, “I’m in little bits!”. She went on to tell them that she was a member of more than 30 war veterans’ organisations and that she had received more than 38 medals and decorations since the end of the First World War.
Named a knight and an officer of the French Legion of Honour in 1952 and 1958 respectively, she is one of the few women to have been promoted to the rank of commander of the Legion of Honour, a decoration bestowed upon her in 1962.
Jeanne Matthey is more than just a four-time French Open champion. Behind that fabled name is the story of a truly unique woman, a hero of her time, and a figure who played her part in history.