Born in 1904 in Paris, France, René Lacoste started playing tennis relatively late but nonetheless became a world number one player. He won 10 major titles over the course of his seven-year career. In later years, Lacoste started a line of sportswear that bore his name and whose iconic crocodile symbol became a sign of status. He died in St. Jean-Luz, France, on October 12, 1996.
World champion tennis player, inventor and fashion designer Jean René Lacoste was born on July 2, 1904, in Paris, France. Lacoste came to the sport of tennis relatively late in life. He was already 15 years old and visiting England with his father, a wealthy businessman, when he first started playing.
His life, up until that point, had seemed clear. A good student with a mind for mechanical things, Lacoste had been set to enroll at a prestigious French engineering school when he decided he wanted to make a go of it as a tennis player. His understanding father gave him five years to make it happen. Within three, Lacoste had molded himself into one of the game's finest players.
While never considered a tremendous athlete, Lacoste built his game from the court's baseline, keeping his opponents on the move with an arsenal of precise ground strokes and earning the nickname "The Crocodile" during his playing days.
His breakthrough year came in 1925, when Lacoste captured the French Open and the Wimbledon singles championships. The following year he won the first of two back-to-back U.S. Open titles, defeating the better-known Bill Tilden in an enthralling straight-set match.
Overall, Lacoste, who for a time would be ranked the game's best player, would go on to win seven major singles championships, including two additional French Opens (1927 and 1929) and another at Wimbledon (1928). He was also a member of France's Davis Cup Team from 1923-1928.
For fans from his native country, Lacoste's success was especially exciting as he was part of a larger wave of French domination of tennis in the 1920s and '30s. Lacoste and fellow legendary players Jacques Brugnon, Jean Borotra and Henri Cochet soon became known as the Four Musketeers of French tennis. All four members of the group were simultaneously inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1976.
Unfortunately, health problems soon derailed Lacoste's career and he was forced to retire prematurely in 1929.
Inventions and Apparel Line
Lacoste's mechanical mind never really lagged behind his athletic pursuits. A tenacious perfectionist, he had once been criticized by a coach for overtraining. His tendency to wear out practice partners proved so frustrating that Lacoste created the first the world's tennis ball machine, a hand-cranked device he called "lance-balle." Later, Lacoste created the game's first metal tennis racket.
His inventive mind worked in areas outside of tennis, too. For the game of golf he developed a new polyurethane driver, which helped the sport transition to composite material-based clubs. Between the mid-1960s and late '80s, Lacoste filed 20 new patents.
But it was the clothing line that bore his name that proved to be Lacoste's greatest post-game success. As a player, Lacoste went against traditional on-court fashion, opting to compete in short-sleeved knit shirts rather than dress shirts. Sensing a market for this look, Lacoste formed a small company soon after leaving the game to manufacture the apparel. By 1950, Lacoste's shirts, with its signature crocodile emblem on the left breast, entered the U.S. market.
While sales steadily climbed for Lacoste, it wasn't until the 1980s that demand exploded as the Lacoste name and symbol became synonymous with high status. In 1982, sales peaked at $450 million.
Over the last several years of his life, Lacoste battled health issues. He suffered from prostate cancer and in early October 1996 had surgery on a broken leg. He died in his sleep from heart failure just four days after the procedure, on October 14, 1996, in St. Jean-de-Luz, France.
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