Some knew him as a tennis player, others as a fashion icon who designed his own short sleeve Lacoste playing shirts, but beyond sports and fashion René Lacoste was also an inventor.
In fact, Lacoste was not predestined for a sporting career at all but a trip with his father to England where he witnessed a tennis match ignited his interest. His father Jean-Jules Lacoste, however, had other plans for his son so when he insisted on playing tennis, he gave him an ultimatum to become a world champion within five years else he would decide his future.
At 18, Lacoste had made the crucial decision to focus entirely on his passion for tennis, training tirelessly to hone his strength, precision and concentration. He won seven major singles tournaments, and played on the French team which took the Davis Cup in 1927 and 1928.
Although not a natural at tennis, Lacoste’s drive, discipline and strategic intelligence more than compensated and given that he had the knack of noting the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents and vary his play accordingly, he became a tennis phenomenon.
In 1926 and 1927, Lacoste was ranked the world’s top tennis player winning the French Open in 1925, 1927, and 1929, Wimbledon in 1925 and 1928, and the U.S. Open in 1926 and 1927. As a member of the Four Musketeers (along with Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra, and Jacques Brugnon), the formidable French team won the Davis Cup in 1927 and 1928.
On his “le Crocodile:” nickname and logo, Lacoste explained: “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.”
He was also “the Crocodile” because of how ruthlessly he dealt with his opponents.
Having faltered a few times, his breakthrough came in 1925 when he won the singles title at the French Championships and at Wimbledon. Lacoste as a baseline player relied on control, accuracy and deeply-placed groundstrokes to put pressure on his opponents. In addition, he possessed an excellent passing shot and backhand slice. He was also nicknamed the ‘Tennis Machine’ for his methodical game and ability to avoid errors.
Lacoste also introduced the Lacoste tennis shirt which he wore to play his games as against wearing the long sleeve shirt which was the norm.
He retired in 1929 aged 25 after winning the French Open because his health and game had declined due to respiratory disease.
Having retired, Lacoste founded La Société Chemise Lacoste with André Gillier in 1933. The company produced the tennis shirt, also known as a “polo shirt,” which Lacoste often wore when he was playing; this had a crocodile (often thought to be an alligator) embroidered on the chest.
As an innovator, Lacoste created an innovation in racket technology by unveiling and patenting the first tubular steel tennis racket in 1961. At that time, wood rackets were the norm. It was marketed in Europe under the Lacoste brand but in the United States it was marketed by Wilson Sporting Goods. Greats such as Pierre Darmon, Billie Jean King and Jimmy Connors all used the new racket.
He also invented the tennis ball machine (because he wanted to work on his overhead) as well as filed 20 new patents after retiring from tennis.
In 1996, Lacoste died at the age of 92 in St. Jean-de-Luz, France thus concluding the life of the tennis player, businessman and inventor born in 1904 to a wealthy Jean-Jules Lacoste and mother Jeanne-Marie Magdeleine Larrieu-Let who is said to have Jamaican origins.
His wife, Simone Thion de la Chaume was a French amateur golf champion and his daughter, Catherine Lacoste, won the U.S. Open golf in the 1960s. The Lacoste Company churns out approximately 25 million new items of apparel each year.