The first piece below was translated and slightly adapted from the Wikipedia entry in French on Max Decugis, which can be viewed here:
Max Decugis was the fourth of the five children – three sons and two daughters – born to Alfred François Omer-Decugis (1846-1934), a native of Paris and merchant who ran his own company, Omer-Decugis et fils, and a Knight of the Legion of Honour; and Laure Sidonie Decugis (née Brauwers; b. 1851), who was from the northern French city of Lille.
Max Decugis’s siblings were Geneviève Élisabeth Émilie Berthe Omer Decugis (1871-1946); Henri Eugène Omer Decugis (1874-1947), a lawyer at the Court of Appeal in Paris and also a lawn tennis player; Omer Jean Omer Decugis (1876-1932); and Mireille Henriette Jeanne Omer Decugis (1886-1891). Through his brother Henri, Max Decugis is the grand uncle of the tennis player Arnaud Decugis (b. 1958), who in September 1995 married another player, Julie Halard (b. 1970).
As a youth, Max Decugis attended the Lycée Janson-de-Sailly secondary school in Paris. A gifted athlete from an early age, he joined the Racing Club de France, a sports club founded in Paris in 1882, when he was twelve years old.
On 12 May 1905, in Saint-François-de-Sales catholic church in Paris, Max Decugis married Cornélie Gilberte Marie Flameng (1884-1969), a native of the northern French port of Dieppe and daughter of the painter François Flameng (1856-1923) and Henriette Flameng (née Turquet; 1863-1919). A gifted lawn tennis in her own right, Marie Decugis, as she was known, sometimes took part in the mixed doubles event with her husband. She and Max Decugis had one child together, a daughter called Christiane (1909-74). Following Marie Decugis’s death in 1969, Max Decugis married again, on 16 October 1969. His second wife was Suzanne Louise Duval.
Amateur and professional activities
During his adult life, Max Decugis sometimes officiated as a referee at lawn tennis tournaments, advised on lawn tennis and contributed articles to newspapers. In 1910, he founded the sports publication Tennis, of which he was editor-in-chief. Renamed Tennis et Golf, the title ceased publication in 1913. Due to his many activities, he managed to make a living from lawn tennis without having to really work. He was able to earn money from the prizes offered at certain tournaments or by reselling his trophies or the other prizes he won at tournaments.
At the end of 1910, Max Decugis wrote an article in which he complained about the cost of playing tennis and the lack of remuneration (see below). His position was criticized by Pierre Gillou, secretary of the French Lawn Tennis Commission. Suspected of professionalism, Decugis was suspended for a few months in 1911 by the Union des sociétés françaises de sports athlétiques (USFSA) or Union of French Athletic Sports Societies, at that time the governing body for sport in France. (The French Lawn Tennis Federation was not founded until 1920.)
The Italian sports journalist Gianni Clerici explained the reasons for Max Decugis’s suspension as follows: “The champions of that time were gentlemen able to travel at their own expense and to have a lawn tennis court in their own garden. Tournament victories were usually symbolically recognised by the awarding of trophies (...) or other types of memorabilia. Annoyed by the number of silver cigarette cases and crystal vases he had accumulated at home, Max Decugis suggested that vouchers be substituted for the prizes and, although he always denied it, he managed to buy a car after accumulating a sufficient number of vouchers.” Philippe Decugis, grand-nephew of Max, confirmed this practice of “bartering” trophies, stating: “Hardly any of the trophies won by Max Decugis are left in the family.”
Max Decugis had a private tennis court built in Ville-d’Avray in Paris. He served with the French Army during World War I and finished with the rank of second lieutenant, three mentions in dispatches and both the Italian Military Medal and the Italian Medal of Valour.
Max Decugis remained active in the lawn tennis world after his retirement as a tournament player in 1923. He was appointed captain of the French Davis Cup team several times, the first time being in 1905 and the last in 1925, when the French team lost in the Challenge Round to the USA. He was also captain of various teams during other international meetings. A member of the Committee of the French Lawn Tennis Federation, in the 1930s Decugis acted as technical advisor to the French Davis Cup team, having special responsibility for up-and-coming players.
In 1931, Max Decugis established the International Club de France together with Jean Borotra. This club was based on the International Lawn Tennis Club of Great Britain, founded in 1924 by the distinguished lawn tennis journalist Arthur Wallis Myers and Lord Arthur Balfour, the former prime minister.
In 1934, Max Decugis was awarded the National Order of the Legion of Honour in the category of sport. Residing at rue des Perchamps in the village of Auteuil, to the south of Paris, he became a merchant of haute couture goods. At one stage he also had his own pig farm in Septeuil, in north-central France, but later bred chickens.
Lawn tennis career
In 1896, Max Decugis became the first Frenchman to win the boys’ singles event at Wimbledon. He first really made a name for himself in 1900, when he won the silver medal in the men’s doubles event at the Olympic Games in Paris; in the final match he and his partner, the American-born player Basil Spalding de Garmednia, were beaten 6-1, 6-1, 6-0 by the English brothers Lawrence and Reginald Doherty, the reigning Wimbledon doubles champions.
Max Decugis won his first big singles title at the International German Championships tournament in August 1901; in the final match he defeated the Englishman Frederick Payn, 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2.
Decugis first represented France in the Davis Cup competition in 1904, when France met Belgium in the All-Comers’ Final at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon, in late June. In the fifth rubber of this meeting, which was also the key match, Max Decugis lost to William Le Maire Warzée d’Hermalle in five sets, 5-7, 8-6, 0-6, 6-4, 6-2. Decugis also represented France in 1905 and then from 1912 to 1914, and again in 1919. His final win-loss totals in the Davis Cup were 3-8 in singles and 3-2 in doubles.
In September 1910, at the tournament held during the World’s Fair in the Belgian capital, Brussels, Max Decugis beat the New Zealander Anthony Wilding, who had just won his first Wimbledon singles title, by coming back from 3-6, 0-6, 0-5 (or 4-5 according to some sources), to finally win 3-6, 0-6, 7-5, 6-0, 6-0. Decugis had already beaten Wilding twice in 1910 after three defeats in 1907 and 1908.
In the French publication L’Express, Jacques Dorfmann wrote that Decugis told him that at 5-4 in his match against Anthony Wilding in Brussels, the chair umpire had given Decugis a “small fruit,” which he later recognized as being a kola nut. After this famous victory, Wilding then beat Decugis nine times in a row.
In 1911, Max Decugis became the first French player to win a title at one of the majors by taking the men’s doubles title at Wimbledon with his compatriot André Gobert. Having won five matches to reach the All-Comers’ Final, they then defeated the Irishman James Parke and the American Samuel Hardy 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 to reach the Challenge Round where they beat the holders, Anthony Wilding and the Englishman Major Ritchie, in five sets, 9-7, 5-7, 6-3, 2-6, 6-2.
In 1912, Max Decugis and André Gobert lost their Wimbledon doubles title when the English pairing of Charles Dixon and Herbert Roper Barrett defeated them in four sets in the Challenge Round. In 1911 and 1912, Decugis also reached the semi-final of the men’s singles event at Wimbledon.
In 1920, Decugis won the gold medal in the mixed doubles event at the Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium; in the final he and his partner, Suzanne Lenglen, defeated the English pairing of Max Woosnam and Kathleen McKane, 6-4, 6-2. In the men’s doubles event in Antwerp, Decugis also won a bronze medal when he and his partner, Pierre Albarran, reached the semi-finals before losing to Woosnam and Noel Turnbull, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 10-8.
At the early French National Championships tournament, which was open only to French players and foreign players who were members of a French lawn tennis club, Max Decugis won the men’s singles title a record eight times – in 1903-04, 1907-09 and 1912-14; the men’s doubles title a record thirteen times – in 1902, 1903 and 1905 with Jacques Worth, and in 1904, 1906-09, 1911-14 and 1920 with Maurice Germot; and the mixed doubles title at least seven times (also a record) – in 1904 and 1908 with Kate Gillou, in 1905-06 with Yvonne de Pfeffel, in 1909 with Jeanne Matthey and in 1914 and 1920 with Suzanne Lenglen.
The most successful of the early French male lawn tennis players, Max Decugis won at least 67 singles titles throughout a career spanning nearly a quarter of a century. Tactically, he was known for consistently returning the ball until his opponent made a mistake and lost the point. Max Decugis officially retired from competition in 1923, but returned to tournament play occasionally in the years thereafter.
From Excelsior (Paris), 24 December 1911
The question of cash prizes and lawn tennis
Mr Max Decugis states that lawn tennis is too expensive a sport for it not to be remunerated. We know that almost all of the French clubs where lawn tennis is played are affiliated to the Union des sociétés françaises des sports athlétiques/Union of French Athletic Sports Societies. As a result, lawn tennis players are subject to the strict laws of amateurism, i.e. they must not, under any circumstances, accept cash prizes as a reward for their efforts. This state of affairs does not satisfy everyone and there are many players who would like to receive for their success a more certain advantage than that represented by the commemorative object which, normally and by law, they receive after a victory.
It seemed interesting to us to publish the most authoritative opinions on this subject, and so we first asked Mr Max Decugis, who is one of the best amateur players in the world, his opinion on the question. Mr Decugis wrote us the following answer, which we reprint in full below:
Money is the lifeblood of lawn tennis. I will admit that, before daring to broach such a subject, I wisely equipped myself with a breastplate, an umbrella and a lightning rod. Do not think that I am pleading for my saint or that I hope to make an income by the sweat of my racket. No, this is simply the opinion of all those who know about lawn tennis and the cost it entails. It is an expensive sport and one which not everyone can afford. We run in spiked shoes, a vest and shorts and a horsehair glove. To do so does not cost more than a louis and, thus equipped, one can run until one is out of breath.
But lawn tennis is a different story. If you do not want to have a shrimp net, you will have to buy a racket bearing the name of a great player, and you will pay between 30 and 40 francs for it. Should you play a few tournaments, three rackets per year will barely suffice. Add to that the shirts, trousers, shoes, vests, overcoats and racket presses, and you will not be far from 500 francs. So much for the equipment. If you play tournaments on covered courts, it will cost you 250 francs a year, not counting the obligatory refreshments after each match.
When you are playing a tournament, you are away for at least a week. Include the outward and return rail costs, plus a minimum of one louis per day for living expenses, and at least 50 francs in entrance fees and tips – all this to earn, if you are lucky, a cigarette holder when you do not smoke, or a brush kit when you are bald. It’s all really cheap! And, unfortunately, the Union of French Athletic Sports Societies, which has certainly provided some excellent services, has made the mistake of confusing lawn tennis with other less expensive sports and, especially, of allowing it to be governed by people who know nothing about lawn tennis.
This is where the evil comes from, and, currently, the central commission for lawn tennis, skilfully led by its active president, is doing all it can to help the sport develop, beautiful and fine as it is. The voucher system is not bad. Up to now, no cash prizes have been awarded because the amateur regulations prohibit this. Instead, we have been given art objects and vouchers. When you win an art object, as I said previously, you always get something useless and ugly, which does not have the value of the advertised price, while with the vouchers you can buy what you want, and you actually like the object you choose. It’s not a cash prize yet, but it comes close.
If we now compare the success of tournaments that award art objects and those that award vouchers, it is a question of day and night. To become very good at lawn tennis, you have to play often and travel a lot in order to constantly meet players who are stronger than you. But this is expensive. No wonder, therefore, that the best players are more likely to look for tournaments that advertise good prizes and, especially, vouchers. It’s all well and good winning cigarette cases, cups, coffee makers, coffee sets, etc., but, when you have dozens of them at home, without being a professional, you would much rather have something else. And that is why the Riviera tournaments and the tournament held at the Tennis Club de Paris at Easter are the only ones to have attracted the top foreign lawn tennis players.
Cash prizes for lawn tennis wouldn’t have the drawbacks they have in other sports and there would be no room for pirates. Few cities can cover the expense of a good tournament because, due to the increasing number of events, the number of prizes rises quickly, even while remaining at an honest average. The few hundred francs that the winner of the tournament could win would quickly be absorbed by travel and living expenses, entrance fees, replacing damaged rackets, etc. If, after all this, he still had some money left, I don’t think he would get very far! And to think that the Union of French Athletic Sports Societies would accuse him of making lawn tennis his profession!
Where a profession is concerned, I don’t really think that lawn tennis is the one I would choose. One shouldn’t think, either, that the same players would always be winning the prizes because there are second and third prizes for all of the events and, thanks to the draws, everyone can hope to reach the semi-finals. That alone would be enough to convince the hesitant, who might win enough money to have their travel expenses reimbursed and to spend a week enjoying themselves. The cash prize system is the best.
With the system of art objects, we manage to lurch from one excess to another. For a tournament to be successful you need stars, and since these stars travel a good deal, that would end up being very expensive at the end of the year. The organizers don’t hesitate to offer travel expenses. In that way, everyone is happy, but it is the average players, poor satellites, who pay the bill.
Wouldn’t it be fairer and more sporting to award prizes for all of the events so that young people, the unknowns and, I would add, even the less fortunate, can take part in tournaments which would otherwise be closed to them? The organizers and the vast majority of players would benefit from this. And the players who have “tasted” the vouchers will no longer have to “swallow” art objects. If we tighten up the rules and always come back to this prehistoric system, lawn tennis players will no longer try to do their best and the battles on court will no longer have any interest. We will already know what we stand to win and, if we don’t like the prize, we will lose without putting up a fight.
Sad to say, but it would take little knowledge of humanity to argue otherwise. The best lawn tennis players will continue to be accommodated during the tournaments and the others will gradually become disillusioned by making such a big effort for so little reward. Why don’t we become like officers, gentlemen-riders, pigeon shooters, yachtsmen, etc.? They are all very decent people, whom you still meet in salons, and who have not lost their honour because they’ve received cash prizes!
P.S. I learn that the French Ice Skating Federation, which has just concluded an agreement of understanding with the Union of French Athletic Sports Societies, allows its members to compete with professionals for cash prizes, and that the money they win will be returned to an official of the ice skating federation, who will buy them an art object of equal value.
The following piece was translated and adapted from the French magazine “Comoedia” of 4 August 1934:
Where are they now?
By Henry Hugault
Max Decugis, former tennis champion, now breeds chickens and sells haute couture bags. After much searching, we found Mr Max Decugis at the bottom of Auteuil, in the rue des Perchamps, almost the only part remaining of this village dear to Boileau. From this place of retirement, the former doubles partner of André Gobert has made an observation post. Although his last official appearance on a court dates back to 1923, Max Decugis continues to “drive”, while lavishing his advice on young players.
Introduced into the living room, I have plenty of time to admire a magnificent portrait of Deucigs in action, by François Flameng. The artist sketches, if I may say so, a beautiful attitude of the man at the net, producing a dazzling drive. The meticulous study of the whites competes with the no less scrupulous study of the muscles. The painting was done in 1919, at the La Condamine lawn tennis club in Monaco, and reproduces the fashions of that time.
“Yes, it’s very nice,” agrees Max Decugis, who surprises me in contemplation of the painting. Studies by Flameng relating to Spain hang all around the room. I had forgotten that the great sportsman had married the painter’s daughter, Marie. My eyes now turn to the large display case filled with sparkling cups, trophies won on all the courts of the world. The first commemorates the English junior championship, won by Max at sixteen. Since then, Decugis has won at least 28 titles at the French National Championships, ten in the men’s doubles event with Maurice Germot. Proven partners, the two friends never experienced defeat together.
1910 was an exceptionally good year for Decugis. He beat the great New Zealander Anthony Wilding three times in singles. The following year he and André Gobert won the men’s doubles title at Wimbledon.
During the war, our champion provided evidence of the qualities of endurance and daring that the practice of sport had developed in him. Signing up for the French Army as a mere private, he returned with the stripes of a lieutenant, was mentioned three times in despatches, and received both the Italian Military Medal and the Italian Medal of Valour.
Today, the former champion sells haute couture ladies’ bags. How did the idea come to him? It has its roots in the war. To occupy the wounded soldiers in her care, Mrs Marie Decugis-Flameng invited them to make pearl necklaces. The proceeds from their sale would provide for the needs of the hospital in Mantes-la-Jolie, to the west of Paris. Why shouldn’t what had proved a success during the four years of the war still bring success after it? After the necklaces, they came up with the idea of making high-quality ladies’ bags. The fashion for pearls has passed, but the haute couture bag is all the rage today among couturiers. Max Decugis looks after the sales and marketing aspects of the business.
But that was not enough to keep him busy. Back from the front, he bought a property in Septeuil, in north-central France. During a subsequent weekend spent in Reading, England, he was given a couple of pigs as a gift, each weighing sixty kilograms. He telegraphed the Air Union in France and obtained permission from Mr Millet for the pigs to be transported to his farm by aeroplane. Filmmakers were alerted and the resulting flight has its picturesque side. Having left at noon, the pigs arrived at the farm in Septeuil at 5pm. The next day, the pigsty was opened. Since then, Max Decugis has continued to take an interest in breeding animals and, while the pigs have been replaced by chickens, the farm is all the more prosperous for it.
It was not until 1923, as we have said, that Decugis officially retired from lawn tennis competition, after losing in the final of the men’s singles event at the French National Championships, where he was beaten in four sets by François Blanchy. Three years before that, at the Olympics Games in Antwerp, he had showed that he was still capable of winning big prizes by taking gold in the mixed doubles event with Suzanne Lenglen. In 1925, he captained the French Davis Cup team when, for the first time, we defeated Australia, although we would not actually win the cup itself for two more years.
The International Club of England, created in 1924 by Arthur Wallis Myers, inspired Max Decugis to create the International Club of France in 1931 together with Jean Borotra, who is currently its president. Decugis and Gobert occupy the positions of vice-presidents, while René Lacoste acts as captain. These clubs, which admit only former champions, ensure that former players once famous throughout the world remain friends, and make it easier for their members to play on any court in any country, thus encouraging international relations.
I interrupt my interviewee to bring him back to his early youth:
Where did you get this attraction for tennis? I ask. “At the Lycée Janson de Sailly I was very interested in sport and won all the gymnastics prizes. At the age of twelve, my father had me join the Racing Club de France. Long stays in England, where secondary school students are more inclined to play rugby and lawn tennis than to study, must have done the rest.”
All of this is said with the same composure that was so useful on the court and has been displayed by my interviewee since the start of our conversation. An album of photographs, which he allows me to leaf through, evokes for him happy memories, some of which he shares with me in a very modest manner.
One of the photos shows him with little Princess Victoria of Prussia on his lap.
“She was eight years old then and a lovely little girl. No one could have imagined then that she would later ask to bathe in French blood. It was 1903 and I was playing the final of the men’s singles at the International German Championships in Hamburg against Major Ritchie, with King Edward VII as one of the spectators. I was later introduced to the Crown Prince of Prussia, who invited me to Kronberg. I still remember the journey across Hamburg in his car.
“A very colourful officer came to fetch me early in the morning. The two dapple horses well known to the townspeople were waiting for me. I had pulled my hat down over my eyes, and waved with my hand to right and left, while the imperturbable footman crossed his arms near the coachman, who looked very dignified in his seat. Used to seeing this car go by, the people of Hamburg simply took me for the Crown Prince! I played against him and also against top German players such as Baron Moritz von Bissing, Baron Kurt von Lersner, Baron Hans von Schneider and Otto von Müller.
“Later on, when we found ourselves face to face on the plain of La Vaux-Marie – it was 8 September 1914 and the Germans were occupying the Lamont range in north-west France – I told the Herr General that if we were taken prisoner, I would certainly get along with my ex-partner!”
Max Decugis bursts out laughing and I continue to leaf through the album. Kings and princes parade before me, from Denmark to Greece, and the racket enthusiast racket in front of me must be proud of having, like our greatest tragedians, played in front of an audience of kings. A photograph of a stadium in Athens, on which he places his finger for a moment, presents a grandiose spectacle.
“Beauty worthy of the ancient and unique setting,” he says. “The parade of athletes was magnificent. Here, you recognize my wife who came to collect me to take me to the King of Greece. The sovereign gave me this trophy, which you see on the right in the display, and which is a copy of a vase from Mycenae. I think it’s the best parade I’ve ever seen.”
I take one last look at the portrait of Decugis by François Flameng before leaving. It is already fifteen years old, yet it seems to us to have been painted yesterday. With black hair and a light pupil under thick eyebrows, Max Decugis has retained that youthfulness which sport confers. On the lapel of his black jacket, I notice a red ribbon I hadn’t been paying attention to. Max Decugis, who misses nothing, notices me looking.
“In January of this year I was awarded the National Order of the Legion of Honour in the category of sport. I believe it’s the first time that French tennis has received this honour.”
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