Jean René Lacoste (July 2, 1904 – October 12, 1996) was a French tennis player and businessman.He is also known worldwide as the inventor of the Lacoste tennis shirt, which he introduced in 1926, while competing in (and winning) the US Open championship.
René was the son of Jean-Jules Lacoste and Jeanne-Marie Magdeleine Larrieu-Let, and was born in Paris at 28 Rue Albouy in the city’s 10th Arrondissement. His father was a champion rower (he won the French title in 1890), and ran both his own automotive business (J. Lacoste & Co.) as well as handling the affairs of the much larger Hispano-Suiza company which had opened a factory at Levallois-Perret, close to the lucrative markets of Paris, in 1911. Jean-Jules was also an enthusiastic inventor, something which René would also become.
René Lacoste was married to Simone Thion de la Chaume, a French amateur golf champion and his daughter, Catherine Lacoste, won the U.S. Open golf in the 1960s.
Lacoste was not originally interested in tennis and did not play a game until he was fifteen, but a trip with his father to England where he witnessed a tennis match ignited his interest. His father, though, had planned to enroll him in a prestigious French engineering school, so when René insisted on playing tennis, he gave him an ultimatum to become a world champion within five years or else he would decide his future. Lacoste responded by dedicating himself to tennis in a way few other people could have, and became a top player within three years.
Lacoste was one of The Four Musketeers, a group of French tennis stars who dominated the game in the 1920s and early 1930s. He won seven Grand Slam singles titles in the French, American, and British championships but never made the long trip to Australia to play in their championships. He was the world number one player for both 1926 and 1927. He was nicknamed “Le Crocodile” by fans although the reasons for this nickname have been disputed. Some sources say it was because of his tenacity on the court, while others say it was after a crocodile-skin suitcase he took with him on tour. It’s also been claimed that Lacoste and the captain of the French Davis Cup team had a bet with the winner receiving an alligator skin suitcase. In 2018, a grandson of George Carens, a sportswriter for the Boston Herald Traveller in the 1920s, said that it was Carens who had given Lacoste his nickname after hearing the story of the suitcase. In the grandson’s words:
[he] Started calling him ‘The Crocodile.’ Over the years, he used to write lots of articles about him. And the name stuck. … He basically said that ‘The Crocodile’ described him perfectly … Tenacious on his grip, flashing an omnivorous, toothy grin. He was relentless, and chewed up his opponents slowly. But, without a doubt, the valise was the genesis of it. (1)
In honor of his nickname, René Lacoste’s friend Robert George embroidered a crocodile onto a blazer that Lacoste wore for his matches.
René retired in 1929 at the age of twenty-five, after winning the French Open, because his health and game had declined due to respiratory disease.
Lacoste Shirt and Company
It was at the 1926 US Open that René debuted the first version of his tennis shirt. At the time, most players wore ordinary long-sleeved white shirts with the sleeves rolled up, but Lacoste appeared on court wearing a shirt he had designed himself – a white short-sleeved “chemise” made out of a light knitted, breathable jersey fabric called “petit piquel.” In 1933, Lacoste founded La Société Chemise Lacoste with André Gillier. The company produced a version of the tennis shirt which Lacoste had worn when he was playing, which had a crocodile logo embroidered on the chest. The shirt was known as the L.12.12, because it had required 12 versions before Lacoste was satisfied (For more on the history of Lacoste, see The History of Lacoste). Rene led Lacoste until 1963 when he turned the company over to his son, Bernard Lacoste.
Lacoste was a prolific inventor throughout his life. In the 1920s, he invented the tennis ball machine to help him practice. In 1961, Lacoste created an innovation in tennis rackets by creating the first tubular steel tennis racket. He also developed a new polyurethane golf driver, which helped the sport transition to composite material-based clubs. Between the mid-1960s and late ’80s, Lacoste filed 20 new patents.
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.
Was Lacoste Black?
There are persistent internet rumors that Rene was black, due to the reputed Jamaican roots of the mother, but this is incorrect. His mother’s family was actually from Monein, in South-West France, with a genealogy dating back to the 1700s.