Every week with RetroNews, the BNF press site, we take a look at a sports story as told by the press at the time. This Saturday, return to Jean Borotra, from his tennis career, at the Ministry of Sports under Pétain.
July 5, 1924. While the excitement reigns in Paris, on the eve of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, the atmosphere is no less lively in London. More than 15,000 people gather inside the Center Court to watch an unprecedented Franco-French final in the world‘s oldest tennis tournament: Wimbledon. All the more unusual since no tricolor has ever lifted the trophy there.
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The very young Henri Lacoste, 20, then challenged Jean Borotra, six years older. The key: the honorary title of world champion. In its morning edition of Sunday July 6, the Newspaper evokes “a hard-fought match“, concluded by Borotra in five sets (3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4). The first summit in a career that one would think has never ceased to last, as longevity is beyond comprehension. At the dawn of his 51 years – in 1949 – the native of Arbonne, in the Basque Country, still won the English championship, on wood.
Not much predestined him there. His encounter with the yellow ball (which was white at the time) took place during a language study trip in Surrey as a teenager. So especially a follower of Basque pelota, legend has it that he let go of his first shots … with his bare hands. When he finally decided to hold a racket in his hand, he would pass it from hand to hand, depending on which side the ball came in, under the astonished eyes of the observers. An instinctive style, not very academic, covered by an incredible physical condition. And victory at the end, almost always.
In Borotra: from Wimbledon to Vichy, Daniel Amson recounts an episode that occurred in 1919. Borotra, in his twenties, then served in Germany as a young officer. He entered the Rhine Army tennis championships. “Captain Cardot, winner of the singles tournament in 1914, asked him to compete for the double with him. They reached the final and, when they lost it, the future musketeer’s partner suddenly asked him: “How many times have you played tennis? – Less than a hundred timessaid Borotra, after a quick calculation. – That does not surprise mereplied Captain Cardot. As soon as you have the opportunity to train for two hours, three or four times a week, I would not be surprised if you became champion of France in two, three years.“
Cardot was only two years old. In 1924, the prophecy came true: at the Sporting Club in Paris, Jean Borotra got rid of Lyonnais Henri Cochet and became for the first time French champion on indoor courts. In the Excelsior March 5, 1924, two photo-captions summarize the game. One before the decisive match, where Borotra poses with the eight-time champion of France Max Decugis; the other in full exchange, where we can detect his atypical style.
A style summarized in a few words by a journalist from the Excelsior, present on the occasion of his second title on London lawn, July 2, 1926. “Jean Borotra, who could not give his full measure in the international tennis championships in France, regained his great form in the Wimbledon tournament. Having become himself again, that is to say brilliant on the fly, quick to relax, and infinitely varying his interventions, he won in three sets Howard Kinsey (8-6, 6-1, 6- 3).“ What earn him the nickname “leaping Basque”. The Excelsior add to it that day: “the tennis prodigy“.
He was not the only Frenchman to be so in those years. Difficult then to dissociate the career of the native of Arbonne from those of his compatriots Henri Cochet, René Lacoste and Jacques Brugnon. There is only to see the title of the uncompromising of February 21, 1926, after the joint victories of Borotra, Lacoste and Brugnon in the championship of the United States to understand: “A brilliant era for French tennis”, headlines the newspaper which evokes “A completely extraordinary period of glory”, barely put into perspective by the fact that these were short court events, “Which we generally do not give the same importance that we attach to competitions held outdoors”.
Associated for the first time in the Davis Cup in 1923, the four French became from 1927 the famous “Four Musketeers“ – name derived from the classic Alexandre Dumas, and by which we now name the trophy for the winner of Roland-Garros. Rackets as swords, they cut their opponents to pieces from the late 1920s to the early 1930s. Of the 45 grand finals contested from 1924 to 1932 (the four of the Grand Slam and the Davis Cup), 24 were won by at least one of them, including six consecutive Davis Cup.
The last of these is perhaps the most beautiful for Borotra. Unlike Cochet and Brugnon (Lacoste was retired), he was not really expected in the final team that challenged the United States. “Much criticism had been made about the selection of the Basque, who was considered to be incapable of still playing a role in the Cup“, press Match in its edition of August 2, 1932.
In the first match, the Basque foiled the predictions to win. At 2-1 for the Habs, a victory against Wilmer Allison would seal the scenario. Led two sets zero, Jean Borotra is tied, folds in the last at 4-2, returns to range at 5-4. Suddenly, a desperate gesture: the Basque has just torn off one of his shoes. “Borotra makes desperate signs to the referee. He loses 15, he loses 30, he loses 40. So the crowd gets involved, protests, yells, demands that his champion be allowed to defend his luck regularly. But the rules are there. It prohibits stopping during a game“, tell Match. On the match point, the captains end up consulting each other, allowing the player to change the sneaker. This is the turning point: “So he wins the game, he wins the set, he wins the match, he wins the Davis Cup. Three times hurray for Borotra!“
An episode that will resonate for a long time, until a certain month in July 1940. At this time, war requires, Borotra, past forty, is removed from the courts. His popularity, combined with his desire to develop tennis in the country, had almost naturally led him to seize the post of director of the Tennis Club of France, where success did not escape him. The Committee of sports writers also awarded him the prize of sports leader as “champion, animator and organizer in tennis, moreover president of the Tennis Club of Paris and the International Tennis Club of France “, specifies an insert of Morning November 4, 1938.
A skill to manage that goes back to the ears of the government under construction, as soon as the capitulation of June 1940 consumed. Thus on July 13, 1940, the French learned of the appointment of Jean Borotra as Commissioner General for General Education and Sports: “Finally a champion in ministry!” […] The whole town is talking about it… Jean Borotra, “the leaping Basque” becomes a character official”, evokes the France-Soir July 17. An investiture then praised by the collaborationist press, which relies on his qualities as a tennis player and exacerbates his past exploits in order to justify his ability to manage his portfolio: Borotra is qualified as “Pure sport“, praised for its “courage”, her “generosity”, his “address” and his “intelligence”. Mostly : “No one has forgotten how, when we thought it was lost, Borotra won the Davis Cup.[…] For him, life remained a sport. Borotra conducts his business with as much passion as if it were a question of winning a match. “
The Marshal knows that he can count on this man with a glorious past, and not only in sport. Barely an adult, Borotra found himself enlisted in the French army, first as a second lieutenant, to serve on the 8e group of 121e battalion of heavy artillery during the First World War, after a brief passage in Fontainebleau, cradle of the artillerymen of the country.
His exploits against the Germans are told in the local press of the time. In its edition of November 18, 1918, the Biarritz-Bayonne and Saint-Jean-de-Luz Gazette, portrayed him as a “A young officer full of composure, with a nice face; giving himself to his task with all his heart, with all the beautiful ardor of his twenty years. ” With special mention in 1918, when his services rendered, notably as an officer were qualified as “precious”. Actions that earned him the Croix de guerre. His exceptional physical condition, praised by many observers during his tennis years, was already among his assets of the time: ““He refused to take rest, tamed the disease with his energy and was able to follow the enemy to the end and harm him.”
With nearly two billion francs in budget in place of the 50 million the previous year, his field of possibilities is wide in the ministry. In The Art of Defeat (1940-1944), Laurence Bertrand Dorléac then paints a portrait of a Borotra “Less authoritarian than his successor […] he knew how to take care of the goat and the cabbage and up to past efforts, going as far as celebrating the memory of Léo Lagrange (his predecessor under Léon Blum). With him, the sports meetings took on the insolent air of great patriotic celebrations where one did not skimp on the national anthem or the tricolor flags. ”
The Basque ignores the joint sermons of the Church, the Academy of Medicine and parents, and develops the practice of sport to a level rarely reached among young French people. At the end of six months, the convinced marshal sets up the broad outlines of his project. Its flagship measure, from October 1940: to abolish professional sport and promote amateur sport there. “The crowd of passive spectators must descend from the stands where they attend every Sunday to the antics of the stars, and come to take part in the stadium games“, he claims in a speech transcribed by the Little Parisian September 8, 1940. Among the victims of this radical change: tennis, wrestling, and XIII rugby, with seizure of property for the last named.
The overhaul of the sports doctrine – and with it that of the apparatus of the Federations – must favor the process. To this must be added at least four other measures: the development of equipment, manager training, medical checks, and general and sports education up to the age of 20. Without forgetting the creation of vsregional physical education and sports centers (the future Creps).
Reforms “Mostly excellent”, relates the cry of the people of Paris, in its edition of 1er January 1941. “Many things that true sportspeople have been demanding for many years and that politicians, then in power, had never only achieved.“
At his post, Borotra will take advantage of a kind of misunderstanding within society, which Laurence Bertrand Dorléac summarizes as follows: on the one hand, “The official supporters of a sport intended to maintain order, hierarchy, to make people forget social conflicts and faiths, to form a youth less” athletic “than” rustic “” ; and on the other, “The masses of distracted sportspeople, seeing there, as at the show or in the exhibition halls, an effective way to respond to the gloom.” Beyond these two approaches, Borotra and its relays will maintain the ambiguity of sport as “Wonderful instrument for national renewal” as a title of the echo of Algiers in April 1941.
With vanity, carelessness in behavior and conduct, selfishness and a taste for ease, he invites sports leaders – true masters of general education – to instill in young people modesty, dignity, l team spirit and sense of duty. “Selfless, disciplined and loyal, the sportsman will be what he should be: an example”, evokes The Echo of Algiers in a transcript of an address by Borotra in April 1941, during a visit to Algeria. Later in the article, General Weygand, former Minister of War of Pétain, converted delegate general in French Africa, is presented as an athlete.
Borotra will try to return to North Africa after his dismissal from government in 1942. His goal? Rally the Resistance, while the Allied troops have just landed a few days earlier. Missed. Caught by the Gestapo, he is taken prisoner in the prison of Zellenbau, in the camp of Sachsenhausen. There, its tennis past is of service. King Gustav V of Sweden, who had tapped the ball with Borotra a few years earlier, made a request about it. Immediately, the man with the beret (his other nickname) is parked in Itter Castle – a sort of prison of war for VIPs – nestled in Austrian Tyrol. Among his cell mates is Edouard Daladier. He was hardly released in 1945 when the Sûreté arrested him again and placed him “under house arrest“, based on the number of Combat of May 11, 1945.
Despite all these ups and downs, Jean Borotra is getting away with it. Left alone by the High Court of Justice, his comeback on the courts – at 48 years old – like that of Henri Cochet, however, provoked the ire of part of the post-Liberation press. Back to back, Humanity unzipped Borotra, who takes it for his grade: “First Führer of Sports under Pétain”, as the newspaper describes it on November 21, 1945, while wondering if tennis would not be “The last Vichyst sanctuary”.
Four days later, the newspaper rebounded after the hazardous exit of Alain Bernard, a sports specialist of the time and laudator of Borotra. The namesake of the swimmer then concluded: “Borotra, Cochet … it’s still a good breed!” In response, Humanity reports on the reaction of Alfred Nakache, Jewish swimming champion, who accompanied Jean Borotra on his tour of North Africa. Buchenwald survivor, he “Noted this insult to the deportees, stating” that it was the services led by Borotra who forced him to leave the National School of Physical Education and only allowed him to take his exam as a foreigner! “”
Continuation and end of the story. Despite his troubled past – he will remain one of the most fervent defenders of Pétain, to the point of presiding for four years (1976 to 1980) the Association to defend the memory of Marshal Pétain (ADMP) – the collective imagination does not seem to hold it against him, preferring to remember the “Four Musketeers”. And also because, medalist of deportees-resistance fighters by De Gaulle, and on the benches of the Assembly as a Gaullist deputy from 1968 to 1976, when he was not at the head of the International Tennis Federation (1960-1961) , we ended up not really knowing where his real place was. One thing is certain, Borotra does not know how to hang up. However persona non grata for several years at Wimbledon after his liabilities under the Occupation, it is there that he will make one of his last appearances. A veteran mixed double, disputed… at 87 years old.