Diddie Vlasto - French Tennis Star from a Golden Era

By Mark Ryan

Part 1 of 2

Pénélope Julie “Diddie” Vlasto was born on 8 August 1903 in Marseilles, France. Her parents were Michel Vlasto, born 1874, originally from the Greek island of Chios, and Régine (née Lidoriki), born 1869, also from Greece. Diddie’s father studied in Marseilles and later settled and worked there for the Ralli Brothers company, a very successful expatriate Greek merchant business (Marseilles is France’s largest port and a major centre for trade and industry).

Michel Vlasto’s main hobby was archaeology, and he came to own a great collection of Greek vases, which were eventually donated to the National Museum of Athens where they are currently on show. He was also a renowned numismatist and extremely knowledgeable about Ancient Greek Tarantine coins. He assembled a priceless collection of these coins during his lifetime.

Diddie, as she was always called by family and friends (the origins of this name are uncertain – even Diddie’s children are unsure of how she came to be so named), grew up in Marseilles with her parents and brother, Pantaléon (known as Pandély), who was born in 1900. Diddie’s mother, Régine, had a keen interest in the arts, especially literature, and in later life liked to surround herself with poets and writers and to have long exchanges of ideas and thoughts.

In those days it was unusual for girls from Diddie’s background to receive a formal education, and she was educated privately, at home, by tutors. There is some uncertainty as to exactly when Diddie first began to play tennis, but it may well just have been as a social activity or a form of exercise, at the local Tennis-Club de Marseille. Her brother, Pantaléon, did not play tennis.

Diddie would have grown up playing mainly on clay courts and it was on this surface that she was to enjoy her best results. Unfortunately for Diddie and her contemporaries, they often had to play against Suzanne Lenglen, possibly the greatest player of all time, and essentially invincible in singles anywhere from 1919 to 1926. Diddie and Suzanne played several times in singles. They were to form a successful doubles partnership and became very good friends.

In those days the Riviera tournaments, held in winter and spring, were very popular and Diddie had one of her most impressive initial singles victories there in 1923, at the age of 19, during the Championships of Cannes, when she beat Molla Mallory, then the United States Nationals champion, 8-6, 9-7. This victory provided evidence of Diddie’s potential. In June of 1923, Diddie made her Wimbledon debut, winning through to the fourth round of the singles before facing the invincible Suzanne Lenglen.

In 1924, Diddie continued to progress and won the biggest singles tournament of her career, the French National Championships, held at the Racing Club de France in Paris. Although Suzanne Lenglen was absent that year due to illness and the tournament was open only to French nationals and players licensed with French clubs, Diddie’s victory was impressive when it is considered that she was only 20 years of age at the time. She dropped just one set in four matches and beat Jeanne Vaussard in the final by a score of 6-2, 6-3.

In 1924, Diddie also won a silver medal in the singles event at the Olympic Games, which were held in Paris that year. Diddie lost the final to Helen Wills, 6-2, 6-2, but in the semi-final against the Wimbledon champion, Britain’s Kathleen McKane, Diddie had played one of the best matches of her career up to that point. Trailing 0-6, 0-3, and in a seemingly impossible position, Diddie showed great determination to stage a marvellous comeback in front of a partisan crowd. She eventually ran out the winner by a score of 0-6, 7-5, 6-1.

Kathleen Mc Kane gained her revenge over Diddie nearly a year later by beating her in the semi-finals of the French Championships at Saint Cloud, which in 1925 were open to foreign nationals for the first time. However, Diddie won the ladies’ doubles title with Suzanne Lenglen, beating Kathleen McKane and her fellow Briton Evelyn Colyer 6-1, 9-11, 6-2. (The following year Diddie and Suzanne retained their doubles title at the French Championships by beating the same British pair in the final, this time by a score of 6-1, 6-1. No ladies’ doubles team since then has managed to better this score in the final of the French Championships.)

Diddie also reached the final of the mixed doubles at the 1925 French Championships, with Henri Cochet, one of the famous Four Musketeers, where they lost to Suzanne Lenglen and Jacques Brugnon. Diddie always got on well with all four Musketeers, in particular with Cochet, whom she partnered in several mixed doubles events.

Diddie enjoyed continued success on the Riviera circuit in 1926 at a time when both Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills were present there. Diddie was runner-up to Helen Wills at the tournament held at the Métropole Club in Cannes, where she pushed the American to 6-3, 7-5; and Diddie led 4-1 in the second set of her semi-final match against the American at the Carlton Club, also in Cannes, before losing 6-1, 6-4. It was at this tournament that Lenglen and Wills had their only meeting in singles, with Suzanne winning the final 6-3, 8-6. In the doubles final at the same tournament Diddie and Suzanne beat Helen Wills and Hélène Contostavlos, of Greek origin and a distant cousin of Diddie, 6-4, 8-6. Diddie’s excellent form in the doubles final was noted by many observers.

Diddie had a poor showing in the singles at the French Championships in June 1926, but made up for it a few weeks later by going all the way to the semi-finals of the singles event at Wimbledon. (At that point only one other Frenchwoman – the incomparable Suzanne Lenglen – had ever gone so far in the ladies’ singles at the world’s most prestigious tournament.) In her semi-final against Kathleen Godfree (formerly McKane), Diddie put up a good fight in the first set but then faded.

In the doubles at the same tournament, partnered with Suzanne Lenglen, Diddie lost in the second round to the Americans Elizabeth Ryan and Mary K. Browne, the eventual champions. In a curious match played on a rainy day Diddie and Suzanne won the first set 6-3 and had three match points at 7-6 in the second set, but the American pair saved them all and eventually won by a score of 3-6, 9-7, 6-2.

Wimbledon 1926 was Suzanne Lenglen’s last tournament as an amateur. After a controversial misunderstanding with officials over her schedule she scratched half-way through what was turning out to be a traumatic tournament for her. Fortunately Diddie and some of the other French players were able to offer Suzanne support during this difficult time. Diddie and Suzanne remained friends, and when Suzanne died in July 1938 at the age of only 39, her mother, Anaise, gave Diddie a Cartier art deco powder compact originally owned by Suzanne. This object was subsequently donated to the Wimbledon museum by one of Diddie’s daughters.
Part 2 of 2

In 1927, Diddie married Jean-Baptiste Serpieri (known as Johnny) born 26 June 1904, who was of Greek-Italian heritage (his father was Italian and his mother Greek). Diddie and Johnny had met socially at a tennis event on the Riviera at a time when Johnny was a student at the University of Montpellier. He owned a farm and the university in Montpellier had a reputation as the best choice for prospective students of agriculture. Although he did not play tennis himself, Johnny liked to go to Cannes and Marseilles to attend the tournaments held there.

Diddie and Johnny were married on 17 February 1927 in a castle on the Serpieri estate outside Athens which had originally belonged to the first King and Queen of Greece, Otto and Amalia, who were Bavarian. The royal couple had had a miniature gothic castle built on the estate resembling the Hohenschwangau Castle in which they had lived in Bavaria. King Otto and Queen Amalia reigned for a very short time in Greece, and since there were few reminders of their reign, Diddie decided to collect as many objects related to them as she could, such as costumes, furniture, china, swords, medals, coins, prints and paintings.

Diddie went to live in Athens with Johnny after their marriage and gave birth to their first daughter, Patrizia (known as Pat), at the end of 1927. Her marriage and pregnancy meant that Diddie had to stop playing tennis for a prolonged period of time. Diddie attempted a comeback in 1929, but had little success, no doubt because of the demands of being a wife and mother, and the consequent lack of opportunities to practice. Unhappy with her form, she retired completely from tournament play in the early 1930s.

In 1934, Diddie had her second child, a daughter, Savina, while in 1938 Diddie gave birth to her third and final child, a boy, Fernand (known as Freddy). Diddie encouraged her children to play tennis, but none of them had her talent for the sport. However, her nephew, Michel (known as Micky), the son of her brother, Pantaléon, became quite proficient at the game and participated in a number of tournaments in Marseilles.

When war was declared, Greece was occupied, first by the Italians, and then by their allies, the Germans. At that time no one knew how long the war would last. Diddie and her family attempted to leave Greece by ship, but the vessel on which they had embarked was sunk. Diddie’s father, Johnny, left the country on an aeroplane the same night, which was supposed to return the following day to take Diddie and her children away, but it never arrived.

Johnny remained with the Greek Royal Family as their aide-de-camp during the war years. After first landing in Crete, they had flown on to Alexandria in Egypt and from there sailed to South Africa where Jan Smuts, president of the country, offered them a house in Cape Town in which they stayed for the duration of the war.

Life in Greece during the war was very difficult for Diddie and her children. They had moved to Athens because the SS had occupied the family’s country estate. Food was very scarce, but the SS allowed Diddie and her family to collect some products grown on their land in the country, such as vegetables and wheat from which to make bread. Many families lived on what they were able to bring back on a cart drawn by a donkey. Every room in their house had to be occupied so many of the Diddie’s family’s friends lived with them.

The Germans were constantly searching for Diddie’s father and at one stage Diddie herself went into hiding. Her family lived in constant fear, but were able to listen to the news from the BBC using a hidden radio. Schools were often closed, as were shops, which meant that it was not possible to buy items such as clothing or shoes. The windows of the house in which they were living were blacked out. All in all, it was a very dark time.

After the war Diddie, her children and Johnny were reunited. Subsequently, Diddie dedicated a lot of her time to turning the little castle on the family estate into a private museum containing objects connected with the reign of King Otto and Queen Amalia, such as costumes, furniture, china, swords, medals, coins, prints and paintings. Diddie also liked to travel.

Diddie continued to follow tennis and always liked to remind her children of the wonderful period in which she had played. She was very proud of having represented France at the Olympics; she remained French all her life and retained her French passport. Her family still possesses all of her trophies and medals, which Diddie had hoped would one day go to a sports museum in Greece if one should be founded.

In January 1966, Diddie was awarded the légion d’honneur, which was presented to her in Athens by James Bayens, then French Ambassador to Greece. Diddie considered the award a great honour. On a subsequent visit to Athens, President Charles de Gaulle and his wife, Yvonne, congratulated Diddie on her receipt of the award.

In 1974, fifty years after her victory in the French Championships, Diddie was asked to present the ladies’ singles trophy at the French Open to that year’s winner, Chris Evert.

Diddie and her husband spent most of their final years in Greece although Diddie died on 2 February 1985 in a flat they kept in Lausanne, Switzerland. She was 81. She predeceased her husband, Johnny, who died on 4 July 1989 at the age of 85.

Today, Diddie’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren follow tennis wherever it is going on in the world and remain very proud of Diddie’s achievements. Her daughter, Savina, recently gave some of the tennis clothes her mother wore, designed by Coco Chanel with the Olympic rings and the French coq, to the Roland-Garros Museum in Paris, which was opened in 2003. It was Diddie’s wish that this donation take place. The more the years go by, the more her family realise what a golden era Diddie played in.