It’s not often you get to meet royalty in this day and age. Certainly, it doesn’t usually happen in Jacksonville, Fla.
Despite her age (97), and her walker (thanks to a recently broken hip), the word that comes to mind when encountering Raymonde Veber Jones is regal. Raymonde has lived in America for just under seven decades now, but she’s French by birth, and something of Marie Antoinette and Josephine Bonaparte has drifted down through the years into her bearing. Her throne is a simple easy chair, in which she sits straight and proud on the April afternoon she has chosen to grant me an audience. Her empire has been reduced to a couple of rooms in an assisted living complex down the street from the local chapter of the Mayo Clinic. But one glance and there is no doubt — you are in the presence of nobility.
I begin to sweat. It might be the lack of air conditioning, but it’s also nerves. Commoners are not meant to be this close, even if the eminence is wearing tennis shoes and a friendly smile, as Raymonde does.
And then she starts to talk about her past, in a French accent that remains heavy enough to require frequent interpretation from her children, Ray and Maryse (there is a third, Phil, in Virginia). The years melt away, and despite all the smartphones and other modern amenities lying around, we are soon transported back to occupied France. It might have been the heat, but as Raymonde spoke, I swore the walls began to blur, like an effect from a time-travel movie.
She remembers the days when her rule was nearly absolute, when she was lord of all she surveyed on the fabled clay courts of Roland Garros Stadium, home of the French Open tennis tournament since 1928. She thinks back, with a memory diminished but hardly ruined by time, to when her country was riven by war, foreign invasion, suspicion and collaboration with the enemy. She thinks back to the best of times and the worst of times, as that auteur from across the Channel would put it, when Raymonde Veber became the best female tennis player in a nation that didn’t belong to her anymore.
And she thinks back to the parts of her story that are so much more important than tennis.
Raymonde was born into war. The last of six children, she came into world on the first day of the last month of 1917, while horrifying trench warfare ground away an entire generation of Europeans. Shortly before her birth, the French suffered more than 250,000 casualties in an offensive at Chamin des Dames that earned them just 500 yards of territory. Half a million men mutinied, screaming “enough” at generals who mindlessly threw them into German machine guns without changing tactics. Fortunately, the American Expeditionary Force had arrived in France that summer, and the extra bodies ensured eventual Allied victory.
Raymonde grew up in a nation rallying back but terribly wounded by the devastation of the Great War. She lived in the commune, or what we would call a township, of Neuilly-sur-Seine. Technically a suburb of Paris, practically it is just a western extension of the City of Light, often lumped in with neighborhoods in the 16th arrondissement. The entire area is comparable to New York’s Upper East Side, or the Chelsea section of London — upscale, its homes and avenues suffused with the aroma of wealth.
As it happens, the 16th is also the sporting heart of Paris, home to Roland Garros as well as the Parc de Princes, home of soccer giant Paris St. Germain, and the Bois de Boulogne, one of the capital’s two largest parks. In Raymonde’s time, the most important facility was the Racing Club de France (RCF), a multi-sport venue where the local elite played tennis on finely kept clay courts.
The Vebers were a wealthy, bookish family. Money came in thanks to their factory, a rubber plant that specialized in making tires. Her father and elder brothers ran the business. Raymonde mostly stuck to her studies, and played with the family menagerie that included “two dogs, two cats and three turtles.”
When she was 12 years old, however, the family doctor told Raymonde and her siblings that they were underdeveloped, and needed more exercise. He recommended tennis as an ideal way to get outside and compete in a vigorous way, and soon the Vebers thought more about groundstrokes than Flaubert and Balzac. Raymonde was particularly keen on the sport, and her talent showed right away. A pro at the Racing Club spotted her and told Raymonde that with coaching, she could be a top player. “I was very competitive, even then, and that appealed to me,” she says.
Raymonde was a petite dynamo who could cover the whole court but excelled in the classic clay court style of bashing away from the baseline until her opponent surrendered. “The one-handed backhand was my secret weapon,” she recalls. By the late-‘30s, as the potential for another war darkened the European horizon, Raymonde had ascended to the upper ranks of French players. The studious girl had also developed into a dark-haired beauty, her curls framing an open, friendly smile that belied her killer instincts on the court.
French tennis was in the midst of a boom, one spurred by a singular event. In September 1927, the United States, winners of seven straight Davis Cup championships behind the legendary “Big Bill” Tilden, took on the French squad at the Germantown Cricket Club in Philadelphia. These Frenchmen had been winning what we now refer to as Grand Slam events, but in “international play,” which mattered more in those days (the Davis Cup finals were roughly equivalent to soccer’s World Cup finals today) the U.S. was considered unbeatable. The Yanks took a 2-1 lead through the doubles round, but then Rene Lacoste (he of the eponymous alligator shirts) bested Tilden in four sets. Henri Cochet broke the tie with a four-set whipping of Bill Johnston, and the upset was complete.
Lacoste and Cochet were already popular in the native country, but the defeat of the Americans catapulted them, along with teammates Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon, into the sporting stratosphere. The four became immortals in France, approximating Babe Ruth’s impact and stature in baseball. Dubbed “Les Quatre Mosquetaires” (the “Four Musketeers”) and sometimes the “Philadelphia Four,” the quartet was directly responsible for millions of Frenchmen and women picking up rackets and becoming invested in the game. Interest was so high in the return encounter the following fall that a new venue, Le Stade Roland Garros, named after Roland Garros, an aviation pioneer and World War I flying ace was built to host the 1928 Davis Cup (and all subsequent French Opens). This time, the Four Musketeers pummeled the U.S. 4-1, and their deification in France was complete (the Musketeers would go on to win six straight Davis Cup titles).
Raymonde’s sterling play got her noticed by the sport’s elite, and she became friendly with all of the Musketeers, in particular Cochet. “We all hit together at various times,” Raymonde remembers, and Cochet, a small man with a powerful baseline game, was a good match for Raymonde’s style. However, while the likes of Lacoste and Cochet made nice money for their efforts, Raymonde never earned a franc playing tennis. “It was all amateur stuff,” she recalls. Unlike the men, there wasn’t much spectator demand for the women’s game outside of the majors, which were strictly amateur until 1968. Only rare exceptions such as French legend Suzanne Lenglen, who won 31 championships between 1914 and 1926 and commanded large audiences even for exhibition matches, received paydays from tennis.
Raymonde didn’t get much familial support, either. When she was 17, her father suffered a stroke one night at dinner and passed away. Her brothers were mostly older, one 17 years her senior, and the family business occupied them thoroughly. “Father was dead, and mother knew nothing about tennis,” she says today without any apparent bitterness. She played occasionally with one brother, Roger. “We were close, but he was not very good,” she says with a smile, but her other brothers seldom saw her play. Plenty of other people did see her, however. In 1938 and ‘39 she was on her way to challenging Simonne Mathieu, French Open champion and a neighbor of Raymonde’s in Neuilly, for national supremacy.
The early months of 1940 were a pleasant time for her. Raymonde was 22 years old, an attractive young woman in the social whirl of moneyed Paris. Even the war, which had begun in September of 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland, was in an interregnum, the “Sitzkrieg,” (also called the “Phoney War” or the “Bore War”) when the winter weather ground operations almost to a halt. Optimistic French citizens believed the country would be spared a repeat of the horrors of World War I.
Then, as though timed to interrupt the upcoming French Open, the Germans invaded France on May 10, 1940. And everything changed overnight.
Using their newly developed doctrine of blitzkreig, or lightning war, the Nazis overwhelmed the French, outflanking the series of fortified defenses known as the Maginot Line and arriving in Paris mere weeks after the campaign began. The government fell, and in mid-June, barely a month after the invasion began, the capital belonged to the Germans.
By then, Raymonde had already received an indoctrination into what was in store for her and her country. “During the invasion,” she says, “the Luftwaffe really bombed Paris very heavily. Our beautiful apartment [complex] was hit very hard, though our actual rooms were luckily spared. Unfortunately, my mother and sister Suzanne were so scared that they refused to stay anywhere near Paris. So I had to drive them south, away from the advancing Germans.” The Vebers evacuated to Cantal, a sparsely populated mountainous department (roughly equivalent to a state), where many refugees fled from the fighting.
“I was on my way back to Neuilly when it got too dark to continue. I stopped for the night in a hotel. During the night, a German (airplane) dropped some bombs that hit the front of the hotel. There was a great deal of damage, and all the lights went out. My room wasn’t hit, but I thought it would be safer to find the basement. As I started to try and find my way around in the dark, I saw a tiny cat. I picked him up, and together, we tried to find our way underground to safety. The whole building was shaking. Rubble was falling all around. Soon enough I discovered that there wasn’t any cellar, at least nothing where we could hide. So we went back to my room, and huddled in bed, the kitty in my arms. Somehow we survived the night, and I went back home. The cat stayed behind.”
Raymonde made a similar trip shortly afterwards that resulted in another narrow escape. “With the area around our apartment hit by bombs, I stayed with my friend Odette at her house nearby. The Germans were very close to Paris by this point, and like my mother, Odette’s mother got very nervous, naturally. We drove her out to the country as well. On the way back, we never made it to Paris. The Germans were already marching our way. We had to turn around. Our car was almost out of gas, so we stopped to plan our next move.
“We happened to stop near a shelter for women. There were women who were wounded [from the bombing and artillery fire] and also some who were pregnant. We were asked to help carry these women to a hospital that was close. In exchange, we would be given some petrol. We made a couple of trips carrying stretchers. We had just picked up another load when some Italian soldiers [allied to the Germans] machine-gunned us. Incredibly, no one was hurt. But we were pinned down for nearly three days. We tried several times to get the women to the hospital, but we were turned back by gunfire each time. We starved the entire time. At last, the fighting moved on, and we were free to move — and to eat! We could only manage a small meal, and there was wine. It was much too strong for us, probably because our bellies were so empty.”
Raymonde’s life quickly changed from one of tennis and leisure to one of hard work and fear. Her brothers had joined the fight. Roger enlisted in the French Army and left to battle the Germans. “He was captured quickly, and was held as a prisoner for seven long years,” she recalls. “We knew he was alive, but we had no contact with him the whole time.” Another brother, Robert, took to the countryside and fought with the armed resistance, the Maquis, which engaged in guerilla raids on occupation forces.
In the meantime, it fell to Raymonde to run the family tire factory, which remained in operation during the war. “I worked from 7 in the morning until well into the evening. It was very tough, of course, but everybody was in the same boat, you just had to get on with it.” She stayed fit by bicycling to and from the factory. “It was four years on a bicycle,” she says, pointing out that hardly anyone except German officers were driving, mainly due to lack of fuel.
The invaders set up what was, by their brutal standards, a benevolent occupation force in Paris, while a new French government formed in the southern city of Vichy. The French WWI hero Marshal Philippe Petain, then 84 years old and heretofore revered throughout France, was put in charge. The Vichy rulers espoused hard-core right-wing values and served as a puppet regime, cooperating with their occupiers, happily rounding up Jews and crushing free expression at the behest of their Nazi masters in Paris.
Contrary to the clouds of revisionist propaganda post-war French leaders propagated in order to bring the nation together, during the war France was hardly a nation of unified resistance. Yes, there were those who fought against the Nazis, both passively, like Raymonde, and actively, like her brother. But there were as many who lustily bought in to the Third Reich’s buffoonery about Aryan supremacy. Most grappled with mixed emotions and embraced realpolitik — you did what you had to do to get along.
In the case of many French women, that meant turning their wiles upon the new men in town.
The Germans surprised the French, acting not as the Mongol hordes they were portrayed as being, but by handing out food and sweets and by preserving the city’s culture and architecture. Hitler ordered his army to take nothing from Paris except photographs. Handsome in their starched uniforms and brave and proficient in war, the occupiers stood in stark contrast to the French rabble they had so easily brushed aside in battle.
French women began sleeping with the Nazis in earnest, a practice referred to as “horizontal collaboration.” Some did it for practical reasons, as a means to ensure better food, lodging, or security. Others did it out of genuine affection. Few seemed to have regrets over the arrangement. As Arletty, the famous French actress who conducted a very public affair with a German Luftwaffe officer, put it, “My heart is French but my ass is international.”
Raymonde, for her part, would have none of it. “I heard about that sort of thing going on, but I hated the Germans too much to do it myself.” After all, these were the same people imprisoning her brother. Another incident early in the occupation hardened her outrage.
“One day I was on my way to work, riding my bicycle to the factory as usual. The Germans were stopping people and herding them aside. I managed to ride past, and I didn’t know what was happening. All I knew was that I shouldn’t stop and ask questions. Later, on my way back, I got the answer. About 30 young people lay dead on the grass. Someone, most likely a member of the resistance, had shot and killed a German soldier. As revenge, they killed 30 Frenchmen and women. And they were all very young, no more than 20 years old.”
“I was already not very fond of Germans, but that cemented the feeling.”
In sympathy with her brothers, Raymonde wore armbands under her clothes, ones bearing the Cross of Lorraine or the letters “FFI” standing for “Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur,” associated with the armed resistance, despite the obvious danger should a German soldier discover the fact. Her mother frantically pleaded with her to play it safer than that, but Raymonde refused.
After roughly a year, her brother Robert left the forests for the factory, leaving Raymonde with time to return to her tennis. This dovetailed with a new Vichy directive that embraced sports and fitness, in order to make their country hard and tough once again, as it had been in the glorious past of Napoleon — and as the Germans were now.
Throughout occupied France, plans were announced for the construction of a grand sporting infrastructure. One of the main voices at the head of this Vichy movement was a member of the Four Musketeers and friend of Raymonde’s — Jean Borotra.
Naively, he initially bought into the propaganda and became the First General Commissioner to Sports. Later, when the promises went mostly undelivered and he saw in more detail the horrors being perpetrated by his “friends” in Vichy and the Germans in Paris, Borotra had a change of heart. In the fall of 1942, in an insane moment of honesty, he told his bosses he planned to join the fight against them. Naturally, he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to a prison camp outside Berlin, where he was held in solitary confinement and forced to read Mein Kampf.
After more than two years in captivity, in 1945 Borotra escaped. He crossed the front lines, made contact with American forces, and led them back to the prison, where they captured the SS guards who had held him.
One good thing did come from the Vichy sporting initiative. The French Open had been canceled due to the German invasion in 1940, but in 1941, a national tournament was once again held at Roland Garros. It wasn’t exactly the same as the peacetime Open, as it was only for French competitors (with a few local club players born in Switzerland, Luxembourg and Belgium tossed in), but the new Tournoi de France was fiercely fought over just the same. Musketeer Henri Cochet appeared in all five wartime tournaments, but was never able to win. The men’s titles from 1943-45 were won by 6’5 Yvon Petra, freshly released from a German prisoner of war camp where he had been held after being captured in battle while fighting in the French Army (Petra went on to win Wimbledon in 1946, becoming the last champ to take Centre Court in long trousers).
Now that Raymonde had a reason to return to the courts, she began training once more, at night after work in the factory, on courts with few lights (the Germans had forced France to run on Daylight Savings Time). There were still no winnings at stake — the Vichy government banned professional athletics, citing money’s ruinous effect on sport. So perhaps it comes as no surprise that Raymonde remembers little of the 1941-43 tournaments, save for one particular detail. The winner of the initial two women’s French championships was Alice Weiwers of Luxembourg. When I ask Raymonde her impressions of Alice, she puffs out her cheeks, spreads her arms, and sneers, “Fat.”
“We were not especially friendly,” she adds, unnecessarily.
Part of the reason the Tournois have faded from Raymonde’s memory is that she was busy playing in other matches that were far more important from a survival standpoint. She joined a traveling team that competed against other squads in various cities. “If we won,” she recalls, “we got to eat.” There was no cash prize, but the winners were awarded chickens, eggs, fruit and other edibles. “If we lost, we went hungry.” Raymonde’s high-caliber play usually meant her team ate well.
Still, wartime terror intruded in her life in another way. The Vichy government, like their Nazi overseers, rounded up and deported Jews by the thousands. One place Jews and other “undesirables” were interned before being sent east to concentration camps was Le Stade Roland Garros. According to author and journalist Arthur Koestler, a Jew who was held at the Grand Slam venue and wrote about his experiences in “Scum of the Earth,” his memoir, “At Roland Garros, we called ourselves the cave dwellers. About 600 of us … lived beneath the stairways of the stadium. We slept on straw — wet straw, because the place leaked. We were so crammed in, we felt like sardines … It smelled of filth and excrement, and only slits of light (could) find their way inside. Few of us knew anything about tennis, but when we were allowed to take our walk in the stadium, we could see the names Borotra and Brugnon on the scoreboard.” Borotra, remember, was at the time tacitly endorsing these evils by his association with the Vichy government.
According to one study, more than 75,000 Jews were deported from France. Thanks to Raymonde, one escaped the terror of the camps.
“One night there was a frantic knocking on our apartment door,” she remembers. “I opened it to find a woman I knew from tennis, one of my hitting partners, named Jacqueline Foy. She was crying hysterically. Her father had been taken away, she said. She feared she was next — no Jews were safe. I didn’t know her very well, but she was shaking and so afraid, so I let her in.”
Foy was about 26 or 27 at this time, several years older than Raymonde, a talented player who competed internationally. They became unexpected roommates. “She didn’t leave,” Raymonde says. “Jacqueline lived in our apartment for the next six months. She was terrified. She never went outside the entire time, just hid in our apartment. She had no fresh air. I don’t know how she could stand it, but of course she feared what would happen if she left. We fed her and never breathed a word about where she was.”
“Finally, after six months, Jacqueline’s mother sent word that she was safe in the countryside, and that Jacqueline should come and join her. So she slipped out of our apartment. I never saw her again.”
Raymonde hasn’t returned often to France over the years, but on one trip back to her native country she was told that Jacqueline had survived and had returned to Paris after the war. Raymonde headed straight for Jacqueline’s last known address and knocked on the door. Alas, the family member who answered told Raymonde that Jacqueline had recently passed away. Raymonde asked if Jacqueline’s father had survived.
“He was never seen again,” she was told.
Alice Weiwers was beaten by Simone Lafargue in the 1943 final. Then in 1944, it was Raymonde’s turn. At 27 years old, she was in her athletic prime, and despite the hardships of living under occupation, she played her best tennis.
There was a festive air at Roland Garros that summer, with large crowds and “not so many Germans,” according to Raymonde. This may have something to do with the fact that the Tournoi took place in late-July, after the Allies had landed at Normandy, and were relentlessly driving toward Paris.
Raymonde made a similar march through the women’s competition, getting to the finals, where she met a younger opponent named Jacqueline Portoni. “She was good-looking,” Raymonde remembers. “An all-rounder, with a solid game in all areas, although no one specific specialty.” Precise details of the match itself elude Raymonde’s otherwise strong memory. But the big picture sticks with her, if not the play by play.
“I wasn’t especially nervous,” she says. “It was a good, even match, but we all had perspective. I wanted to win, of course, but in the end, it was just a tennis match. It wasn’t very important compared to the war.”
Raymonde did indeed win, 6-4 in the first set and 9-7 in what must have been an epic second set. With the win, Raymonde became the final female champion crowned while the Germans ruled France.
The Racing Club was overjoyed that one of their own had become French National Champion, and threw a gala reception to honor Raymonde’s victory, replete with a dinner and dancing. There was no prize money, of course, so the Club honored her in classic Gallic style — they bought her a new dress. “Hermes!” she recalls with delight, clearly envisioning the designer model all these years later.
When I ask if winning the tournament made her a celebrity, Raymonde nods modestly. Exactly how well known she was is difficult to determine according to today’s standards — she was no mega-star, certainly, but she would likely have been recognized around Paris for her athletic achievements.
There was one person who knew about her — General Dietrich von Choltitz, the commanding German officer in Paris. One day an official from the Racing Club approached Raymonde while she was training. He had a request — the Nazi commander liked to play tennis and had heard Raymonde was a worthy opponent. He asked for a match.
Raymonde flatly refused. “There were always Germans around on the courts,” she says, “and I would be asked to play from time to time. But I never did. Sometimes they would be on the court right next to mine, and I never spoke a single word to any of them.”
After the war, most French claimed to have adopted this attitude toward their occupiers, but everyone knew who was a collaborateur and who was not. After liberation, women who had given themselves so freely to the Germans had their heads shaved in public. Arletty, the aforementioned actress who took a Nazi lover, was thrown in jail for 18 months. A wave of executions swept the country before the new government under Charles de Gaulle, a genuine resistance hero, restored order. Marshall Petain was sentenced to death by firing squad, but de Gaulle commuted that to life imprisonment.
“I, for one, never blamed any French person for anything (they did during the occupation),” Raymonde says. Fortunately, she never had to worry about such backlash, for she was solidly anti-German from the start. Even decades later, that still counted in her home country. Her son Ray clearly remembers accompanying his mother to Paris and having people stop and admiringly talk to her. “We were treated very well,” he recalls. “Mom was honored so much because she never entertained any notions of dating or otherwise befriending any Germans.”
On Aug. 25, 1944, just weeks after Raymonde won the Tournoi de France, Paris was liberated. Von Choltitz, the German Raymonde refused to play, allegedly ignored Hitler’s order to destroy the city on his way out of town. One thing is certain — Paris wasn’t burned to the ground. So the City of Light remained glorious when the Allies marched into the city. “I travelled from Neuilly,” Raymonde says, “to the Place de L’Etoile [now called the Place Charles de Gaulle, a central Parisian hub where several avenues meet] to see the French Forces march … I don’t think I ever felt so moved as at this moment. My tears were running down my face. What a moment!”
But perils remained, and a most unfortunate, ironic fate almost claimed Raymonde. “The Americans had arrived, but there was still danger,” she says. “German snipers were still around. One opened fire near where my mother and I were standing. We hid under a truck. We thought we were safe until we saw it was a gasoline truck! Luckily, it was not hit.”
The last of the Germans were soon flushed out, and life slowly returned to something approaching normalcy. In 1945, Raymonde tried and failed to defend her title at Roland Garros. The last female champ of the Tournoi de France was Lolette Payot of Switzerland. That September, Raymonde traveled south for a tournament in Cannes, famous for its beach resort and film festival (which began in 1946). “There came the shape of my destiny,” she recalls.
A tall, handsome American officer approached Raymonde while she was practicing. His name, coincidentally enough, was Raymond — Ray Geyer Jones (fortunately, he went by “Guy”). A 26-year old major in the artillery of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army, Jones had seen action in North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, and the Battle of the Bulge, obtaining a Silver Star and several other medals along the way. Guy was a good athlete, too — he played wingback on the same Harvard football team as John F. Kennedy. His tennis game wasn’t quite as good, but he figured he could beat the girl with the curls. He challenged her to a match, and this time, Raymonde accepted.
“I beat him 6-0, 6-0, 6-0,” she says with a laugh. “He was a hacker! I beat him to pieces, but hooked him for good.” Guy was stunned, but had enough sense to ask the woman who had just demolished him on the court for a date. Raymonde accepted this challenge, too, though she made one thing very clear — no “coucher avec moi,” as she says. In other words, Major Jones was shut out for the second time that day.
But that sentiment didn’t last long. Guy got a three-day pass in order to visit Raymonde in Paris, and after those 72 hours, the American and the Frenchwoman had reached an entente. Ten days later, Guy asked Raymonde to marry him. “I said no at first, because we all knew Americans were not serious,” she says, but soon relented. They wed in a church in Neuilly on Nov. 5, 1945. Another American officer served as best man, and gave the bride away. Guy had to get back to his unit, which was by now in Germany, “or what was left of it,” as Raymonde says, so they honeymooned amid the ruins.
Before the year was out, Guy had been transferred back to the States. Raymonde went too, but by herself, a scary journey across an ocean and into the unknown. The ever-adaptable French women were busy marrying Americans by the score, but Raymonde believes she was the first war bride to travel to the States. She bribed her way onto a cargo steamer, the Cap Elizabeth, by handing over her fur coat. Upon arrival in New York harbor, the boat was quarantined for a short spell while the passengers were checked for disease. Guy took a speedboat out to the steamship to reunite with his new wife. The couple had a more traditional honeymoon at Niagara Falls, then drove across the country, eventually winding up at their new home, Fort Riley, Kan.
Paris it was not.
“It was very hard,” Raymonde recalls. “I was very homesick, and though I had learned English in school, I struggled. There were no other French people there. Worse, there were only hard courts!” But after the tribulations she had faced during the war, central Kansas wasn’t going to get the best of her, no matter how bleak. “I didn’t want to leave. Many French women did divorce their American husbands soon after the war and returned to France, only to do worse.”
Raymonde stuck it out through that billeting, and one in Oklahoma, before landing in Northern Virginia. Guy had switched venues from land to air, and was becoming an important visionary in the concept of close air support. He went on to serve three tours in Vietnam, and, according to his son Ray flew more air hours (in both helicopters and fixed wing aircraft) than any pilot in any service.
He passed away in 2010 and is buried at the Arlington National Cemetery. He never did best Raymonde at tennis. “I once offered to buy mom a mink coat if she let Dad beat her,” Ray recalls. “She just said, ‘No way.’”
While her husband was fighting for his country, tennis sustained Raymonde. “I was mad sometimes because I was all alone, raising three children myself, but the game filled the void.” Raymonde didn’t lose her skills after emigrating. She rose as high as 13th in the USTA National Rankings and from 1961-71 she won the regional Mid-Atlantic Women’s championship nine times, never dropping a set. She was also highly ranked in doubles, teaming with Carol Herrick, a fellow tennis obsessive who also played with Raymonde at the Army-Navy Country Club in Arlington, Va.
“Her group played every single day, in snow, rain, sleet, you name it,” Herrick remembers. “Raymonde used to wear a sock with a hole cut out over her hand instead of gloves on really cold days. And you were obligated to play many sets, not just one or two. I vividly remember a big snowstorm coming through as we played, and I started to pack up my gear. ‘No, we finish,’ Raymonde insisted, and we did.”
When I ask Raymonde about Carol, her reply is simple — “I used to beat her.”
That competitive zeal (“Mom taught me how to trash talk,” Ray says) extended into her dotage. Raymonde played in senior tournaments well into her 80s, and only stopped hitting a few years ago. Yet in all that time, despite her accomplishments on the court and in service to her country, she has never been invited back to Roland Garros to smack a few ceremonial one-hand backhands, or even to wave to the crowd and accept long overdue plaudits for her wartime actions on and off the court. And when the 2015 French Open finals take place at Roland Garros at the end of next week, and the stories of past champions are told, Raymonde Veber, perhaps the most truly heroic champion of them all, is unlikely to be mentioned.
Neither the International Tennis Federation nor the Federation Francaise de Tennis (French Tennis Federation, or FTF) recognize the wartime tournaments as official French Opens, even though the entry requirements weren’t any different than they had been prior to 1924, when only French club members were allowed to compete. Those winners, including Cochet, Borotra and Lenglen, are recognized as French Open champions. But Raymonde, Alice Weiwers, Yvon Petra and the other wartime champions are not.
A major reason for this intransigence may be the complicated relationship France still has with the war and the occupation. The scars of humiliation and collaboration have yet to fade, even after all this time. Raymonde and the other winners from 1941-45 have been written off as collateral damage. Numerous recent emails to the FTF asking for a comment of any kind about the wartime tournois were utterly ignored.
Meanwhile, a living link to this extraordinary slice of forgotten history sits in her easy chair in Jacksonville. She’ll be watching the Open, as always, but adds, “They never bothered to ask me to come back, or even to contact me in any way.” Raymonde says she is not upset by it, though how can she not bristle just a bit at such shabby treatment?
It certainly is no way to treat a queen.