Jacobs, Helen Hull

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JACOBS, Helen Hull

(b. 6 August 1908 in Globe, Arizona; d. 2 June 1997 in East Hampton, New York), the greatest runner-up in women's tennis and beloved underdog, known for her trademark poise and perseverance in the face of defeat. Her controversial rivalry with champion Helen Wills, dubbed "The Battle of the Two Helens," thrilled and captivated media and fans of the 1930s.

Jacobs and her parents, Roland H. Jacobs and Eula Hull Jacobs, moved from Globe, Arizona, to San Francisco in 1914. Her father, an engineer and investor in copper mines, sought new employment in the Bay Area when the value of his investments began to decline. He relocated his family to Berkeley, where he leased the former home of the Wills family, whose daughter Helen had become a tennis champion as a teenager. Jacobs occupied Helen Wills's old room.

Other coincidences set the stage for Jacobs to follow in the shadow of Wills. In 1922 Roland Jacobs bought his daughter a tennis racket and encouraged her to play, if only for exercise. When she regularly began beating him as well as winning local tournaments, she attracted enough attention for a match to be arranged between the two Helens at the Berkeley Tennis Club where Wills trained. Jacobs was fourteen; Wills was seventeen and had already won the national junior championships. They played one practice set, and Wills crushed Jacobs 6–0 in seven minutes. Jacobs showed the determination that would become her trademark when she asked Wills for another set. Wills flatly declined, but a flame seemed to have been lit in Jacobs.

Jacobs's tenacity impressed William "Pop" Fuller, the renowned tennis coach who was then training Helen Wills. Although Jacobs did not yet dream of becoming a professional tennis player, she agreed to become Fuller's student. In 1924 and 1925 she won the junior national championship and at age eighteen began her twelve-year tenure playing in America's Wightman Cup, an annual tournament between British and American women's teams. After graduating from Berkeley High School, she entered the University of California at Berkeley in 1926 and eventually dropped out to devote all her time to tennis. She then rose to the finals of Grand Slam tournaments, only to lose each time, and badly, to Helen Wills: at the U.S. Open in 1928, she lost 6–2, 6–1, and at Wimbledon in 1929, she lost 6–1, 6–2. She also lost championships to Wills at the French and U.S. Opens in 1930, and at Wimbledon in 1932. But by 1928 Jacobs had broken into the top ten and would remain in those ranks through 1940.

Sportswriters and the media called the growing rivalry between Jacobs and Wills the "Battle of the Two Helens," dramatizing their opposing personalities and playing styles and igniting an interest in their matches. Despite their similarities in background, Wills and Jacobs were radically different players. Wills had earned the nicknames "Little Miss Poker Face" and the "Ice Queen" for her beauty and stoicism; Jacobs was known for her friendliness and sense of humor. She rejected the era's traditional expectations of femininity by wearing a hair net on the court and no makeup or nail polish. She was also a chain smoker. At Wimbledon in 1933, Jacobs played one match in shorts instead of a skirt—the first woman to do so—adding a spirit of rebelliousness to her famed self-reliance. She did not intend to make a political statement, however, and later said only, "It seemed the sensible thing to do."

Jacobs's attitude, rather than her skill, defined her as a player. Through her defeats in final after final, she won a devoted following for her sterling sportsmanship and unwavering courage. Alice Marble, a contemporary who defeated Jacobs in the U.S. Open finals in 1936, 1939, and 1940 said, "She had more will to win, more drive and guts than anyone else.… She never gave up." When compared with Wills and Marble, Jacobs's backhand was lackluster and her forehand was weak; she depended heavily on an unremarkable but reliable forehand slice. Although quick and dexterous at the net, her volleying paled in comparison to the greats of her time. Regardless, Jacobs's unyielding rallies and inexhaustible spirit often led her to victory.

In 1933 Jacobs appeared ready to finally penetrate Wills's domination over the women's game. On August 26, in front of 8,000 fans expecting a typical blowout, they met again in the U.S. final. The media further stirred excitement by branding their rivalry a "feud" and a "cat fight." But Jacobs had won the U.S. title the previous year and at age 25 was at the top of her game. She took the first set, 8–6. It was the first set she had ever won against Wills.

The match ended with a strange and unexpected anti-climax. Wills won the second set 6–3, but double-faulted to open the third set. This blunder seemed to offer up the game to Jacobs, who climbed to a 3–0 lead. At that point, Wills confounded her opponent and the fans. She walked to the umpire, gathered her sweater, and retired from the match. Jacobs rushed to Wills, begging her to continue and suggesting a break, but Wills retrieved her rackets and left the court. Jacobs had technically won, but Wills's sudden and unexplained withdrawal tainted the outcome. It is still debated whether Wills had injured her back or leg, or if she simply refused to face the humiliation of losing to Jacobs.

A Wimbledon final on 5 July 1935 presented Jacobs the match point against Wills she had longed for her entire career. In a Centre Court stadium packed with 19,000 mesmerized fans, Wills served an ace to close out the first set 6–3. Jacobs retaliated with strong, low forehand slices and claimed the second set 6–3. Everyone in the stadium rose to their feet during the changeover before the third set and cheered wildly. Wills came out strong with blazing passing shots, but then slowed and fell behind 4–2. Jacobs seized the opportunity and surged ahead 5–2. At match point the stadium again thundered with applause. Jacobs, fierce and focused, drove Wills off the court with powerful slices and charged the net with a deep approach shot. Wills struggled to reach the ball and offered up a feeble lob, looping the ball high into the air. Catching a breeze, the ball hung in the sky, and Jacobs, unable to find position for an easy overhead smash to at last conquer her rival, was now dangerously off-balance. Stooping awkwardly as the ball fell, she swung in desperation—and hit the ball directly into the net. Stunned and devastated by her mistake, Jacobs never recovered. She lost the third set 7–5, and, more importantly, the chance to end the fifteen-year era of being second place to Wills.

Jacobs remained undeterred by this heartbreaking loss. She went on to win the U.S. title later that year (her fourth consecutive win in that tournament) and won Wimbledon in 1936, a year in which she was ranked number one. She continued to represent the United States in the Wightman Cup until 1938. At the conclusion of her career, Jacobs had won a total of nine Grand Slam titles, and had been ranked in the top 10 twelve straight times from 1928. In 1962 she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

After retiring from tennis in 1947, Jacobs became a commander in the U.S. Navy, one of only five women to achieve this ranking. Never having given up her childhood dream of writing, she published nineteen books, including an autobiography, children's books, historical novels, and several books on tennis. She also ran a small farm on Long Island, and lived with her partner Virginia Gurnee. Jacobs died of a heart attack at her home in East Hampton.

For nearly twenty-five years, Jacobs was a crowd favorite, not loved for her wins, but instead for the inexhaustible spirit and graciousness she brought to the game. She transcended the spectacle surrounding her rivalry with Wills with unforgettable dignity, compassion, and optimism.

Jacobs's autobiography, Beyond the Game: An Autobiography (1936), was written under the pseudonym H. Braxton Hill. Larry Engelmann, The Goddess and the American Girl (1998), describes the rivalry between Jacobs and Wills and their matches in dramatic detail. Victoria Sherrow, The Encyclopedia of Women and Sports (1996); Bud Collins and Zander Hollander, The Encyclopedia of Tennis (1997); and Joe Layden, Women in Sports (1997), all provide background, career highlights, and statistics. Jacobs appears in a cover story in Time (14 Sept. 1936). An obituary is in the New York Times (4 June 1997).

Sarah Feehan

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