Wills, Helen

views updated May 08 2018

Helen Wills


American tennis player

Helen Wills revolutionized the face of sports for American women. At a time when women were not thought capable of athletic achievement, Wills played some of the best tennis in the world, with a strength and ferocity that was far more typical of the male athletes of her time than of the female ones. She was not only dominant in women's tennis, winning thirty-one Grand Slam events over the course of her career, but she also played and beat some of the top-ranked men of her time, including the ranking Italian men's champion and the best player at Stamford University.

Early Years

The story of how Wills learned to play tennis has always been a part of her legend. Her father, a prominent surgeon in Berkeley, California, gave her her first racket when she was thirteen, and at age fourteen he got her a membership at the Berkeley Tennis Club, which was a prestigious institution. Wills never took formal lessons; instead, she learned by watching and playing against other members, both men and women. Hazel Wightman, women's tennis champion of the 1910s, was also a member of the club. Wightman worked with Wills on her game, trying especially to improve her speed. It was less than two years after she joined the club that Wills became a tennis champion, winning her first U.S. girls' singles championships at the age of fifteen. At age seventeen she became the youngest person ever to win the U.S. women's singles title.

Wills and Wightman eventually went on to become a formidable doubles team, winning the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, and the Olympics in their best year together, 1924. They were never defeated when playing together. Despite this record, Wightman never ceased trying to improve Wills's speed, which plagued her throughout her career. In fact, when the two played in doubles together, Wightman often shouted, "Run, Helen!" However, Wills was so dominant at the baseline, and was so good at anticipating where the ball would go next, that she was not often required to run very fast.

Center Court

Wills's most famous tennis match was played against Suzanne Lenglen in Cannes, France on February 16, 1926. Wills was only twenty, but she had already won two Olympic medals and three U.S. singles championships. Lenglen, the twenty-six-year-old French-woman, was a six-time Wimbledon champion who provided copious fodder for the tabloids with her flamboyant personality. Wills, who was known for her demure attitude and chaste starched cotton clothes, provided quite a contrast to Lenglen in her silks and furs, although tennis-wise the rising star and reigning champion appeared closely matched.

The match was hyped relentlessly by newspapers from around the world. Reporters followed both Wills and Lenglen about as they played in other matches in January and early February, searching for any new angle on the story. For Wills, who had come to France, accompanied by her mother, ostensibly to continue her studies in painting, this must have been particularly frustrating. By the time that the two actually met on the court, word had spread so far that a Russian grand duke, the Swedish king, and an Indian rajah and ranee were among the 6,000 spectators in the hastily erected stands. The crowd was rowdy, and Lenglen seemed rattled. She took sips of cognac between points, perhaps to calm her nerves. Despite play that was not her best, Lenglen won the first set, but Wills made a comeback in the second. Errors in line judging in that set, not helped by fans who shouted out their opinions on the proper calls, hurt both women's concentration, but Lenglen more than Wills. Wills took the second set, but Lenglen won the third set and the match, then broke down in tears as fans surrounded and congratulated her. Wills and Lenglen played each other in doubles again that afternoonLenglen won againand never again faced each other on the court. Wills missed the French championships that year due to appendicitis, and Lenglen turned professional around the time that Wills returned to competitive play.

Wills's time in Cannes was not a complete loss. A stockbroker from San Francisco named Frederick Moody had noticed Wills, and after her loss he approached her to congratulate her on her good play. They were married in 1929, and thereafter Wills played as Helen Wills Moody. The two divorced in 1937, but by 1939 Wills had remarried, this time to an Irish polo player and Hollywood screenwriter named Aiden Roark. For the rest of her life, Wills would be known as Helen Wills Moody Roark.


1905Born October 6, in Centreville, California
1919Joins the Berkeley Tennis Club
1921Wins first tennis championship
1925Graduates from the University of California at Berkeley
1926Plays famous match against Suzanne Lenglen
1929Marries California stockbroker Frederick Moody
1937Divorces Moody
1938Retires from tennis
1939Marries Irish polo player Aiden Roark
1998Dies January 1, in Carmel, California

Retirements and Comebacks

For six years, from 1927 until 1933, Wills did not lose a single set in competition. Then, in 1933 Wills came to Wimbledon nursing an injury: she had strained her back helping her husband, Moody, to build a stone wall. Wills lost one set to Helen Hull Jacobs, who was often dubbed "Helen the Second" due to her continual overshadowing by Wills, and did not play any more that day: she left the court and announced her retirement. Wills returned to the sport in 1935 just long enough to play Jacobs again at Wimbledon, defeating her and winning the title. Wills retired again, but returned once more in 1938. She played Jacobs at Wimbledon again, won, and then retired permanently.

"Little Miss Poker Face"

Wills's presence, on and off the court, was legendary. On court, whether winning or losing she displayed no emotion at all, only a fierce concentration. This concentration prompted a young New York Evening Mail columnist named Ed Sullivan, before the as yet unknown medium of television made him famous, to nickname her "Little Miss Poker Face." Other nicknames, including "Queen Helen," also spoke to this imperial presence. Artists and poets noticed it as well. In perhaps her most famous artistic representation, painter Diego Rivera placed her at the center of his mural at the former San Francisco Stock Exchange. When asked why he had featured her so prominently, Rivera explained by saying, "Because of that woman, California is known to the rest of the world." Wills was also featured in a sculpture by Alexander Calder, who was famous for his wire creations. Another often-repeated compliment came from silent film star Charlie Chaplin, who, when asked what the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen was, once replied, "The movement of Helen Wills playing tennis." Some women flattered by imitation, adopting Wills's trademark white eyeshade as part of their own tennis uniform.

Wills was a very public figure for much of her life; even when she was not playing tennis, she stayed in the public eye by writing newspaper and magazine articles and books, including a tennis guide, an autobiography, and a mystery. Wills was also a painter, and she exhibited her artwork in London, Paris, and New York. However, she became something of a recluse later in life. She rarely appeared in public, but she continued to follow sports on television. She particularly enjoyed watching Martina Navratilova 's matches. "[Wills] admired Martina Navratilova greatly," tennis historian Jeanne Cherry said in Wills's obituary in the Houston Chronicle. This admiration lasted through Navratilova's ninth Wimbledon championship, in 1990, which broke Wills's long-standing record of eight Wimbledon wins. "I once asked her how she felt about Martina breaking her record," Cherry continued, "and she said, 'Well, you know she pumps iron.' " Wills passed away in 1998; her ashes were scattered at sea.

"Every Woman Who Goes into Athletics Owes Something to Her"

Although Helen Wills may be nearly forgotten today, her influence lives on in the many female tennis champions who have come after her. "I think every woman who goes into athletics owes something to her," her biographer Larry Engelmann, told Dennis Akizuki of the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. "She revised popular estimations and I would say scientific evaluations of what a woman could do."


Tennis, with illustrations by the author, Scribner's, 1928.

Awards and Accomplishments

1921-22U.S. girls' singles
1922U.S. girls' doubles
1922, 1924-25, 1928U.S. doubles
1923-25, 1927-29, 1931U.S. singles
1923-25, 1927-32, 1938Wightman Cup
1924Olympic singles
1924Olympic doubles
1924, 1927, 1930Wimbledon doubles
1924, 1928U.S. mixed
1927-30, 1932-33, 1935, 1938Wimbledon singles
1928French singles
1929Wimbledon mixed
1929-30, 1932French singles
1930, 1932French doubles
1935Named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press
1959Inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame
19801926 match against Suzanne Lenglen named one of the top twenty tennis matches of all time by Tennis magazine
1996Inducted into the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Women's Hall of Fame

Related Biography: Tennis Player Hazel Wightman

Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman thoroughly dominated American tennis at the height of her career. She was best known for her famous triple threepeatwinning the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles at the U.S. championships three years in a row, from 1909 to 1911although her scandalous (for the time) tennis uniform of an ankle-length skirt and a short-sleeve shirt that bared much of her arms also brought her some attention. Like Wills, Wightman was from Berkeley, California, but in 1912 she married a man from Boston, George Wightman, and moved to Massachusetts. Wightman slowed down a bit after 1912, since bearing and caring for five children took much time and energy, but she did not abandon competition entirely. She was U.S. singles champion again in 1919, and in 1924, at the age of thirty-eight, Wightman, playing with Wills, won in doubles at the U.S. championships, at Wimbledon, and at the Olympics. Wightman continued to play tennis well past the age when most athletes retire: she dominated the U.S. women's over 40 doubles championships for much of the 1940s and '50s, winning her final title in that event in 1954, at the age of sixty-seven. In all, Wightman won forty-five U.S. championships in her forty-five year career.

Today, Wightman is best remembered for instituting the Wightman Cup, which was intended to be the women's equivalent of the men's Davis Cup. Wightman died in 1974, at the age of eighty-seven.

Fifteen-Thirty: The Story of a Tennis Player, Scribner's, 1937.

(With Robert Murphy) Death Serves an Ace, Scribner's, 1939.



Akizuki, Dennis. "Helen Wills Moody Dies at Age 92." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (January 2, 1998): 102K5693.

Akizuki, Dennis. "Moody Played Tennis with Entrancing Style." Austin American-Statesman (January 3, 1998): E1.

"An American Original." Sports Illustrated (January 12, 1998): 32.

Blue, Adrianne. "Obituary: Ice-Cool on Court: Helen Wills Moody." Guardian (London, England) (January 3, 1998): 17.

"Died, Helen Wills Moody." Time (January 12, 1998): 31.

"Hard Hitter Who Ruled in Golden Era for US." Birmingham Post (January 3, 1998): 18.

"Helen Wills Moody: Obituary." Times (London, England) (January 3, 1998): 25.

Lidz, Franz. "Tennis Everyone?" Sports Illustrated (fall, 1991): 90-95.

Matson, Barbara. "She Was Queen of Court: Wightman Had Regal Reign in Women's Tennis." Boston Globe (October 8, 1999): F06.

"Miss Helen Wills on Lawn Tennis; 17 May 1928." Times (London, England) (May 17, 1999): 23.

"Queen of the Court Dies, 92." Sunday Mail (Adelaide, Australia) (January 4, 1998): 21.

"Tennis Greats Memorialize Legendary Helen Wills Moody." Houston Chronicle (January 3, 1998): 14.

"Tennis: Last Link with the Days of Chiffon and Cognac." Independent (London, England) (January 6, 1998): 26.

"Tennis: Wills-Moody Dies at Age of 92." Guardian (London, England) (January 3, 1998): 11.

"Whatever Happened to Helen Wills Moody?" Independent (London, England) (August 31, 2002): 7.


Intercollegiate Tennis Association Women's Hall of Fame. http://www.wm.edu/tenniscenter/ (October 11, 2002).

International Tennis Hall of Fame. http://www.tennisfame.org/ (October 11, 2002).

Sketch by Julia Bauder

Helen Wills

views updated Jun 08 2018

Helen Wills

Helen Wills (1905-1998) was one of the dominant American and international female tennis players during the late 1920s and most of the 1930s. She won 31 major international tennis championships. In her prime, she won 180 straight matches against the best women in tennis without losing a single set. In 1938, she retired from tennis and became an artist, exhibiting her paintings and drawings throughout the U.S. and Europe.

Born in Centerville, California, on October 6, 1905 to Clarence Wills, a surgeon, and Catherine Wills, a teacher, Helen Newington Wills was raised in an environment of high expectations. She was tutored at home by her mother until she was eight years old. She later graduated from the top ranked Anna Head School in Berkeley, and attended the University of California at Berkeley where she became Phi Beta Kappa because of her academic excellence.

Wills and her mother were always the best of friends. When she was on the tennis circuit, her mother was her chaperone, friend, and support. Just the presence of her mother in the stands provided Wills with the strength she needed. As a child, the future tennis champion was not strong. In fact, her health was somewhat fragile. To counter this, her father attempted to interest her in outdoor activities. First, she started swimming. When her father bought her a horse, she began riding. Helen also accompanied her father when he was shooting duck and quail. When she was eight, her father bought her a tennis racket and played with her every day. According to Helen, she did not fall in love with tennis right away. "I spent most of my time until thirteen outdoors running with dogs, playing cowboys and Indians, riding horses." Her father pushed her towards tennis, most likely because it was the unofficial state sport of California and a state-supported building program of tennis courts allowed people of varying economic backgrounds the opportunity to play. The gentle climate and the public support, both economically and spiritually, produced many national and international champions.

Played in the Park

Tennis started Wills' physical development. She would later claim that tennis was far more strenuous than any sport, other than rowing. During World War I, her father was a U.S. Army physician in Europe. Wills and her mother spent that year in Vermont, during which time she did not play tennis. The following year, the family returned to California and settled in Berkeley, where Wills played tennis with her father and other children at Live Oak Park. There, her game improved substantially. To Wills, tennis was a fun game that mirrored real life. While playing in the park, she was spotted by William "Pop" Fuller of the Berkeley Tennis Club. She was invited to join so that she could get some instruction and play against better players. In 1919, before her 14th birthday, she was a member. Fuller rapidly guided Wills and arranged matches for her. She had a great ability to concentrate and shut out the world. Wills was determined to win, but did not bemoan losing. She started to beat all the club members. She was an excellent observer, developed speed and power, and was able to anticipate her opponents' moves.

Began Competing

Wills began competing in tennis tournaments in 1919. That year, she won the Bay Region tournament and competed in the California State Tennis Championships. In 1920, she met Hazel Wightman, a tennis star, who coached her for several weeks and later played unbeaten doubles with her on the national and international circuits. After winning the California Women's Championship in 1921, Wills went to the East Coast with her mother to play in other tournaments. She won the National Girls Championship, but lost in another tournament. At this time, she was only five feet tall, but a power house. She was impressive, but still had a long way to go. That year was the first time Wills saw world tennis star, Suzanne Lenglen, play.

In 1922, Wills won the California Women's Championship for the second time, and the National Junior Tournament. She also advanced to the final round of the National Women's Singles, where she was defeated by Molla Mallory, the dominant female player in American tennis. Wills then proceeded to win the national doubles title by defeating Mallory and her partner. She came close to defeating Mallory several other times that summer, and began to get a sympathetic audience at matches. By the end of 1922, Wills was ranked third among American women.

In 1923, Wills graduated from the private Anna Head School and enrolled at Berkeley to study art. Between 1922 to 1923, she had gained 5 inches and 25 pounds. At 17, she now stood 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 150 pounds. Her strength and speed had improved, and she had the best serve among American female players. In 1923, 17-year-old Wills beat Molla Mallory, who had won seven national championships, in the National Women's Singles by a score of 6-1, 6-2.

In 1924, she represented the U.S. in the English-American Wightman Cup tournament, in the Olympic games, and at Wimbledon. In the latter two contests, she hoped to meet Suzanne Lenglen, who had come to England to see Wills play. Wills, however, played erratically, losing in the first and second rounds of the singles of the Wightman Cup, but took the doubles with her old tutor Hazel Wightman. At Wimbledon, Lenglen withdrew, becoming hysterical and claiming that she had jaundice, and Wills lost in the finals to a British opponent. However, she and Wightman won the doubles. A week later Lenglen also withdrew from the Olympics, which Wills proceeded to win by earning a gold medal.

Returning home, Wills won the national singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles. In 1925 she did not go to Europe, and Lenglen won the European titles. Surprisingly, in an eastern tournament, Wills was beaten in the finals by Elizabeth Ryan, an expatriate American who was a frequent doubles partner of Lenglen. In the Wightman Cup, which was held in the U.S. that year, she won with some difficulty. In the nationals, she also won the singles with some difficulty, indicating that she was not yet a match for Lenglen.

"The Match of the Century"

In February 1926, Wills finally met Lenglen in Cannes, France, in what has been called "The Match of the Century." Wills, accompanied by her mother, had negotiated her own way over to France, ostensibly to paint and continue her education but, in reality, to challenge the best female tennis player in the world. The newspapers began a maelstrom of publicity. Wills was portrayed as the sweet, virginal 20-year-old versus the lascivious, worldly and jaded 26-year-old Lenglen. Somewhat surprisingly, the French public also took a liking to Wills, even though she was the opponent. Wills played a number of smaller tournaments in southern France to warm up for the battle with Lenglen. After it seemed the two would never meet in singles competition, the two arranged to play at the Carlton Club in Cannes. Lenglen was considered to be the overwhelming favorite. While Wills lost the first set 6-3, she was clearly challenging Lenglen's game. In the second set, Wills started to take control 3-1, but a fault line call against Wills rattled her, and she lost her lead. Wills eventually lost the second set 8-6, but not before a series of exceptionally hard fought games. While Wills had lost the battle, she began to win the war. The world public began to realize that Lenglen was not unbeatable. After Lenglen went professional, the two never played again.

While in France to play Lenglen, Wills met a young businessman and stockbroker named Frederick Moody whom she married in 1929, and divorced in 1937. Two years later she married Irish polo player Aiden Roark. She divorced him in the 1970s.

Aside from Lenglen, there was no one who could stop Wills. From 1927 to 1933, she won every singles match she entered. During this period she played against the best female tennis players, and had a run of 180 matches in which she never lost a set. A back injury in 1935 forced Wills to stop playing for three years. After being told that she was not strong enough, and having everything to lose and nothing to gain, Wills entered her last Wimbledon competition in 1938. Having lost twice in preliminary tournaments elsewhere, she fought her way to the finals at Wimbledon, facing unseeded Helen Jacobs, who had shoulder and leg injuries. According to a tournament official, Wills was having trouble winning matches, "and anyone could see that time was catching up with her." In what appeared to be evenly matched early play, Jacobs tore her Achilles tendon, and thereafter played in great pain, and with a loss of mobility. She remained in the match, but lost almost every point thereafter. After winning her eighth Wimbledon singles championship, Wills retired permanently from tennis.

Besides being shy, there was a cool side to Wills' personality. She had a lingering feud with competitor Helen Jacobs, and she was cold to tennis star Alice Marble. She was, however, very kind and considerate to her friends. Wills' coldness on the courts was attributed to her utter concentration and ability to shut out the world.

A Quiet Retirement

Wills wrote three books, including a tennis instruction book, a mystery novel, Death Serves an Ace, and her autobiography, 15-30: The Story of a Tennis Player, published in 1937.

After her marriage to Roark, Wills moved first to the Los Angeles area and in the 1950s to Carmel Valley in central California. She continued her art work, and occasionally played tennis, but was a private person and generally stayed out of the limelight.

Wills died at the Carmel Convalescent Hospital in Carmel, California on January 1, 1998, at the age of 92. She left her estate to the University of California at Berkeley. In March 1999, a number of her books, including many inscribed to her by the authors, were auctioned. The inscribed copies were mostly from literary figures of the 1920s and 1930s, but also from Presidents Hoover and Nixon.

Wills believed that tennis was a war rather than a social engagement. Time magazine described Wills as an "imperturbable tennis ace. … Her trademark white eyeshade set an enduring fashion trend, but there was nothing frivolous about Little Miss Poker Face, as she was known. She stood her ground like a tank, drilling out bullet serves and powerful baseline drives."

Further Reading

Engelmann, Larry, The Goddess and the American Girl: The Story of Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Sports Illustrated, Fall 1991; January 12, 1998.

Time, January 12, 1998. □

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Helen Newington Wills

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