Wills, Helen Newington (1905–1998)

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Wills, Helen Newington (1905–1998)

Eight-time Wimbledon tennis champion who was the outstanding American woman player of her time . Name variations: Helen Wills Moody; Mrs. F.S. Moody. Born Helen Newington Wills on October 6, 1905, in Centerville, California; died in Carmel, California, on January 1, 1998; daughter of Clarence Wills (a doctor) and Catherine Wills; attended the University of California; married Frederick S. Moody, in 1929 (divorced 1937); married Aidan Roark, in 1939 (divorced around 1970).

Won the U.S. Girls' championship (1921 and 1922); won the American Women's National Singles championship (1923, 1924, 1925, 1927, 1928, 1929), illness had prevented her from competing (1926); won the American Women's Doubles championship with Mrs. M.Z. Jessup (1922), with Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman (1924), with Mary K. Browne (1925), and with Hazel Wightman (1928); won Olympic gold medals in singles and doubles at the Paris Olympics (1924); won the British Women's Singles championship at Wimbledon (1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1933, 1935, and 1938); won the French Women's Singles championship (1928, 1929, 1930, and 1932); retired from major competition (1938); devoted the rest of her life to painting and writing, producing an autobiography and a collection of mystery novels; admitted to the International Tennis Hall of Fame (1959).

Journalist Paul Gallico once ventured the opinion, widely accepted in the early decades of the 20th century, that there were beautiful women, and then there were women athletes. Female sports figures, Gallico pronounced, were only using athletics to make up for a lack of beauty, a husband, a family, a home. Then Helen Wills won her first U.S. Open title in 1923. She was one of the most powerful and effective tennis players he had ever seen, male or female, and, he noted with surprise, she was strikingly attractive. Helen was, in fact, the first woman in America to become a tennis star, opening the door to later generations of her gender who attained international celebrity on and off the court, from Billie Jean King to Venus Williams .

Born in Centerville, California, on October 6, 1905, she first picked up a tennis racket at the age of eight, when her father added the game to a variety of outdoor pursuits he had chosen to strengthen his daughter's delicate childhood health. Clarence Wills, a doctor, had introduced Helen to swimming, riding and hunting, among other sports, before he gave Helen her first tennis lesson in 1917 on a dirt court next to the hospital where he practiced medicine. "I was especially keen about nature and liked to hunt wild flowers as much as I liked to play any games at all," Wills later said, one of many statements proclaiming a rather nonchalant attitude toward the sport which would serve her so well. Tennis was at the time a relatively new public sport and a wildly

popular one, especially in California where, as one pundit of the game noted, "it's always June," and the game could be played all year round on the inexpensive, hard-paved courts to be found in any park or playground. Of all the sports that Clarence Wills had chosen for Helen, tennis seemed to have the most dramatic effect on her physical stamina, not the least because rackets of the time were made of solid wood, weighed a hefty 15 ounces and had handles that were five-and-a-half inches around. Helen herself was of the opinion that tennis "is more strenuous than swimming, more vigorous than horseback riding," and she quickly learned the volleying game that lent itself to the West Coast's hard court surfaces. Wills also came to the game at a time when the dominance of East Coast players was beginning to weaken. Maurice McLoughlin became the first California player to win the U.S. Open at Forest Hills in 1912, and Wills always remembered the thrill of watching him play an exhibition game—the first nationally ranked tennis player she had ever seen—and having him autograph one of her tennis balls.

When the Wills family moved to Berkeley after World War I and into a house conveniently located next to a park with tennis courts, Helen's interest in the game grew. She was now 13 and becoming a young woman. "Tennis was exchanged for the games of childhood," she wrote many years later, "and I am very happy that this happened." She still lacked formal training, depending on her father's suggestions and her observations of other players to improve her game; but when the tennis pro at the Berkeley Tennis Club, William "Pop" Fuller, heard about the Wills girl and ambled over to the park to watch her play, things became very formal indeed. Helen was given a junior membership in the Club and a series of lessons with Fuller, as a 14th birthday present from her parents. "When she steps on to a tennis court," Fuller later said of his most famous pupil, "all but the game ceases to exist." Fuller was especially impressed with the fact that Helen showed absolutely no emotion as she played, no matter what he asked her to do or how hard he lobbed balls to her. Helen later insisted her reputation as "Little Miss Poker-Face" grew from her father's suggestion that screwing up her face or grimacing during a game would put lines on her face, but Fuller thought it went deeper. "I never saw anyone more determined and cool about winning success nor more indifferent to failure," he reported. Fuller quickly built on the basics of the game instilled in Helen by her father, encouraging her to place her volleys with more subtlety and increasing the accuracy of her serves by having her aim at a white handkerchief he would move around the baseline across the net. Fuller did not interfere, however, with Helen's "open" stance, her manner of squarely facing the net for her strokes rather than with her shoulder forward; nor did he adjust her iron grip on the racket to a more relaxed and flexible hold. Although these deviations would today be considered highly unusual, one of Helen's frequent opponents reported that any shot drilled from Wills' racket made it seem as if the ball "had been dipped in concrete" by the time it reached the other side of the court.

Within a few months, Fuller had moved her from matches with girls her own age to games with older boys at the Club, and eventually with adults. She loved speed, power volleys, rushing the net, and going after anything that was hit to her, no matter how much scrambling it entailed. But even though Fuller claimed her as his most famous pupil and was known until his death in 1956 as "Helen Wills' tennis coach," Helen herself held a different opinion. Outside of her father, she took pains to point out, "I have learned through observation of others and actual practice or contest. I practiced by playing games, not by drilling on strokes. I made up my mind to appear to be listening politely to what other people said, but not really to do what they suggested." Little wonder she became known as "Queen Helen."

By 1919, Wills had won a San Francisco Bay area tournament and had advanced to California State championship play, although she lost in straight sets to her opponent. In the gallery for the championship match, however, was Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman , a top-ranked California player who was impressed enough with Helen's skill to spend three weeks after the state matches improving Wills' footwork and control of the ball. The two got on so well together that they would later team up in doubles tournaments, to great acclaim and admiration. By 1921, Wills had captured the California state singles title and Wightman had carried eastward the news about the stunning young West Coast player, laying the groundwork for Helen's first appearance on an East Coast grass court in a Providence, Rhode Island, tournament. She lost her chance at the singles title in the second round, but advanced all the way to the finals in doubles play; and quickly recovered by capturing the National Girls' championship at Forest Hills, returning to California in triumph. The following year, she won the California state title for a second time and once again traveled East to capture the National Junior Tournament in Philadelphia. She advanced all the way to the finals in the National Women's Singles at Forest Hills before losing to defending champion Molla Mallory of Norway, and had become such a crowd pleaser that when the two women met again ten days later at the Longwood Cricket Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, the gallery actually booed court officials who made calls against Wills, reducing Mallory to tears even though Mallory once again defeated the newcomer. The Eastern tennis crowd had never seen anyone, man or woman, who looked or played like Helen Wills. She was wholesomely beautiful, combining great power and concentration with utter calm and composure, and the press came up with yet more sobriquets in dubbing her "the American girl" and "the Ice Queen." But it was Wills' game, not her fame, that mattered the most, and at the close of the 1922 season, she was ranked No. 3 in the country. The year 1923, the pundits said, would be Helen's.

Just before the 1923 season began, Wills graduated from a private girls' school and announced her intention to enter the fall term at the University of California at Berkeley as an art student. But the tennis world cared little for her educational plans, watching eagerly as Helen traveled East once more in the spring and played to victory in several small matches to accustom herself to playing on grass. When her association with Hazel Wightman led to a place on the American team of the U.S.-British competition named after Wightman, Wills and her American teammates swept the British team 7–0. Then, Helen advanced to the climax of her Eastern tour, the National Women's Singles championship. The title was still held by her old opponent, Molla Mallory, but a crowd of 5,000 at Forest Hills watched Wills polish Mallory off 6–1, 6–2 in little more than a half-hour to become the first American-born singles champion since 1919. Wills was, in the words of one of the journalists who crowded around her after the match, "a miracle in motion." She politely scoffed at the raised eyebrows over her aggressive playing style. "It's really much more fun to run to the net and try some smashing volleying shots," Wills told them. "They seem to call that a man's game. But I don't. I just call it fun."

As Wills returned to Berkeley to begin her college studies, tennis fans looked forward to the 1924 season and Helen's chance of capturing her first international title. Practicing every day after classes against some of California's best male players, Wills was in top form by the time she left for England in the late spring of 1924 for her first appearance at Wimbledon and at Olympic competition in Paris. The British press was just as helpless as their peers in America when faced with Wills' cool beauty and composure. "No lovelier or more striking girl has ever been seen on the historic courts here," the Evening Standard reported, even though Helen quickly lost in early rounds of the Wightman Cup competition, played that year near London. She made no excuses for her loss, although years later she admitted that she had played too hard in practice rounds and felt ill by the time the Wightman matches began. Hopes rose when Wills played triumphantly through her early matches for the Wimbledon singles title, but were dashed when she lost in finals play to Britain's Kitty McKane . It was the first and last time Helen was seen to burst into tears in public.

Helen Newington Wills">

Just play the game. The thing is to have a good time.

—Helen Newington Wills

She had recovered her composure by the time she arrived in Paris as a member of the American tennis team in that year's Olympics, held in a hastily constructed site in the industrial suburbs of the city. Wills handily arrived at finals play for the singles title to face France's top-ranked female player, Didi Vlasto , much remarked upon as one of the last women tennis players to use a genteel underhand serve that was no match for Wills' power drives. The competition was so unbalanced, in fact, that the gallery's French contingent loudly booed and hissed at what was seen as unfair tactics from the American, but Helen paid them no mind and defeated Vlasto 6–2, 6–2 in short order to win the gold medal for singles play, becoming the first American woman to win a major international singles title in 17 years. She won a second gold for doubles two days later. As Wills returned in triumph to New York and the long cross-country train journey home to California, she found that even people who knew nothing about tennis considered her a star. Crowds waited for her at every stop the train made, reporters swarmed toward her private car, all trying to get a glimpse of "the American girl."

America was, in fact, in love with her classic beauty at a time when flappers, bathtub gin and the excesses of the "Roaring Twenties" had been coarsening the national consciousness. Asked what he considered the most beautiful sight he had ever seen, Charlie Chaplin immediately replied, "The movement of Helen Wills playing tennis: it had grace and economy of action, as well as a healthy appeal to sex." Even Paul Gallico, so patronizing toward women in sports, waxed poetic when he recalled in later years "the gleam in the eyes of Helen Wills looking up at a tennis ball in the air during her service, and her lovely neck line." The fact that Wills neither drank alcohol, smoked, nor wore makeup was widely admired, as was the nearly constant presence of her mother Catherine Wills , and Helen's devotion to her art studies at Berkeley. It might all seem quaint today, but Helen came to personify these traditional values at a time when America was still reeling from the disillusionment of World War I and was being transformed from a mostly rural nation of farms and small businesses to a mechanized, urban-based economic giant. "She was," The New Yorker said simply, "what America needed."

For the next 14 years, Wills would not let America down. Between 1925 and 1931, she won the National Singles title at Forest Hills five more times. In 1927, she took home the first of eight Wimbledon Singles championships, defeating Spain's Lili de Alvarez 6–2, 6–4 in a furious, hard-hitting match that at one point left both players leaning on their rackets and gasping for breath. The following year, Wills won the first of her four French singles titles, the first American woman to do so, not to mention three doubles titles each at Forest Hills and at Wimbledon and two at the French nationals. By 1930, upwards of 20,000 fans were turning out to watch her play at Wimbledon for what one observer called the "ruthless execution" of her opponents. At one point, playing against her old nemesis Molla Mallory, Wills allowed only five points in a set that lasted all of five minutes; and in 1929, she nearly broke the world record for number of points scored in the shortest time by winning two sets at Forest Hills in 18 minutes. She lost only 8 games out of 80 played during the course of the tournament. Through all the pressure, "Miss Poker-Face" never lost her composure, never showed any sign of emotion on the court outside of a beatific smile at the end of a match, never objected to an umpire's call, never so much as stamped her foot. "I believe in taking things seriously, if one is trying hard for something," she told a friend in 1930. Even when she lost the doubles final at Forest Hills in 1933 because her exhausted partner, the newcomer Alice Marble , had been playing for three consecutive days in other matches, Wills merely strode quietly off the court and declined to speak with reporters.

By the mid-1930s, in fact, the public and the press began to see Helen's impenetrable façade as cold and calculating, rather than as disciplined and focused, and her refusal to display normal emotions on the court as the behavior of a patronizing aristocrat. Top-seeded Bill Tilden, whom Wills had often beaten in mixed doubles, dared to say in print that he regarded her as "the coldest, most self-centered, most ruthless champion ever known to tennis. Her complete disregard for all other players and her fixed determination to play tennis only when she herself wished to and felt it was to her advantage, let her make little or no contribution to the advancement of the game." Alice Marble remembered when she was first introduced to Wills by Pop Fuller. "Wouldn't you like to help out a new player?" Fuller genially asked, to which Helen responded by saying "No, I wouldn't," before walking away. Even reporters who had been stunned by her earlier successes were now frankly bored, making bets on how long it would take Wills to finish off her opponents and commenting that she had become more of a businesswoman than a tennis player.

There was a brief buzz over Wills' 1929 marriage to Frederick Moody, a wealthy American stockbroker she had met while playing off-season matches on the Riviera, and reports about the new young couple made much of the fact that Helen was now wearing a hint of lipstick and might be loosening up a bit. But friends reported to one another by the mid-1930s that the marriage was in trouble, and at least some of them blamed the matrimonial strain for a series of humiliating losses to the new rising tennis star of the day, Helen Hull Jacobs . Wills obtained her divorce in 1937 by temporarily moving to Nevada, where divorces were easily obtained if residency of even a few months could be proved, and cited mental cruelty as the reason for the end of her marriage. Fred Moody, on the other hand, blamed tennis and Wills' constant rounds of the tournament circuit. "I don't think we really got to know each other," Moody later said. Helen may have privately admitted the same thing, for she told reporters as she headed home from Nevada that she planned to "virtually desert the tennis court" and pursue other activities. But Wills had one more tennis drama to play out, at Wimbledon in 1938, in what became known as "the battle of the two Helens."

By June of that year, Wills was seeded first for Wimbledon singles play, Marble was seeded second, while Jacobs was unseeded as the early matches for the singles championship began. In a stunning performance that captured world attention, Helen Jacobs defeated all her opponents to arrive at finals play against Helen Wills. Even though the press referred to Wills as "Big Helen" and Jacobs as "Little Helen," it seemed for a time as if Jacobs would snatch the title from her illustrious opponent, until she incurred an ankle injury as she went for one of the famous Wills power lobs in the tenth set. Jacobs fought on painfully for the rest of the match as Wills mercilessly drove her deep to the baseline or made her scramble for the net. "In the way Helen Wills hit the ball with nearly mechanical perfection," said one reporter afterward, "there was a brutal thoroughness, almost sadistic in quality." It was widely noted that Wills never spoke to Jacobs, never looked at her as they passed each other changing courts, and only offered a perfunctory "Too bad, Helen" when it was all over. At the traditional courtside press conference, Wills made a few brief comments while Jacobs, with her throbbing ankle, sat on her racket behind her and had no chance to say anything. Then Helen Wills, without a handshake or a look at her opponent, walked off the court and disappeared. "The silence," said one onlooker, "was stifling."

On her return to the United States, Wills sent more ripples through the tennis world by announcing in a letter to the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association that she had decided to withdraw from national singles competition, citing a severe attack of "neuralgia." Even more of a shock, Helen publicized the letter in which she returned some $1,300 the USLTA had given her, ostensibly for Wimbledon expenses but actually, it was rumored, as an inducement for a reluctant Wills to appear at Forest Hills. It was the first time an amateur tennis player in the United States publicly acknowledged being paid. Then, in the spring of 1939, when she normally would have been heading East once again for national and European play, Wills announced from California that she was retiring from tournament competition. "I knew when it was over," she later wrote. "I was done. My time had passed. It was a beautiful spring. So I stayed at home." In the fall of that year, Helen married Aiden Roark, who listed his occupation as "film writer" but who was a well-known polo player. The couple settled near Los Angeles.

Wills never played serious tennis again and, true to her word after divorcing Fred Moody two years earlier, she turned to other pursuits. She published the first in a series of mystery novels late in 1939, inevitably revolving around the murders of several tennis players, and was undaunted by The New York Times review that opined: "In Mrs. Moody's hand, the racket is mightier than the pen." She began to paint, too, and exhibit her work in local art shows. She played tennis with friends and, just after World War II, with recovering soldiers at a military hospital near her home. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1959, for which occasion she made a rare public appearance, but she gave few subsequent interviews. In 1975, shortly after her divorce from Roark, she told a magazine reporter that she had turned most of her trophies into lamps. She was no more revealing in her last interview in 1984, when she was asked why she had retired so early in her career. "I really don't know why," Wills said. "I just wanted to, I guess. It sure wasn't for the money. I played all those years, and you know why? Because I loved the game, I really did. I did all of that just because I loved the game." Helen Newington Wills died quietly at home in California on New Year's Day, 1998.


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

Wills, Helen. Fifteen-Thirty: The Story of a Tennis Player. NY: Scribner, 1937.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York

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