Helen Wills

Helen Newington Wills (October 6, 1905 – January 1, 1998), also known as Helen Wills Moody and Helen Wills Roark, was an American tennis player. She became famous around the world for holding the top position in women's tennis for a total of nine years: 1927–33, 1935 and 1938.[1] She won 31 Grand Slam tournament titles (singles, women's doubles, and mixed doubles) during her career, including 19 singles titles.

Helen Wills
Helen Wills Moody 1932.jpg
Helen Wills in 1932
Full nameHelen Newington Wills
Helen Wills Moody
Helen Wills Roark
Country (sports) United States
Born(1905-10-06)October 6, 1905
Centerville, CA, United States
DiedJanuary 1, 1998(1998-01-01) (aged 92)
Carmel, CA, United States
Height5 ft 7 in (1.70 m)
Int. Tennis HoF1959 (member page)
Highest rankingNo. 1 (1927)
Grand Slam Singles results
French OpenW (1928, 1929, 1930, 1932)
WimbledonW (1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1933, 1935, 1938)
US OpenW (1923, 1924, 1925, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1931)
Highest rankingNo. 1 (1924)
Grand Slam Doubles results
French OpenW (1930, 1932)
WimbledonW (1924, 1927, 1930)
US OpenW (1922, 1924, 1925, 1928)
Grand Slam Mixed Doubles results
French OpenF (1928, 1929, 1932)
WimbledonW (1929)
US OpenW (1924, 1928)
Team competitions
Wightman Cup(1923, 1927, 1929, 1931, 1932, 1938)

Wills was the first American woman athlete to become a global celebrity, making friends with royalty and film stars despite her preference for staying out of the limelight. She was admired for her graceful physique and for her fluid motion. She was part of a new tennis fashion, playing in knee-length pleated skirts rather than the longer ones of her predecessors. Unusually, she practiced against men to hone her craft, and she played a relentless game, wearing down her female opponents with power and accuracy. In 1933, she beat the eighth-ranked US male player in an exhibition match.

Her record of eight wins at Wimbledon was not surpassed until 1990 when Martina Navratilova won her ninth. She was said to be "arguably the most dominant tennis player of the 20th century",[2] and has been called by some (including Jack Kramer, Harry Hopman, Mercer Beasley, Don Budge, and AP News) the greatest female player in history.[3][4][5]

Early lifeEdit

"Helen of California", a portrait sculpture by Haig Patigian, on display at the de Young Museum in San Francisco

She was born as Helen Newington Wills on October 6, 1905, in Centerville, Alameda County, California (now Fremont), near San Francisco. She was the only child to Clarence A. Wills, a physician and surgeon at Alameda County Infirmary and Catherine Anderson, who had graduated with a B.S. degree in Social Science at the University of California at Berkeley.[6][7] Her parents had married on July 1, 1904 in Yolo County, California.[6] She lived in the small town of Byron, California, and practiced her tennis game at the Byron Hot Springs resort.[8]

She was tutored by her mother at home until she was eight years old.[7] After her father enlisted in the military in December 1917 and was posted in France with the American Expeditionary Forces her mother enrolled her at Bishop Hopkins Hall in Burlington, Vermont.[9] When World War I ended the family moved back to Northern California, to Berkeley, where they took up residence near Live Oak Park.[10] Wills enrolled as a ninth-grader at the Anna Head School, a private day and boarding school, where she graduated in 1923 at the top of her class.[11][7] Wills then attended the University of California, Berkeley, as both her parents had done, on an academic scholarship, and graduated in 1925 as a member of Phi Beta Kappa honor society.[12]

When she was eight years old, her father bought her a tennis racket and they practiced on the dirt courts next to the Alameda County Hospital as well as at Live Oak Park.[13][14] Wills' interest in tennis was kindled after watching exhibition matches by famous Californian players including May Sutton, Bill Johnston and her particular favorite, Maurice McLoughlin.[15]

In August 1919, she joined the Berkeley Tennis Club as a junior member on the advice of tennis coach Wiliam "Pop" Fuller who was a friend of her father.[13][16][17] In the spring of 1920, she practiced for a few weeks with Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman, four-time winner of the U.S. Championships singles title, on strokes, footwork and tactics.[18]

Tennis careerEdit

In September 1921, Wills won the singles and doubles titles at the California State Championships, defeating Helen Baker in the final in three sets.[19]

Wills also won two Olympic gold medals in Paris in 1924 (singles and doubles), the last year that tennis was an Olympic sport until 1988.[20][21] Wills was the U.S. girls' singles champion in 1921 and 1922. She won her first women's national title at the age of 17 in 1923, making her the youngest champion at that time. From 1919 through 1938, she amassed a 398–35 (0.919) match record,[22] including a winning streak of at least 158 matches, during which she did not lose a set.[23] She was a member of the U.S. Wightman Cup team in 1923, 1924, 1925, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1932, and 1938.[citation needed]

Wills was reported to be introverted and detached. On court, she rarely showed emotion, ignored her opponents, and took no notice of the crowd.[24] Kitty McKane Godfree, who in 1924 inflicted the only defeat Wills suffered at Wimbledon during her career, said, "Helen was a very private person, and she didn't really make friends very much."[24] Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman said, "Helen was really an unconfident and [socially] awkward girl—you have no idea how awkward.... I thought of Helen as an honestly shy person who was bewildered by how difficult it was to please most people."[25][26] Because of her unchanging stoic expression, Grantland Rice, the American sportswriter, bestowed on Wills the nickname "Little Miss Poker Face".[5] As her success and, ironically, unpopularity with the public increased, she was called "Queen Helen" and "the Imperial Helen".[25] Wills said in her autobiography, "I had one thought and that was to put the ball across the net. I was simply myself, too deeply concentrated on the game for any extraneous thought."[24]

She typically wore a white sailor suit having a pleated knee-length skirt, white shoes, and a white visor.

On February 16, 1926, the 20-year-old Wills met Suzanne Lenglen, six-time Wimbledon champion, in the final of a tournament at the Carlton Club in Cannes in the Match of the Century. It was the only time they played each other in singles competition. Public anticipation of their match was immense, resulting in high scalper ticket prices. Roofs and windows of nearby buildings were crowded with spectators, including King Gustaf V of Sweden. Both players were nervous, with Lenglen drinking brandy and water at one point to calm her nerves.[27] Lenglen won the match 6–3, 8–6 after being down 2–1 in the first set and 5–4 in the second set. Wills had a set point in the second set and believed she had won the point, but a linesman disagreed. In one of the few times she showed emotion on court, she spoke angrily to the linesman over the call.[27][28] After the match, Lenglen's father advised her that she would lose her next match to Wills if they met again soon, and Lenglen avoided Wills for the remainder of the spring.[29] Wills did not get a second chance to meet Lenglen. Wills had an emergency appendectomy during the 1926 French Championships,[30] which caused her to default her second-round match and withdraw from Wimbledon, which also was considered a default. Lenglen turned professional after the 1926 season.

After she returned to the United States, Wills attempted a comeback from her appendectomy, lost two matches, and on the advice of her doctor, withdrew from that year's U.S. Championships. Apart from those two losses, beginning with the 1923 U.S. Championships, Wills lost only four matches in three years: once to Lenglen, twice to Kathleen McKane Godfree, and once to Elizabeth Ryan. Wills had winning overall records against the latter two. In 1927, a revived Wills began her streak of not losing a set until the 1933 Wimbledon Championships.[citation needed]

In an exhibition "Battle of the Sexes" match in San Francisco on January 28, 1933, Wills defeated Phil Neer, the eighth-ranked American male player, 6–3, 6–4.[5][31]

Helen Wills Moody in 1929

During the 17-year period from 1922 through 1938, Wills entered 24 Grand Slam singles events, winning 19, finishing second three times, and defaulting twice as a result of her appendectomy. Her streak of winning U.S. Championships seven times in seven attempts ended when she defaulted to Helen Hull Jacobs during the 1933 final due to a back injury, trailing 0–3 in the third set. She was subsequently treated for a dislocated vertebrae.[32] After taking more than a year off to recuperate, Wills returned to tennis in June 1935 and the following month won her seventh Wimbledon title, surviving a match point at 2–5 in the final set against Jacobs.[33][34][35] In 1938 she again defeated her rival to win her eighth and last Wimbledon title before retiring permanently.

In 1994 in an interview with Inside Tennis reporter William Simon, she revealed what ended her career:

Helen Wills Moody-Roark: Well, it was during the war and my husband was at Fort Reilly, Kansas...It was the middle of winter, and I was walking my big police dog, Sultan. A little dog came barking wildly out of a house and grabbed my dog by the throat. Those little fox terriers have no sense. They’re just wild. So my poor dog was being chewed to pieces and wasn’t able to respond. But I wasn’t going to have a dogfight under my feet so I let go of his collar. And then Sultan took this little dog and shook him, which he deserved. But in the fight, my index finger on my right hand was bitten...

William Simon: By the terrier?

HWMR: I don't know. Fury! Wild, stupid animal! But my poor old finger, the finger next to the thumb. The thumb is very important in tennis. So that was the end of my career. I couldn’t manage. I never mentioned this before to anyone.[36]

Wills won 31 Grand Slam tournament titles (singles, women's doubles, and mixed doubles), including seven singles titles at the U.S. Championships, eight singles titles at Wimbledon, and four singles titles at the French Championships. Excluding her defaults at the French Championships and Wimbledon in 1926, she reached the final of every Grand Slam singles event she played. She never played at the Australian Championships.


According to A. Wallis Myers of The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, Wills was ranked in the world top ten from 1922 through 1925, 1927 through 1933, and in 1935 and 1938. She was World No. 1 in those rankings nine times, from 1927 through 1933 and in 1935 and 1938.[1] Wills was included in the year-end top ten rankings issued by the United States Lawn Tennis Association from 1922 through 1925, 1927 through 1929, and in 1931 and 1933. She was the top-ranked U.S. player from 1923 through 1925 and 1927 through 1929.[37] In 1950, sportswriter Grantland Rice ranked Helen Wills as the greatest female tennis player of all-time.[38]

Awards and honorsEdit

In 1935, she was named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press. Wills was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1959.[39] In 1981, Wills was inducted into the (San Francisco) Bay Area Athletic Hall of Fame.[40] In 1996 Wills was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.[41]

In July 1926 and 1929, Wills appeared on the cover of Time magazine.[42][43]

Playing styleEdit

When asked in 1941 about whether Wills or Lenglen was the better player, Elizabeth Ryan, who played against both of them in singles and partnered both in doubles, said, "Suzanne, of course. She owned every kind of shot, plus a genius for knowing how and when to use them."[5] However, Wills and Lenglen are seen as having completely different skills and strategies.[44] Wills served and volleyed with unusually powerful forehand and backhand strokes, and she forced her opponents out of position by placing deep shots left and right. Lenglen was more physically nimble, and she was more imaginative—able to quickly change shots in response to conditions. Lenglen was a master of the drop shot and close net work, which was Wills' soft spot. Aware of her weakness at the net, Wills drove her opponents deep into the backcourt as much as possible. Playing Wills was, according to Helen Jacobs, like playing "a machine... with implacable concentration and undeniable skill" yet with little flexibility.[45]

Analogizing Wills's game to poker, George Lott, a 12-time winner of Grand Slam doubles titles and a contemporary of Wills, once said, "Helen's expression rarely varied and she always tended strictly to business, but her opponents were never in doubt as to what she held: an excellent service, a powerful forehand, a strong backhand, a killer instinct, and no weaknesses. Five of a kind! Who would want to draw against that kind of hand?"[5] Charlie Chaplin was once asked what he considered to be the most beautiful sight that he had ever seen. He responded that it was "the movement of Helen Wills playing tennis".[46][47]

Grand Slam finalsEdit

Singles: 22 (19 titles, 3 runner-ups)Edit

Result Year Championship Surface Opponent Score Ref.
Loss 1922 U.S. Championships Grass   Molla Bjurstedt Mallory 3–6, 1–6 [48]
Win 1923 U.S. Championships Grass   Molla Bjurstedt Mallory 6–2, 6–1 [48]
Loss 1924 Wimbledon Grass   Kitty McKane 6–4, 4–6, 4–6 [49]
Win 1924 U.S. National Championships (2) Grass   Molla Bjurstedt Mallory 6–1, 6–3 [48]
Win 1925 U.S. National Championships (3) Grass   Kitty McKane 3–6, 6–0, 6–2 [48]
Win 1927 Wimbledon Grass   Lilí de Álvarez 6–2, 6–4 [49]
Win 1927 U.S. Championships (4) Grass   Betty Nuthall 6–1, 6–4 [48]
Win 1928 French Championships Clay   Eileen Bennett 6–1, 6–2
Win 1928 Wimbledon (2) Grass   Lilí de Álvarez 6–2, 6–3 [49]
Win 1928 U.S. Championships (5) Grass   Helen Jacobs 6–2, 6–1 [48]
Win 1929 French Championships (2) Clay   Simonne Mathieu 6–3, 6–4
Win 1929 Wimbledon (3) Grass   Helen Jacobs 6–1, 6–2 [49]
Win 1929 U.S. Championships (6) Grass   Phoebe Holcroft Watson 6–4, 6–2 [48]
Win 1930 French Championships (3) Clay   Helen Jacobs 6–2, 6–1
Win 1930 Wimbledon (4) Grass   Elizabeth Ryan 6–2, 6–2 [49]
Win 1931 U.S. Championships (7) Grass   Eileen Bennett Whittingstall 6–4, 6–1 [48]
Win 1932 French Championships (4) Clay   Simonne Mathieu 7–5, 6–1
Win 1932 Wimbledon (5) Grass   Helen Jacobs 6–3, 6–1 [49]
Win 1933 Wimbledon (6) Grass   Dorothy Round 6–4, 6–8, 6–3 [49]
Loss 1933 U.S. Championships Grass   Helen Jacobs 6–8, 6–3, 0–3, ret. [48]
Win 1935 Wimbledon (7) Grass   Helen Jacobs 6–3, 3–6, 7–5 [49]
Win 1938 Wimbledon (8) Grass   Helen Jacobs 6–4, 6–0 [49]

Doubles: 10 (9 titles, 1 runner-up)Edit

Result Year Championship Surface Partner Opponents Score Ref.
Win 1922 U.S. National Championships Grass   Marion Zinderstein Jessup   Molla Bjurstedt Mallory
  Edith Sigourney
6–4, 7–9, 6–3 [50]
Win 1924 Wimbledon Grass   Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman   Phyllis Howkins Covell
  Kitty McKane
6–4, 6–4 [51]
Win 1924 U.S. National Championships (2) Grass   Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman   Eleanor Goss
  Marion Zinderstein Jessup
6–4, 6–3 [50]
Win 1925 U.S. National Championships (3) Grass   Mary Browne   May Sutton Bundy
  Elizabeth Ryan
6–4, 6–3 [50]
Win 1927 Wimbledon (2) Grass   Elizabeth Ryan   Bobbie Heine
  Irene Peacock
6–3, 6–2 [51]
Win 1928 U.S. National Championships (4) Grass   Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman   Edith Cross
  Anna McCune Harper
6–2, 6–2 [50]
Win 1930 French Championships Clay   Elizabeth Ryan   Simone Barbier
  Simonne Mathieu
6–3, 6–1
Win 1930 Wimbledon (3) Grass   Elizabeth Ryan   Edith Cross
  Sarah Palfrey
6–2, 9–7 [51]
Win 1932 French Championships (2) Clay   Elizabeth Ryan   Eileen Bennett Whittingstall
  Betty Nuthall
6–1, 6–3
Loss 1933 U.S. National Championships Grass   Elizabeth Ryan   Freda James
  Betty Nuthall
default [50]

Mixed doubles: 7 (3 titles, 4 runner-ups)Edit

Result Year Championship Surface Partner Opponents Score Ref.
Loss 1922 U.S. National Championships Grass   Howard Kinsey   Mary Browne
  Bill Tilden
4–6, 3–6 [52]
Win 1924 U.S. National Championships Grass   Vincent Richards   Molla Bjurstedt Mallory
  Bill Tilden
6–8, 7–5, 6–0 [52]
Loss 1928 French Championships Clay   Frank Hunter   Eileen Bennett
  Henri Cochet
6–3, 3–6, 3–6
Win 1928 U.S. National Championships (2) Grass   John Hawkes   Edith Cross
  Edgar Moon
6–1, 6–3 [52]
Loss 1929 French Championships Clay   Frank Hunter   Eileen Bennett
  Henri Cochet
3–6, 2–6
Win 1929 Wimbledon Grass   Frank Hunter   Joan Fry
  Ian Collins
6–1, 6–4 [53]
Loss 1932 French Championships Clay   Sidney Wood   Betty Nuthall
  Fred Perry
4–6, 2–6

Olympic GamesEdit

Singles: 1 (1 gold medal)Edit

Outcome Year Championship Surface Opponent Score
Gold 1924 Summer Olympics, Paris Grass   Julie Vlasto 6–2, 6–2

Doubles: 1 (1 gold medal)Edit

Outcome Year Championship Surface Partner Opponents Score
Gold 1924 Summer Olympics, Paris Grass   Hazel Wightman   Phyllis Covell
  Kathleen McKane
7–5, 8–6

Career statisticsEdit

Grand Slam singles performance timelineEdit

(W) Won; (F) finalist; (SF) semifinalist; (QF) quarterfinalist; (#R) rounds 4, 3, 2, 1; (RR) round-robin stage; (Q#) qualification round; (A) absent; (NH) not held. SR=strike rate (events won/competed)
Tournament 1922 1923 1924 1925 1926 1927 1928 1929 1930 1931 1932 1933 1934 1935 1936 1937 1938 Career SR Career
Australian Championships A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A 0 / 0 0–0
French Championships1 A A NH A 2R2 A W W W A W A A A A A A 4 / 5 20–1
Wimbledon A A F A 1R2 W W W W A W W A W A A W 8 / 10 55–1[54]
U.S. Championships F W W W A W W W A W A F A A A A A 7 / 9 50–2
SR 0 / 1 1 / 1 1 / 2 1 / 1 0 / 2 2 / 2 3 / 3 3 / 3 2 / 2 1 / 1 2 / 2 1 / 2 0 / 0 1 / 1 0 / 0 0 / 0 1 / 1 19 / 24 125–4

1Through 1923, the French Championships were open only to French nationals (or members of French tennis clubs). The World Hard Court Championships (WHCC), actually played on clay in Paris or Brussels, began in 1912 and were open to all nationalities. The results from that tournament are shown here for 1922 and 1923. The Olympics replaced the WHCC in 1924, as the Olympics were held in Paris. Beginning in 1925, the French Championships were open to all nationalities, with the results shown here beginning with that year.

2 During the 1926 French Championships Helen Wills had an appendectomy that had not healed by the time Wimbledon started. One week before it started, the tournament was informed that she would not play. She was given a default from her opening round match, which Wimbledon does not consider to be a "loss".[54]

Personal lifeEdit

Wills married Frederick Moody in December 1929. She divorced Moody in 1937 and married Aidan Roark in October 1939. She did not have any children from either marriage and died of natural causes on January 1, 1998, aged 92, in Carmel, California.

Wills wrote a coaching manual, Tennis (1928), her autobiography, Fifteen-Thirty: The Story of a Tennis Player (1937), and a mystery, Death Serves an Ace (1939, with Robert Murphy).[55] She also wrote articles for The Saturday Evening Post and other magazines.

Senator James D. Phelan befriended Wills and invited her as a frequent guest to his estate, Villa Montalvo. Wills wrote poetry as a hobby, and presented two of her works, "The Awakening" and "The Narrow Street", to a literary competition hosted by Phelan in 1926. Wills settled laurel wreaths over the heads of the winners. Phelan himself wrote a poem dedicated to Wills.[56] In 1928, Phelan commissioned Haig Patigian, sculptor and fellow member of the Bohemian Club, to create a likeness of Wills. Patigian completed a marble bust of Wills in October 1928, and Phelan donated it to the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum. At his death in 1930, Phelan left Wills $20,000 ($306,096 today) in his will, "in appreciation of her winning the tennis championship for California".[57]

Wills met painter Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera at the San Francisco studio of her friend sculptor Ralph Stackpole in 1930. Rivera sketched Wills and asked her to model as the main figure of "California" for the 30-foot-high mural Allegory of California he was painting for the City Club of the San Francisco Stock Exchange.[58] The committee of the Stock Exchange found out that Wills was being portrayed and insisted that no living person be represented in the mural. Subsequently, Rivera darkened the hair, broadened the eyes, changed the corners of the mouth and angled the jawline to remove any specific resemblance to Wills. A portrait of Stackpole's son Peter Stackpole holding a model airplane remained unnoticed in the mural.[59]

Wills painted all her life, giving exhibitions of her paintings and etchings in New York galleries. She personally drew all of the illustrations in her book Tennis. Her work was also part of the painting event in the art competition at the 1932 Summer Olympics.[60]

Wills remained an avid tennis player into her 80s.

In 1998, Wills bequeathed US $10 million to the University of California, Berkeley to fund the establishment of a Neuroscience institute. The resulting institute, the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, began in 1999 and is now home to more than 40 faculty researchers and 36 graduate students.

See alsoEdit

  • Performance timelines for all female tennis players who reached at least one Grand Slam final
  • List of people on the cover of Time Magazine: 1920s – 26 July 1926 and 1 July 1929
  • Morris, Bonnie (2016), Women's Sports History: a Heritage of Mixed Messages, National Women's History Museum


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