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.
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 on Helen Wills
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.