|Olympic medal record|
Helen Newington Wills Roark (October 6, 1905 – January 1, 1998), also known as Helen Wills Moody, was an American tennis player who is generally considered to have been one of the greatest female tennis players of all time.
Known for her steely demeanor and reserved personality on the court and with the press, Wills earned the nickname “Miss Poker Face” from the media. Despite her reticence, she became the first American female athlete to enjoy international stardom. She was the most dominant player of her era, winning more than 90 percent of her matches in singles play.
Wills was born in Centreville, California, which is now part of Fremont. As a young child growing up in Berkeley, Wills learned the game of tennis from her father, Dr. Clarence Wills. When she turned 14, her parents bought her a membership in the Berkeley Tennis Club. It was there that she became associated with William Fuller, a volunteer coach, who scheduled matches for her. Wills grew to love the sport, and became dedicated to playing and winning every day. Her dedication spurred her on to eventually claim the national junior championship in 1921.
Wills attended Head-Royce School for her high school education and later attended the University of California, Berkeley on an academic scholarship, but did not graduate.At Berkeley she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa honor society.
She was already quite famous when she married Frederick Moody in December 1929. She won approximately one-half of her major championships as "Helen Wills" and one-half as "Helen Wills Moody." Wills divorced Moody in 1937 and married Aidan Roark in October 1939.
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). She also wrote articles for the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines.
She painted all her life, giving exhibitions of her paintings and etchings in New York City galleries. She drew all of her own illustrations in her book Tennis. She also modeled for painter Diego Rivera's two-story mural The Riches of California. which was commissioned for $2,500 in 1930.
In 1994, in an interview with William Simon, Inside Tennis reporter, in Carmel California, she gave this rendition of what ended her career:
HWMR: 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 … WS: 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.
Wills remained an avid tennis player into her 80s. She died of natural causes on New Year’s Day in Carmel, California, aged 92. She had no children.
At the time of her death in 1998, Wills bequeathed $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.
Already a junior champion, she scored her first major championship victory at age 17, beating defending champion Molla Mallory at the U.S. National Championships. She was the second-youngest winner. Soon after she rose to the top of the United States rankings. Wills debuted in Europe in 1924, losing to Britain's #1 Kitty McKane in the Wimbledon finals. This would be her first and only loss at Wimbledon.
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. Lenglen was just shy of 27 and at her peak, while Wills was a highly-touted up-and-comer. It was the first and only time they played each other, and it was perhaps the most famous match either woman took part in. Public anticipation of their match was immense, resulting in high scalper ticket prices. Roofs and windows of nearby buildings were crowded with spectators, including the King of Sweden. Lenglen won the match 6-3, 8-6 after being down 2-1 in the first set and 5-4 in the second set. 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. Wills did not get a second chance to meet Lenglen. Wills had an emergency appendectomy during the 1926 French Championship, which caused her to default her third 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 records overall against the latter two. In 1927, a revived Wills began her streak of not losing a set until the 1933 Wimbledon Championships. Her first victory at Wimbledon, in 1927, made her the first American female victor there since May Sutton in 1905. Wills went on to win a record eight championships there. (Her record was broken in 1990 by Martina Navratilova.) She was unbeaten in 158 matches during her most dominant period, not even conceding one set in singles matches played from 1927 to 1932. During this stretch she captured all seven of her U.S. titles, five Wimbledon titles, and four French championships, losing her first set to Dorothy Round in the 1933 Wimbledon final, a match Wills won 6-4, 6-8, 6-3. By the end of her career she had amassed a 398-35 (0.919) match record.
She was also successful when representing her country. From 1923 to 1938, she won 18 of 20 singles matches in the Wightman Cup. Wills won two Olympic gold medals in Paris in 1924 (singles and doubles), the last year that tennis was an Olympic sport until 1988.
In an exhibition match in San Francisco on January 28, 1933, Wills defeated Phil Neer, the eighth ranked American male player, 6-3, 6-4.
Wills was reported to be an introverted and detached woman. On court, she rarely showed emotion, ignored her opponents, and took no notice of the crowd. Kitty McKane Godfree, who 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. Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman said, Helen was really an un-confident and 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. Because of her unchanging expression, Grantland Rice, the American [sportswriter]], bestowed on Wills the nickname "Little Miss Poker Face." As her success and, ironically, unpopularity with the public increased, she was called "Queen Helen" and "the Imperial Helen." In her own defense, 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.
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. In all, Wills won 31 Grand Slam titles (singles, women's doubles, and mixed doubles) during her career, 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 each Grand Slam singles event she played during her career. Her streak of winning the U.S. Championships seven times in seven attempts ended when she defaulted to Helen Hull Jacobs during the 1933 final because of a back injury. At the time, Jacobs was leading in the third set. Because Wills felt the press and fans treated her harshly at the U.S. Championship, she decided never to play there again. After taking a year off to recuperate, Wills came back to win the 1935 and 1938 Wimbledon titles before retiring permanently, beating Jacobs both times.
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."
Comparing Wills' 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?
Lacking the ethereal grace of Lenglen, her equally popular contemporary, Wills relied on consistent power to topple her opponents. And unlike Lenglen, Wills could not count on superior quickness, and instead capitalized on her great anticipation and weight of shot. Though their styles and personalities differed, Wills shared similarities with Lenglen as well, as both practiced with men instead of women. Both players also became noted for their fashion choices. Wills could always be seen on the court sporting a sailor suit with a pleated knee-length skirt, white shoes, and a white visor.
Like Lenglen, Wills had achieved an international celebrity with her success, and despite her introverted personality, won over several famous fans, including King Gustaf V of Sweden and Charlie Chaplin. In 1930 Chaplin remarked that the most beautiful sight he had ever seen "was the movement of Helen Wills playing tennis."
The success of her tennis career led to several awards off the court. In 1926 and 1929, Wills appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine. She was named Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1935 and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1959. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1969. In 1981, Wills was inducted into the (San Francisco) Bay Area Athletic Hall of Fame.
|Year||Championship||Opponent in Final||Score in Final|
|1923||U.S. Championships||Molla Bjurstedt Mallory||6-2, 6-1|
|1924||U.S. Championships (2)||Molla Bjurstedt Mallory||6-1, 6-3|
|1925||U.S. Championships (3)||Kathleen McKane Godfree||3-6, 6-0, 6-2|
|1927||Wimbledon||Lili de Alvarez||6-2, 6-4|
|1927||U.S. Championships (4)||Betty Nuthall Shoemaker||6-1, 6-4|
|1928||French Championships||Eileen Bennett Whittingstall||6-1, 6-2|
|1928||Wimbledon (2)||Lili de Alvarez||6-2, 6-3|
|1928||U.S. Championships (5)||Helen Hull Jacobs||6-2, 6-1|
|1929||French Championships (2)||Simone Mathieu||6-3, 6-4|
|1929||Wimbledon (3)||Helen Hull Jacobs||6-1, 6-2|
|1929||U.S. Championships (6)||Phoebe Holcroft Watson||6-4, 6-2|
|1930||French Championships (3)||Helen Hull Jacobs||6-2, 6-1|
|1930||Wimbledon (4)||Elizabeth Ryan||6-2, 6-2|
|1931||U.S. Championships (7)||Eileen Bennett Whittingstall||6-4, 6-1|
|1932||French Championships (4)||Simone Mathieu||7-5, 6-1|
|1932||Wimbledon (5)||Helen Hull Jacobs||6-3, 6-1|
|1933||Wimbledon (6)||Dorothy Round Little||6-4, 6-8, 6-3|
|1935||Wimbledon (7)||Helen Hull Jacobs||6-3, 3-6, 7-5|
|1938||Wimbledon (8)||Helen Hull Jacobs||6-4, 6-0|
|Year||Championship||Opponent in Final||Score in Final|
|1922||U.S. Championships||Molla Bjurstedt Mallory||6-3, 6-1|
|1924||Wimbledon||Kathleen McKane Godfree||4-6, 6-4, 6-4|
|1933||U.S. Championships (2)||Helen Hull Jacobs||8-6, 3-6, 3-0 retired|
|Australian Championships||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||0 / 0|
|French Championships1||A||A||NH||A||2R||A||W||W||W||A||W||A||A||A||A||A||A||4 / 5|
|Wimbledon||A||A||F||A||1R||W||W||W||W||A||W||W||A||W||A||A||W||8 / 10|
|U.S. Championships||F||W||W||W||A||W||W||W||A||W||A||F||A||A||A||A||A||7 / 9|
|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|
NH = tournament not held.
A = did not participate in the tournament.
SR = the ratio of the number of Grand Slam singles tournaments won to the number of those tournaments played.
1Through 1923, the French Championships were open only to French nationals. 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.
All links retrieved December 13, 2017.
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