Helen Newington Wills Roark (October 6, 1905 – January 1, 1998), also known as Helen Wills Moody, was an American tennis player and widely considered one of the greatest female tennis players of all time. She has been described as "the first American born woman to achieve international celebrity as an athlete.
Wills was born Helen Newington Wills in Centerville, California, now part of Fremont, California, and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. 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 also won two Olympic gold medals in Paris in 1924 (singles and doubles), the last year that tennis was an Olympic sport until 1988. 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, including a 158-match winning streak (1927-1932), during which she did not lose a set. She was a member of the U.S. Wightman Cup team in 1923, 1924, 1925, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1932, and 1938.
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 unconfident 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.
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. It was the first and only time they played each other. 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. Both players were nervous, with Lenglen drinking brandy and water at one point to calm her nerves. 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 that would have won her the set, but a linesman disagreed. In one of the few times she showed emotion on court, she spoke angrily to the linesman over the call. 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 overall records against the latter two. In 1927, a revived Wills began her streak of not losing a set until the 1933 Wimbledon Championships.
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 because of a back injury. At the time, Jacobs was leading in the third set. Because she felt the press and fans treated her harshly at the U.S. Championship, Wills 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. Godfree, who played both Wills and Lenglen several times and was a two time Wimbledon champion during Lenglen's absence, also stated that Lenglen was "by far" the better player.
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?
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.
Wills was named Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1935 and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1959. In 1981, Wills was inducted into the (San Francisco) Bay Area Athletic Hall of Fame. In 1926 and 1929, Wills appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
|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.
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.
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 galleries. She personally drew all of the illustrations in her book Tennis. Wills remained an avid tennis player into her 80s.
She died in Carmel, California of natural causes, aged 92. She had no children.
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.