Helen Wills Moody
Oct. 6, 1905-Jan. 1, 1998
Eight Wimbleton Titles
Seven U.S. Open Titles
Four French Open Titles
Today, as we watch the extraordinary talents of Venus and Serena Williams, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Jennifer Capriati, it's easy to forget the incredible talents on these courts in the early part of the twentieth century. One such talent was a lady by the name of Helen Wills Moody, who held the record for Wimbledon championships (8) until Martina Navratilova did it one better in 1990, some 52 years later. Believed by many to have been the most dominant tennis player of the past 100 years, she was also the first to have garnered international attention as a female athlete. The comedian/actor Charlie Chaplin believed the movement of Helen Wills playing tennis, the most beautiful sight I have ever seen.
Born on Otober 6, 1905 in Centerville, California, Helen Newington Wills first stepped on the tennis court at 13, tutored by her father, Dr. Clarence Wills. Given a membership in the Berkeley Tennis Club for her 14th birthday, Wills' determination to win was present from the very beginning. Practice as well as daily matches were routine and at 15, Wills won the National Junior Championship. At 17, Wills captured the number 1 U.S. ranking after defeating Molla Mallory at Forest Hills. It was the first of what would be 19 Grand Slam singles titles. In 1924, Wills played in her first Wimbledon final and lost to Britain's top player, Kitty McKane, but it would be her only loss there, as she won all eight of her future yearly matches on the England court.
Tennis wasn't her only claim to fame.
Wills was also an artist and author. Having received a degree in fine arts from U.C. Berkeley, Wills eventually had studios in San Francisco and Carmel and illustrated her own articles in The Saturday Evening Post. She was also the model for Diego Rivera's two-story mural The Riches of California, and Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo, attended the mural's unveiling at the San Francisco Stock Exchange. As well, Wills wrote two books on tennis and a mystery entitled Death Serves an Ace.
Helen Wills, who married financier Frederick S. Moody in 1929, had two undeniable characteristics; one was her serious and stoic demeanor which earned her the nickname Little Miss Poker Face and the other was a most powerful forehand, rivaling even that of the legendary Steffi Graf. Men's champion Don Budge saw Wills as an idol and remembered, "Her footwork wasn't that great, but she controlled play because she hit the ball so hard." In addition, Wills always wore a white visor while playing and usually quietly recited her mantra, Every shot, every shot, every shot. Indefatigable rather than ruthless, Wills overpowered her opponents, a standard learned by using men as practice partners.
Helen Wills Moody won 31 Grand Slam titles and, while holding the number 1 ranking for eight years, amassed a 180 match winning streak from 1927 to 1932. During that time, she won eight Wimbledon, seven U.S., and four French Open titles. Wills won both silver and Gold medals in the 1924 Olympics in Paris and dilly-dallyed in doubles matches by winning 12 national titles with 8 different partners. In 1937, Wills and Moody divorced and, after retiring from tennis in 1938, she married Adrian Rourke, a polo player.
In later years, her opinions ranged from admiration for Chris Evert and disdain for Jimmy Connors, and recalling Navratilova's record topping ninth Wimbledon win, Wills reckoned,"Well, you know, she pumps iron." It seemed as though Helen Wills Moody Rourke may have done the same, for she continued to play until she was 82. Failing in health afterward, she went to the big court in the sky on January 1, 1998, at the age of 92. Game, Match....Love.
Submitted for the E2 Quest: Athletes and Sports Figures.