Born: August 6, 1908
in Globe, Arizona
Died: June 2, 1997
Tennis loves to debate its rivalries and analyze head-to-head comparisons; they are fabric of the sport. Much has been written about the “Battle of the Helens,” the long-standing battles between Helen Wills Moody and Helen Hull Jacobs. Their competitive exchanges, which lasted throughout the 1930s – chronicled by Jacobs losing to Wills in six major singles finals (four Wimbledon, one U.S. National, and one French International)– was the precursor to future modern women’s rivalries between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, and Venus and Serena Williams. That group can thank the two Helens for bringing women’s competitive tennis to the forefront. While Jacobs was on the losing side of those major finals, she earned her legendary status as a dominating force who won nine major titles (five singles, three doubles, one mixed doubles) and reaching the finals an astonishing 18 other times. Jacobs was viewed as Moody’s sturdy foil, winning only one of eleven matches against her adversary, a controversial 1933 U.S. National Women’s Singles Championship victory. The win was perhaps tainted when Wills, then trailing 8-6, 3-6, 3-0, retired citing a back injury. Their careers were indelibly linked: Both Helens attended the University of California at Berkeley and were mentored by coaches William “Pop” Fuller and Hazel Wightman. But personality-wise, they were as disparate as the win-loss record. On court Wills was stoic; Jacobs was gregarious.
Jacobs was the first female tennis player named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1933. She donned the September 14, 1936 cover of Time Magazine, a full color photo of Jacobs posed at the net wearing a black shirt with white trim around the collar and man-tailored shorts, new attire for women that she popularized. Jacobs held a wooden racquet across her chest and sported a Wills-like un-emotional and detached look, perhaps the concentrated perch of a player looking to capture her fifth straight U.S. National Women’s Singles title. Jacobs won the crown from 1932 to 1935, but perhaps the Time cover jinxed her bid for number five, as Alice Marble defeated her in 1936. Her five straight singles appearances in America’s grandiose tennis event are tied for third best in tennis history. In her four victories, Jacobs dropped only one set – to Wills – and beat doubles partner Sarah Palfrey in 1934 and 1935 with decisive 6-1, 6-4 and 6-2, 6-1 scores. Her other U.S. triumph was at the expense of Carlin A. Babcock of the United States, 6-2, 6-2. Jacobs was a U.S. National Women’s Doubles Champion in 1932, 1934, and 1935, all with Palfrey, and won the Mixed Doubles title in 1934 with George Lott.
Although Jacobs only captured one Wimbledon Ladies Singles title, a 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 victory over Hilde Krahwinkel in 1936, she played some of her finest tennis at the All England Club, appearing in six singles (1929, 1932, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1938) and three doubles (1932, 1936, 1939) finals. She nearly earned her first Wimbledon title in 1935. Jacobs held a match point at 5-4 before 19,000 riveted fans at Centre Court. Unfortunately, she hit a short Wills lob into the net when a gust of wind misdirected the ball. Wills won the next three games and the match, 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, for her seventh Wimbledon title.
Jacobs’s game was predicated on her fight and resolve. She possessed a powerful serve and a strong, reliable backhand. Those skills, combined with her amazing run of dominance on the tour, helped her hold the world number one ranking in 1936. She was a Top 10 ranked player from 1928-1939. Jacobs was a mainstay on the Wightman Cup team (1927-1937, 1939), helping the U.S. win 10 of 12 matches, including seven in a row.
“She was a master competitor and psychologist,” said Marble, who won 18 major championships. “In the 1939 U.S. finals, I won the first set at love. She chased me from corner to corner, winning the second 10-8, leading 3-1 in the final because of my youth. A salute to Helen, the best sport and my toughest opponent.”
Jacobs was a commander in United States Navy intelligence in World War II, one of five women in the Navy to achieve that rank. She retired from tennis in 1947 and enjoyed a career as a farmer, a writer of 19 books, and a designer of sportswear.