Class of 1959
World No. 1 (1927)
Grand Slam Results
31-time major champion, 8-time finalist
Gold Medal in Women’s Singles at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games
Gold Medal in Women’s Doubles at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games (w/Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman)
Member of the U.S. Wightman Cup Team 1923-1925, 1927-1932, 1938
Memeber of the winning Wightman Cup Team 1923, 1927, 1929, 1931, 1932, 1938
Overall Record: 20-9
Thanks to media saturation, Cal Ripken’s pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s consecutive baseball games played streak became as much a national pastime as the game itself, and when he broke the record he was immortalized.
Rewind history 70 years when Helen Wills was in the throes of winning 180 straight matches – without losing a set – from 1927-33. During that inconceivable stretch, she won 14 of her 19 major Women’s Singles Championships – a record that was untouchable for a third of a century until Margaret Court passed her in 1970.
The media immortalized Ripken. Helen Wills Moody would have been afforded similar treatment and that canonization rightfully came, but much later in life. The winner of 31 major titles (19 in singles, nine in doubles and three in mixed doubles), Wills wasn’t a media darling. She was nicknamed “Little Miss Poker Face” for her stoic disposition, dispassionate on-court demeanor and unwavering concentration. She wasn’t warm and engaging as Helen Hull Jacobs or as prone to emotional outbursts as Suzanne Lenglen. She was poised and confident and all business on the court. She followed the credo, “I’ll let my racquet do the talking.” Her racquet did more than talk – it boomed, loudly and forcefully. Wills appeared in a staggering 22 major finals in a row, a feat that must have left competitors counting the days until her retirement. Truth be told, Wills had few opponents that could beat her, but she did have memorable matches with Jacobs and Lenglen. The only time she lost to Jacobs in 11 highly-anticipated meetings came at the 1933 U.S. National Championships, when a back injury that would cause her to stop playing for two years led Wills to retire trailing 3-0 in the third set. She avenged that defeat in the Wimbledon Ladies Singles final in 1935, her relentless game forcing Jacobs to squander a 5-2 lead and match point in the third set.
Wills and Lenglen were the game’s dominant players, yet only faced each other once at a small tournament in the south of France in 1926. Billed as “The Match of the Century,” Lenglen was the best female player in the world and Wills was a 20-year-old who had already won three U.S. titles. It was a fascinating contrast in styles – Lenglen was six years older, glamorous, graceful, and flamboyant. Wills was the opposite in every way. At Cannes, 3,000 spectators and a worldwide media following at the Carlton Club witnessed Lenglen win, 6-3, 8-6. A rivalry never unfolded: Wills had an emergency appendectomy during the 1926 French National Championship, which caused her to default her second round match and also withdraw from Wimbledon. Lenglen became a professional in 1926 and they never got another chance to play each other. Accounts of that memorable match in France are chronicled in Larry Engelmann's novel, The Goddess and the American Girl.
In the Roaring Twenties, Wills was a riveting figure on the court. She was a slight 5-foot power hitter – developed by practicing against men on the West Coast. She had a signature look on court: White visor and knee-length outfit, adorned by white stockings, shoes and eyeliner. Wills hit the ball deep and hard. Her backhand and forehand were indistinguishable and there were no weaknesses to exploit. She had a relentless, tactical game, employing a wicked slice serve to draw her opponents out wide and would follow with a finishing volley or an un-returnable overhead smash. She had great court coverage and instincts, combining athletic ability with match toughness to demoralize her opponents.
"She hit the ball harder than most, except maybe Steffi Graf,” said Don Budge. “Her footwork didn't have to be great. She would control the play because she hit the ball so hard."
The daughter of a surgeon with privilege and wealth, Wills was introduced to tennis in Berkeley, California. She received her first tennis racquet at age 14, which was accompanied by a membership to the Berkeley Tennis Club. She never took a lesson, however, and learned the game by watching others. She was a junior national champion, a precursor of greatness to come. Wills burst onto the national scene as a precocious 17-year old pigtailed dynamo in 1923, winning the first of seven U.S. National Women’s Singles Championships, defeating Molla Bjurstedt Mallory, 6-2, 6-1, the U.S. record holder with eight titles over eight different opponents. Winning the championship at 17 years, 10 months, 12 days made Wills the youngest champion in history until Maureen Connolly. Her seven singles titles at Forest Hills ranks second best all-time, and her 13 total is tied for seventh best. Wills tacked on six doubles championships at Forest Hills, but it could be argued she played her finest tennis at The All England Club. In nine appearances in the Wimbledon Ladies Final, Wills won a staggering eight times – her last as a 32-year-old in 1938 – a record that remained unscathed until Martina Navratilova captured her ninth Wimbledon singles championship in 1990.
Her statistical resume features staggering data: She won seven U.S., five Wimbledon and four French championships without losing a set. She became the first American female to win at Wimbledon (1928) since May Sutton was crowned in 1907, and was the first American female to win the French. In 1928, Wills became the first female to win three majors (French, Wimbledon, U.S.) in the same year. She was among the most dominant players in any sport, compiling a 19-3 record at major singles finals (4-0 French, 8-1 Wimbledon, 7-2 U.S.), and won 126 of 129 matches. Wills also won 12 U.S., French, and Wimbledon Doubles and Mixed Doubles titles with eight different partners. Wills was a 15-year veteran of Wightman Cup competition (1923-25, 1927-32,1938). She was an Olympic singles and doubles champion at the 1924 Paris, France Games.
Time Magazine featured Wills Moody on its cover twice – July 26, 1926 and July 1, 1929. Wills retired to a reclusive, artistic life of painting in her home studio and writing – she authored Tennis (1928), an introduction to the sport, and Fifteen-Thirty: The Story of a Tennis Player (1937), a memoir published a year before her retirement. She lived in both the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California and continued playing tennis until she was 82-years-old. When she died at 92, Wills bestowed her $10 million fortune to her alma mater, the University of California- Berkeley, where she is now remembered by the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute.
French Championships: W (1928), W (1929), W (1930), W (1932)
Wimbledon: W (1927), W (1928), W (1929), W (1930), W (1932), W (1933), W (1935), W (1938)
U.S. Nationals: W (1923), W (1924), W (1925), W (1927), W (1928), W (1929), W (1931)
French Championships: W (1930), W (1932)
Wimbledon: W (1924), W (1927), W (1930)
U.S. Nationals: W (1922), W (1924), W (1925), W (1928)
French Championships: F (1928), F (1929), F (1932)
Wimbledon: W (1929)
U.S. Nationals: W (1924), W (1928)