August 24, 1929: The day Helen Wills claimed the US Nationals for the sixth time

Each day, Tennis Majors takes you back in time to relive a tennis event which happened on this specific day. On August 24, 1929, American legend Helen Wills swept through the field at Forest Hills to win her eighth consecutive Grand Slam title

Helen Wills - 1933 Helen Wills – 1933

What happened exactly on that day?

On this day, August 24, 1929, the American legend Helen Wills’ domination of women’s tennis peaked when she claimed the US Nationals for the sixth time, defeating Phoebe Watson in the final (6-4, 6-2). In the entire tournament, Wills lost only eight games, showing no mercy to her opponents en route to her 11th Grand Slam title. She had remained undefeated in major tournaments since Wimbledon 1926, a winning streak that would only end at the 1933 US Nationals, after 14 consecutive titles. 

The player: Helen Wills

  • Helen Wills: From “Little Miss Poker Face” to “Queen Helen”

Helen Wills, also known in history books as Helen Wills-Moody, was born in 1905 and was the first American-born woman to achieve celebrity status as an athlete. Wills started playing tennis at the age of eight, and she obtained her first breakthrough result in 1921, winning the California State Championships. From 1923 to 1925, she claimed three consecutive titles at the US Nationals (which would later become the US Open), while attending the University of Berkeley on an academic scholarship. Wills graduated in 1925, and the following year, she started competing internationally. In February, she met French legend Suzanne Lenglen for the first and only time in her career in Cannes on the French Riviera. Wills, aged only 20, lost against the six-time Wimbledon champion, 6-3, 8-6, and their paths never crossed again.

Willis’ domination of the game started in 1927, when she triumphed at Wimbledon for the first time, defeating Spain’s Lili Alvarez 6-2, 6-4 in the final. In 1928, she became the first player to win three majors in the same year – French Open, Wimbledon and US Open, without losing a single set – and the first American to rule at Roland-Garros. In 1929, she defended both her crowns in Paris and London, and at the start of the US Nationals, she hadn’t dropped a set since the 1927 Wimbledon semi-final.

Wills’ groundstrokes were extremely powerful on both sides. The depth of her shots prevented her opponents from dictating the game or coming to the net, and if this was not enough to discourage her rivals, she could finish them by blasting winners from the baseline.

Because of her unchanging stoic expression, young Wills was nicknamed “Little Miss Poker Face”. As her success increased, she was later known as “Queen Helen” and “The Imperial Helen”. 

The place: Forest Hills

The US Nationals were first held in August 1881 on grass courts at the Newport Casino on Rhode Island but the first women’s event was only played in 1887. In 1915, it was decided to move the tournament to New York, and since then, it was held at the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills, except between 1921 and 1923, when the event was moved to Philadelphia. In 1924, the US Nationals were held at Forest Hills again after a new Center Court, with 14,000 seats, was built. The tournament was considered the most prestigious tennis event in North America.

The facts: Helen Wills wins her eighth consecutive Grand Slam title

At the start of the 1929 US Nationals, Helen Wills was the outright favourite. She was thoroughly dominating the game, outpowering her opponents who were left clueless. Not only was she undefeated in a Grand Slam tournament since 1926, having claimed seven consecutive titles, but she had not even lost a single set since the 1927 Wimbledon semi-final, a stretch of more than two years. Observers did not wonder if she was going to win the tournament: they were wondering how easily she was going to. 

As it turned out, Wills eclipsed the competition. From sets, sportswriters now moved to counting the number of games she was losing. This time, on her way to the final, Wills dropped a total of TWO games. In the first round, it took her only 18 minutes to sweep Katharine Lamarch off the court 6-0, 6-0, losing a total of 15 points in the entire match. In the semi-final, fourth seed Molla Mallory, was punished the same way, unable to win a single game in a 21-minute stampede. 

In the final, on August 24, the six games won by Phoebe Watson almost looked like an amazing feat that the British player achieved. Although Wills faced more challenge than in the earlier rounds, her skills and power set the standards too high for her opponent. In front of 9,000 spectators, the American legend sealed her eighth consecutive major title, and her sixth triumph at the US Nationals, 6-4, 6-2.

What next? Helen Wills ends career with 19 Grand Slam titles

Wills would continue her winning streak, claiming six more Grand Slam titles without losing a set, and setting an incredible record of 14 consecutive Majors, all this while never entering the Australian Championships. Her next loss would only come in the final of the 1933 US Championships, where, hampered by a back injury, she retired against Helen Jacobs while trailing 3-0 in the decider (8-6, 3-6, 3-0). In her entire career, until 1938, Wills would win 19 of the 24 Grand Slam tournaments she entered. In 1933, she participated in an early version of the Battle of Sexes, defeating Phil Neer, the eighth-ranked American male player, 6-3, 6-4.

In 1938, shortly after her last title at Wimbledon, she would retire from the game after her right hand was bitten by a dog.

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