January 1, 1998: The day tennis legend Helen Wills passed away at the age of 92

Every day Tennis Majors takes you back in time to celebrate a great moment in tennis history. Today, we go back to 1998 to pay a tribute to Helen Wills, a 19-time Grand Slam champion who, along with Suzanne Lenglen, was the first real legend in the history of women’s tennis

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What happened exactly on that day?

On this day, January 1,1998, the first legend in the history of American women’s tennis, Helen Wills, died at the age of 92. Throughout her career, Wills, the first-ever player to win three major titles in one year (1928), amassed 19 Grand Slam titles in singles, including 14 consecutive titles between 1927 and 1933.

The facts: The life and times of Helen Wills

  • The early years of young Helen Willis

Helen Wills, also known 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 8 and obtained her first big 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. In 1924, she won the gold medal at the Paris Olympics in both singles and doubles.

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 would never cross again.

  • The dominating years of Helen Wills

Wills’ domination started in 1927 when she triumphed at Wimbledon for the first time, defeating Spain’s Lili Alvarez in the final (6-2 6-4). In 1928, she became the first player to win three majors in the same year—Roland-Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S Championships, without losing a single set; and the first American to triumph 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 opponents, she could also blast winners from the baseline. According to Bud Collins’ History of Tennis, “anchored to the baseline, she could run any opponent into the ground’, however, “she did not move with the grace and quickness of Lenglen, and opponents fared best against her by using the drop shot”. 

Because of her unchanging stoic expression, young Wills was nicknamed “Little Miss Poker Face”. As her success increased, she was called “Queen Helen” and “Imperial Helen”. Her opponents felt like they were playing against a machine. 

“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 once said, according to Billie Jean King’s Story of women’s tennis (1988).

Between her first-round loss at Wimbledon in 1926 and her loss in the final of the 1933 US Nationals, Helen Wills won 14 Grand Slam tournaments without being defeated. However, she never competed at the Australian Championships and skipped Roland-Garros in 1931 and never played there after her fourth title in 1932. Excluding her defaults at the French Championships and Wimbledon in 1926 (she was suffering from appendicitis), she reached the final of every Grand Slam singles event she competed in in her entire career, piling up an incredible record of 126 wins for just three losses.

Wills triumphed eight times at Wimbledon, the last time in 1938, a record that would only be beaten by Martina Navratilova 52 years later in 1990.  In 1933, 40 years before Margaret Court and Billie Jean King faced Bobby Riggs, she participated in an early version of the Battle of Sexes, defeating Phil Neer, the eighth-ranked American male player, 6–3, 6–4.

  • The legend retires

Shortly after her last title at Wimbledon in 1938, Willis retired from the game in singles but continued to compete in doubles until her right hand was bitten by a dog in 1943 forcing her into retirement. However, she remained an enthusiastic tennis player until she reached her 80s. The 19 Grand Slam titles she accumulated in singles remained a record for more than 30 years, only surpassed in 1970 by Margaret Court.

Outside of the court, Helen Wills was fond of arts, especially poetry, which she enjoyed writing as an amateur, and drawing: she drew the illustrations in her book Tennis (published in 1928) herself.

  • The death of Helen Wills and her estate

Helen Wills died on New Year’s Day 1998 at the age of 92, bequeathing $10 million to the University of California, Berkeley, where she had studied more than 60 years earlier, to fund the establishment of a Neuroscience institute.

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