Sunday, July 2, 2017

WOODIN | July 2, Helen Wills Wins Her Final Wimbledon

Helen Wills
July 2, 2017—This date in 1938, Helen Wills won her final Wimbledon singles championship. The dominant female tennis player of the 1920s and 1930s, she perfected her powerful forehand by playing against men.

Wills was the first American woman athlete to become a global celebrity, although she did not make an effort to be famous. She was on the cover of Time magazine twice, in 1926 and 1929.

She played a strong game with grace, and she helped introduce knee-length skirts for women on the tennis court, thereby adding greatly to the mobility of the players and the visual appeal of women's tennis. Charlie Chaplin said that the most beautiful thing he had ever seen was "Helen Wills, playing tennis."

"Helen Wills, playing tennis."
Wills was helped in her success by the Woodin Gold Cup, an invitational challenge tournament for women that was sponsored by the Maidstone Club in East Hampton, New York, between 1926 and 1949.

Many Woodin Cup winners went on to become Grand Slam champions. In addition to Helen Wills, they included Alice Marble, Helen [Hull] Jacobs and Molla Mallory.  Helen Jacobs and Helen Wills were fierce opponents whose games were called "the battle of the Helens." Sarah Palfrey, Margaret Osborne duPont and Louise Brough were others who participated often in the Woodin Cup.

In 1949 the three Woodin Cups, valued at $30,000 each in 2017 dollars, were all retired. They were challenge cups (as opposed to permanent cups), meaning that if they were won three times by the same player or doubles team, they could be taken home. Brough won the singles championship in 1949, and she won the doubles championship with duPont. Both of Brough's cups were given to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, along with the smaller trophies given to all winners (a silver cup, 5 inches tall, with the Maidstone coat of arms on it). (Source: Phone interview with Nicole Markham, Curator of Special Collections, International Tennis Hall of Fame, July 5, 2017.)

In 1926, the year that the Woodin Gold Cup was created, Wills first traveled across the Atlantic to play tennis. She reached the final of the Wimbledon singles, but lost to England’s Kitty McKane. This was the only Wimbledon that Wills would ever enter and lose. She went on to win eight Wimbledon singles titles.

From 1927 to 1933, Wills (she added Moody to her name while she was married to Frederick Moody in the years 1929-1937) won an impressive 180 consecutive matches. In 1933, a back injury forced her to sit out the tournaments for two years. Returning in 1935, and winning Wimbledon, Wills said she would retire. Coming back in 1938, however, Wills defeated an injured Helen Jacobs to win her eighth Wimbledon singles title. The victory was the final major championship for her.

Born in Centerville, California in 1905, she grew up in the Bay Area. She won the Girl’s National Championship in 1921 and 1922, and then won her first U.S. Open (then called the U.S. National Championships) at 17, in 1923. Her record of eight Wimbledon singles titles was not broken until Martina Navratilova won her ninth Wimbledon title in 1990. Wills died in 1998 at 92.

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