Helen Wills: The Greatest of All Time?

Helen Wills in action at Wimbledon
Career: 1921-1938
Major Titles: 19
Wimbledon: eight
U.S. Open: seven
French Open: five
Australian Open: did not play
Doubles Major Titles: 12 (9 women’s, 3 mixed)
#1 in the World: 1927-1933, 1935-1938 (9 years)
This is one in a series of looking at the Top 10 Greatest Female Tennis Players of All Time. You can read our profile on Margaret Court and Billie Jean King.

Helen Wills was born to wealthy parents outside of San Francisco in October, 1905. Her father gave her a tennis racket as a teenager and within two years she had won the California State Championships as a 16-year-old. A year later, she won her Major at the US Championships, known today as the US Open. She went onto win six more titles in New York, but it was at Wimbledon that she truly shone, winning eight titles at the All England Club.

Indeed, for nearly two decades, Wills dominated tennis in a way no one had done before and few have matched since. Between the ages of 14 and 33, she went 398-35, giving her an astonishing .919 winning percentage and she won 19 of the 24 Grand Slams she entered. Her exploits were widely covered, but Wills never quite became a media darling due to her shy personality and distant relationship with the press.

But by the time she retired in 1938 after her finger was injured by a dog, she had amassed a collection of records that would stand the test of time, not least having won 158 matches in a row without even dropping a set. Wills lived to be 92, seeing her record at Wimbledon finally beaten by Martina Navratilova in 1990. But although her record at Wimbledon was broken, there can be no doubt that Wills was one of the greatest ever to play the sport.

Rivalries

If there is one thing missing from Wills’ glittering resume, it is a truly great rivalry. There was one natural candidate for Wills to square off against: Suzanne Lenglen of France. She was Wills’ opposite in several ways. Lenglen was from ancient and cultured France, Wills from rural California. Lenglen was widely admired and enjoyed her celebrity, Wills was shy and retiring. And whilst Lenglen relied on touch, Wills was a power-hitter who trained with men.

But here, just as in the men’s game, the divide between the professional and the amateur game prevented what might have developed into one of the sport’s great rivalries. Lenglen was the best female player in the world as Wills took her first steps towards stardom and when they met for the first time in 1926, the contest was billed as the ‘The Match of the Century’. It did not quite live up to those expectations, with Lenglen winning 6-3 8-6.

Nor did it prove to be the start of a battle for supremacy, with the pair never playing another match. Wills had to withdraw from both the French Championships and Wimbledon in 1926 after contracting appendicitis which required immediate surgery. In her absence, Lenglen won in Paris, but was upset in the third round at Wimbledon. Thereafter, Lenglen turned professional and was kicked out of the French Tennis Federation and the All England Club as a result.

She finished her amateur career with eight Grand Slam Titles, four World Championship Titles and a Gold Medal at the 1920 Olympics. But it is impossible to truly judge whether the graceful Lenglen or the powerful Willis was better with just one match as evidence. That also works against Wills’ claim to be one of the greatest of all time. She may have dominated the rest of her competition, but she never had the chance to really test herself against a fellow great.

Where does she rank?

Wills was arguably the first all-time great of women’s tennis. She stole the spotlight from one of the old world tennis players in Lenglen and dominated the sport in a way that has rarely been seen (Court did it, Graff did it and Williams has done it). In 1926, Wimbledon celebrated 50 years of their tournament, so there already was a history and a standard in the sport when she dominated it. But because of the rules against professionals she almost certainly lost out on the opportunity to play against the very best.

Her haul of 31 total Grand Slams is still remarkable, especially since she never played at the Australian Open. Her record at Wimbledon was particularly impressive, winning the tournament eight times and losing just one of the 56 matches she played there. In fact, she lost only four times at a Major over the course of her 17 year career. But is she the greatest of all? Perhaps not. Her record is superior to King’s, but it is hard to make a case for her over Court, who was just as dominant but faced sterner competition.

Main photo:
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