Excerpts from Tennis by Helen Wills


Excerpts from Tennis by Helen Wills, 1928, Scribners, 214 pages Out of print, but still obtainable used from Amazon.com, or the Advanced Book Exchange.

all drawings by Helen Wills

Helen Wills
    Tennis, by Helen Wills, is billed primarily as an instruction book. However, the tennis training the book contains, aimed at an audience of beginners in 1928, is not nearly as interesting as Helen Wills sketches of herself and other players, and her descriptions of players and matches.

    Helen Wills was a Phi Beta Kappa art major at the University of California at Berkely, who returned to school each year after a summer of tennis (sometimes a month or so late) until she got her degree. The book is completely illustrated with Helen Wills drawings, some of which are shown on this page. All of the Helen Wills art shown here is available as a PC desktop wallpaper (which you can download from links lower on this page).

Suzanne Lenglen

    ...For pure dramatic quality there has perhaps never been a match in women's tennis that equals the one between Mlle. Suzanne Lenglen and Mrs. Molla Mallory that took place at Forest Hills in 1921. I was fifteen at the time, and was at Forest Hills for my first visit. The excitement of winning the finals of the National Junior Girl's Singles the day before was entirely forgotten as I waited for the match between Mrs. Mallory and the great visiting French player. My seat was directly at the end of the court, and from it I could see everything.

    The two players came on the court. The contrast at once struck the spectators. The players were both dressed in the conventional white, but the similarity ended there. The bronzed tan of Mrs. Mallory emphasized the pallor of the Frenchwoman. Mrs. Mallory's determination was evident to every one as she strode along. Mlle. Lenglen danced at her side. The air was electrified, the audience expectant.

    The stage was set for drama and a tragedy occurred. The match commenced, Mlle. Lenglen started off steadily, but not with the dash and brilliance that had been expected. Mrs. Mallory's shots were carrying both speed and direction. She made few mistakes. She was alert and aggressive on every shot. The score mounted in her favor. She gained the first set and a substantial lead in the second. Her determination seemed to increase. Mlle. Lenglen, on the other hand, weakened. She coughed and appeared to be in distress. As she went on, her cough became more frequent. She went up to the umpire's stand to say that she could not continue, that she felt ill. The onlookers were astounded, surprised into complete silence. Then she left the court, weeping, leaning heavily on the arm of the French representative. Except for a mocking cough that came from a far corner of the grand stand, not a sound was heard. The entrance and exit of the players could hardly have had greater contrast. Waves of applause had greeted them at first; now there was complete silence.

    There were many sides to this match. That Mrs. Mallory's victory was well won cannot be denied. Some said that Mlle. Lenglen was not really ill, but that she saw that she was to be defeated, and so defaulted. This is harsh criticism. In a way, the circumstances were unfortunate. Mlle. Lenglen made the mistake of coming to this country only a short time before the tournament at Forest Hills commenced. No player can become accustomed to New York's climate in August in a few days. The playing conditions, the courts in New York and France are very different.

    She chose to play only in one tournament, which was also unwise because, in doing so, she missed the opportunity of becoming acquainted with the players and with the tournament play in America, which are unlike those abroad.

    Fate was against Mlle. Lenglen in this detail: In the draw of the tournament she found herself against Miss Eleanor Goss in the opening round. The match was scheduled for the first day. Miss Goss planned to play. The she found herself too ill to go on the court. This left Mlle. Lenglen without an opponent for the opening day, and with the best player in America, Mrs. Mallory, as her adversary on the second day of the tournament. This was an unfortunate situation. Had Mlle. Lenglen been able to play against several of the less important players in the preliminary rounds, working up to the final match, where she would have met Mrs. Mallory, her dramatic default would probably not have taken place.

    The following year the seeded draw came into being. This means that the two best players of the tournament are placed in opposite halves in the draw, and cannot possibly meet until the finals, if they come through successfully against all the rest of the participants...

    ...It was five years later, at Cannes, that I found myself across the net from the famous Frenchwoman.

    It was a day ideal for tennis, still and sunny... There were English, French, and Americans in the audience. There were as many people there as the small grand stands would hold. The space for a gallery was limited. There were only two small gates, and it was with difficulty that Mlle. Lenglen and I got onto the court when we arrived.

    Commander Hillyard, a well-known figure at Wimbledon, called the score. There was a full array of linesmen. On one of the lines was Cyril Tolley, the English golf-player; on another, Lord Charles Hope. It happened that these two linesmen called the two closest and most important balls in the match--one in favor of Mlle. Lenglen, the other in my favor, so that the doubtful breaks were even.

    I had never played Mlle. Lenglen before, and never since, but what impressed me most of all about her game, and that which I shall never forget, was her uncanny steadiness. Her balls were not particularly fast--not nearly as fast as those of some other women players whom I have met on the court--but they always came back. I she had, now and again, made an error, it would have been encouraging, but she rarely missed on a return. This, coupled with her remarkable speed of foot, made her for me a practically unbeatable opponent. The points gradually piled up, and the first set was gone at 6-3. The second set, which went to 8-6, was close, and almost all of the games went to deuce, but I was not good enough to turn the tide. Mlle. Lenglen was becoming very tired, and if I could have played a little better I might have won this set. But she managed to keep up her steady play and so won the match in straight sets. Strangely enough, this does not stand out in my memory as the most exciting match that I have ever played. Why, I don't know...

Molla Mallory

Elizabeth Ryan

Lili de Alvarez

Lili de Alvarez

Didi Vlasto


    ...The [1927 Wimbledon] finals, which came on the Saturday of the second week, were almost put off because of the rain, which threatened every moment. I had looked forward to meeting Senőrita de Alvarez again, and now it was to take place. I had played against her twice on the Riviera, but she had improved since then, as I had discovered in watching her earlier games in the tournament. Especially was she more steady than she had been. This, coupled with speed, is a difficult combination to meet, at any time upon the court.
    Lili is an interesting opponent, because of the fact that she plays swiftly, with more of a man's than a woman's speed. She is animated and full of life and her game is an unusually daring one. She frequently chooses a more difficult shot when an easier one would do. For this reason she is capable of the unexpected, and can surprise a player completely with her acutely angled swift forehand drive, and her equally sharply angled backhand. She is one who gets a great deal of pleasure from her game...

Helen Wills
    Our first set went at six games to two for me, but the score does not show how close the play was. I had to try continually to keep the balls away from her favorite strokes. She has the ability of answering a fast shot with a fast shot, which makes her a difficult adversary. In the second set the score was closer, being six to four in my favor. This set was closer than the first and was practically even until a certain rally, which was the turning-point. This particular rally was a very long one. We were both at the base-line, and the ball came and went swiftly many times over the net. Then Lili advanced to the net, volleying my drive. Her volley was quite short, and in such a place that I had barely time to reach it before it bounced for a second time. From my position on the court I found a passing ball impossible to make. I tried a lob, and it barely skimmed the top of her upraised racquet, and fell quickly into the backcourt out of her reach. We were both out of breath after this effort. Luckily for me, I was a little less overcome than she, and before she got back into her stroking again the next two games were passed and the match was mine. This rally was one of the most exciting to me of any that I can remember.
    The dream nearest a player's heart is that of winning a title at historic Wimbledon, to have one's name inscribed on the shields that carry the names of the winners from the very first, when tennis was new. My feelings, as the last ball travelled over the net, and as I realized that the final match was mine, I cannot describe. I felt that here was a prize for all the tennis, all the games, I had ever played since I was a little girl.


    ...Unless a player goes in for intensive play and tournament competition, two racquets are sufficient. Good racquets can be bought at fifteen dollars. They are sold for ten and less, and up as high as seventeen. The fifteen-dollar racquets of standard make will answer the requirements of most players. Strings in a racquet are sometimes a bother. They should last two or three weeks, even longer, depending upon whether a player uses them frequently or not, and whether or not he plays a hard-hitting game...
    Balls cost fifty cents each, and the player needs three. Balls should be good for at least six sets, and for more for the average player. But if the rallies are long, they do not last as long as this. There is a nap, or fuzz, on the surface of the ball that wears off on the hard court. It becomes slightly lighter, and the air-resistance, because of the absence of the nap, is lessened. It then acquires a tendency to sail, and is harder to control... I have found that I must have three new balls each set, but I can remember when, as a beginner, I was delighted with any ball as long as it would bounce...
    ...The cost of restringing a racquet varies. It is never more than seven dollars, and good strings should be had for four or five...


    And this brings me to a point that I have never before discussed--a purely personal one, but one which seems to fit in, in this particular case. I am referring to the fact that I acquired, in the course of my tennis-playing, the name "Poker Face." I was fifteen, playing in my first tournament at Forest Hills, when a newspaperman gave me the name, and it has stuck ever since. I was surprised when I analyzed the term, and realized its meaning. It seems that the name, "Poker Face" indicates that there is never a change in expression. I was surprised, for would not changes of feeling, and I am certain that I had them, be answered by changes in expression? Perhaps it is because, when I play, I become entirely absorbed in the game. It may be a form of concentration. It must be this, as I know that I am not entirely without feeling upon the court. I love the feel of hitting the ball hard, the pleasure of a rally. It is these things that make tennis the delightful game that it is.

Kitty Godfree

Other sources state that Ed Sullivan, who wrote about tennis for the New York Evening Mail and would later to reach national fame as a variety show host, coined the name "Little Poker Face" for Helen in 1922, while she places it in 1921.


    ...Sometimes a bad decision or a supposed bad decision by a linesman will disconcert a player for several points, perhaps even for a whole match. This is most unfortunate when it occurs. A player should try never to allow anything of this sort to affect them.
    The linesmen are placed in the most advantageous position directly at the end of the line, so that they ca get the best view of the line and the ball. Four times out of five the linesman gets a better view of the ball near him than the player himself. Of course I am speaking now of the linesman who knows how to line.
    The angle at which a ball and line are seen makes a great difference in the decision. Spectators often express disfavor of fair decisions.
    I have looked directly down on a ball that seemed to strike the line at my feet and have had the linesman say he was certain it was out. From the side of a court spectators very frequently think a ball upon the alley-line when it is really out. The angle from which the line and ball are seen makes a tremendous difference in the call, and the player who is inclined to fret inwardly about decisions should realize this...

Drawings by Helen Wills Wallpaper (desktop background image):
contains images of 9 of Helen Wills' sketches, plus 1 Helen Wills photo

left side, top row, l to r:
-- Mrs. Franklin I. Mallory (Mrs. Molla Bjurstedt Mallory),
    finish of a backhand drive.
-- Mlle. Suzanne Lenglen, overhead smash
-- Miss Elizabeth Ryan, a backhand shot

left side, middle:
-- Senőrita Lili de Alvarez, executing a half-volley

left side, bottom row, l to r:
-- Helen Wills, follow through on the service
-- Helen Wills, forehand drive

photo in center:
-- Helen Wills, photo by Dorothy Wilding

right side, top to bottom:
-- Senőrita Lili de Alvarez, serving
-- Didi Vlasto, backhand
-- Mrs. (Kitty) Godfree, low backhand volley

    Helen Newington Wills was born in Centerville, California, on October 6, 1905. Her father, Clarence A. Wills was a surgeon. Helen's mother, Catherine Anderson Wills, was a graduate of the University of California trained as a teacher. Helen was kept out of the public school system until she was eight years old, tutored by her mother instead.
    While Helen was growing up, tennis became the most popular participation sport in California. Dr. Wills bought Helen a tennis racket when she was eight years old and played with her on the dirt courts adjacent to the Alameda County Hospital, teaching her the fundamentals of the game. Helen (RH, 1H-BH) learned tennis with a 15-ounce wooden racket with a 5˝-inch handle. Later she would switch to a lighter racket, but still with a large handle.
    In 1917 Clarence Wills served as a U.S. Army physician for one year in Europe. During that time Helen, age 12, and her mother moved to Vermont, where Helen attended a private school, but did not play tennis due to lack of local courts.
    After World War I ended, the Wills family moved to Berkeley, California. Helen once more played tennis with her father and competed on the public courts at Live Oak Park.
    Helen was seen playing at Live Oak Park by William C. "Pop" Fuller, who supervised the junior tennis program at the Berkeley Tennis Club. In August, 1919, Helen was given with a junior membership in the club for her 14th birthday (a bit early).
    Catherine Wills went with Helen to all of her tournaments in Europe and America from 1921 until 1930, sitting quietly at courtside, saying nothing during a match.
    Helen attended the University of California, majoring in art. She was awarded an academic scholarship, and earned her Phi Beta Kappa key.
Helen Wills
    Helen won the US Junior Girls national title in 1921 and 1922, and won her 1st US National singles title at Forest Hills in 1923. Between 1927 and 1933 Helen Wills won 180 singles matches in a row without losing a single set. Helen retired from tourney competition in 1938, at the age of 33, having won 8 Wimbledon singles titles, as well as 7 US National singles championships at Forest Hills, and 4 singles titles at the French Nationals. Only Martina Navratilova has won more Wimbledon singles titles (9).
    Helen also won 4 US and 3 Wimbledon doubles titles, and 2 US and 1 Wimbledon mixed doubles titles.
    Helen Wills married Fred Moody in 1928, and divorced him in 1937. She married polo player Aidan Roark after she retired in 1938.
    Helen defeated Helen Jacobs to win her 8th and last Wimbledon singles title on July 2, 1938. Just before leaving the dressing room for the final, the players were informed that Suzanne Lenglen was gravely ill in Paris. Lenglen died 2 days later, on July 4, 1938.
    Helen Wills died on January 1, 1998, at the age of 92.

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