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Helen Wills - Center Court

Famous Sports StarsTennisHelen Wills Biography - Early Years, Center Court, Chronology, Retirements And Comebacks, "little Miss Poker Face", "every Woman Who Goes Into Athletics Owes Something To Her"

Center Court

Wills's most famous tennis match was played against Suzanne Lenglen in Cannes, France on February 16, 1926. Wills was only twenty, but she had already won two Olympic medals and three U.S. singles championships. Lenglen, the twenty-six-year-old French-woman, was a six-time Wimbledon champion who provided copious fodder for the tabloids with her flamboyant personality. Wills, who was known for her demure attitude and chaste starched cotton clothes, provided quite a contrast to Lenglen in her silks and furs, although tennis-wise the rising star and reigning champion appeared closely matched.

The match was hyped relentlessly by newspapers from around the world. Reporters followed both Wills and Lenglen about as they played in other matches in January and early February, searching for any new angle on the story. For Wills, who had come to France, accompanied by her mother, ostensibly to continue her studies in painting, this must have been particularly frustrating. By the time that the two actually met on the court, word had spread so far that a Russian grand duke, the Swedish king, and an Indian rajah and ranee were among the 6,000 spectators in the hastily erected stands. The crowd was rowdy, and Lenglen seemed rattled. She took sips of cognac between points, perhaps to calm her nerves. Despite play that was not her best, Lenglen won the first set, but Wills made a comeback in the second. Errors in line judging in that set, not helped by fans who shouted out their opinions on the proper calls, hurt both women's concentration, but Lenglen more than Wills. Wills took the second set, but Lenglen won the third set and the match, then broke down in tears as fans surrounded and congratulated her. Wills and Lenglen played each other in doubles again that afternoon—Lenglen won again—and never again faced each other on the court. Wills missed the French championships that year due to appendicitis, and Lenglen turned professional around the time that Wills returned to competitive play.

Wills's time in Cannes was not a complete loss. A stockbroker from San Francisco named Frederick Moody had noticed Wills, and after her loss he approached her to congratulate her on her good play. They were married in 1929, and thereafter Wills played as Helen Wills Moody. The two divorced in 1937, but by 1939 Wills had remarried, this time to an Irish polo player and Hollywood screenwriter named Aiden Roark. For the rest of her life, Wills would be known as Helen Wills Moody Roark.

Chronology

1905 Born October 6, in Centreville, California
1919 Joins the Berkeley Tennis Club
1921 Wins first tennis championship
1925 Graduates from the University of California at Berkeley
1926 Plays famous match against Suzanne Lenglen
1929 Marries California stockbroker Frederick Moody
1937 Divorces Moody
1938 Retires from tennis
1939 Marries Irish polo player Aiden Roark
1998 Dies January 1, in Carmel, California

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