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Helen Wills - "little Miss Poker Face"

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"

"Little Miss Poker Face"

Wills's presence, on and off the court, was legendary. On court, whether winning or losing she displayed no emotion at all, only a fierce concentration. This concentration prompted a young New York Evening Mail columnist named Ed Sullivan, before the as yet unknown medium of television made him famous, to nickname her "Little Miss Poker Face." Other nicknames, including "Queen Helen," also spoke to this imperial presence. Artists and poets noticed it as well. In perhaps her most famous artistic representation, painter Diego Rivera placed her at the center of his mural at the former San Francisco Stock Exchange. When asked why he had featured her so prominently, Rivera explained by saying, "Because of that woman, California is known to the rest of the world." Wills was also featured in a sculpture by Alexander Calder, who was famous for his wire creations. Another often-repeated compliment came from silent film star Charlie Chaplin, who, when asked what the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen was, once replied, "The movement of Helen Wills playing tennis." Some women flattered by imitation, adopting Wills's trademark white eyeshade as part of their own tennis uniform.

Wills was a very public figure for much of her life; even when she was not playing tennis, she stayed in the public eye by writing newspaper and magazine articles and books, including a tennis guide, an autobiography, and a mystery. Wills was also a painter, and she exhibited her artwork in London, Paris, and New York. However, she became something of a recluse later in life. She rarely appeared in public, but she continued to follow sports on television. She particularly enjoyed watching Martina Navratilova's matches. "[Wills] admired Martina Navratilova greatly," tennis historian Jeanne Cherry said in Wills's obituary in the Houston Chronicle. This admiration lasted through Navratilova's ninth Wimbledon championship, in 1990, which broke Wills's long-standing record of eight Wimbledon wins. "I once asked her how she felt about Martina breaking her record," Cherry continued, "and she said, 'Well, you know she pumps iron.' " Wills passed away in 1998; her ashes were scattered at sea.

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