Out of Left Field
Remembering helen wills moody
An Authentic Superstar
Helen Wills Moody
Nobody had to shake the juice
for this true sports immortal
(Editor's Note: Stan Isaacs is writing a series of columns for us about immortal sports stars he has known. Last week it was Joe DiMaggio. This time it's tennis great Helen Wills Moody.)
By STAN ISAACS
When the New York Knicks traded longtime problem child Patrick Ewing to the Seattle Supersonics, one of the columnists revealed that Ewing, among other things, was such a prima donna, he once had asked an airline stewardess to shake his orange juice for him.
Whenever I read of such boorishness in a modern day athlete my thoughts go back to Helen Wills Moody, the great tennis player of the 1920s and 1930s.
In her time Helen Wills (later to marry and become Mrs. Moody) was a titan of the world of sports, up there with Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Red Grange and Bill Tilden in what was termed the golden age of sports. There was a touch of intrigue and a fascination about her because she was unbeatable, yet unemotional, quiet, not responsive to crowds and the press.
Her name surfaced in 1987 when Martina Navratilova tied her mark of eight Wimbledon championships (Navratilova would win a ninth in 1990). I called her at her home in Carmel, Calif. At the time she was 81, delighted to be called, to be remembered. She talked and talked, waking up the echoes. (She died at 92 in 1998).
I called for a particular reason, because I was fascinated by a first-person account by her that I had read. In it she had described her experience as a tennis player who also wrote stories for British newspapers, for the Hearst papers and the New York World.
Notably, she wrote about playing a match at the French Open, watching another match and then fighting Paris traffic to get to a Western Union office in time to file her story about the tournament, Can anybody imagine a star athlete today, an orange drinker say, playing a match or game and then sweating to write a first-person report about it afterward, under deadline pressure?
I later came across her book, "Tennis." It not only was written by her but also included sketches of tennis personalities drawn by her. On the phone she said, "I also wrote an autobiography called, '15-30' and a mystery called, 'Death Serves an Ace.' I wrote that with another person and did the cover for it. I wrote every word of the tennis books and the newspaper stories by myself. When you write those stories, if you do it well, you hear nothng. But if you don't, you hear from people."
Her autobiography was edited by Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor at Scribners who is credited with taking the raw manuscripts of novelist Thomas Wolfe and shaping then into art.
She said, "I occasionally was invited by Mr. Perkins to talk things over. It was a marvelous experience. I knew I was in the presence of a distinguished person. Once, there sat Thomas Wolfe at a window overlooking Fifth Avenue. He was such an enormous man, he filled up the window. We talked for a few words. When they left, I hoped they would invite me to go with them because I think they were going to some literary event, but they didn't."
Helen Wills attended Cal-Berkeley, making Phi Beta Kappa. She regretted that she didn't return for her senior year because of her tennis.
"My mother wanted me to go into architecture," she said. "There was a big field for a woman to do architecture in sports."
With eight Wimbldon and seven U.S. championships starting with the U.S. Nationals in 1923 and ending with a Wimbledon title in 1938 when she was 32, she bestrode the sport in a way no player can dominate today because there are so many more good players.
Notably there was the tumultuous controversy surrounding her 1933 match with Helen Hull Jacobs, a product, like Wills Moody, of the San Francisco area. She had always beaten Jacobs. When Wills Moody was forced out of action in 1932 because of illness, Jacobs won the U.S. title. Moody's return created a heralded match in the 1933 U.S. final that had the aura of a heavyweight boxing match.
Jacobs won the first set, 8-6, only the third set Moody had lost in six years. Moody won the second set, 6-3. A sensation was created when Moody, broken on serve twice and behind, 3-0, in the final set, suddenly advised the umpire that she could not continue. This caused a sensation.
The Associated Press' Will Grimsley wrote, "The spectators were stunned. The newsmen were outraged. They called her a quitter and a poor sport. They accused her of depriving Miss Jacobs of her moment of glory."
This recalled an incident several years earlier when the French woman, Suzanne Lenglen, the queen of tennis preceding Moody, walked off the court in similar circumstances when about to lose to Molla Mallory.
At the time Moody refused to give an explanation. She did years later in her autobiography. And on the phone, she said,"My back is kind of funny. The vertebra between the fourth and fifth disk is thin. When the disk slips around it's intolerable. It rained the whole week before that final match. I lay in bed, and that was bad because it stiffened worse. I just couldn't play any longer, but I didn't say anything because it would look like an excuse."
She said, "I lay in traction for a month. I did exercises and swam under water, suprvised by my father, who was a surgeon. After a year the muscles were made stronger and I could play again."
After laying off in 1934, Moody met Jacobs again in the 1935 final at Wimbledon. She won, 6-3, 3-6, 7-5.
By then she had put her days of scrambling to make deadlines behind her and, alas, there was no first-person report by her on that match.
© 2000 by Stan Isaacs.
Former Newsday and ESPN sports columnist Stan Isaacs is one of America's leading sportwriters. To learn more about him, click on the ABOUT US button below.
Home About Us Archives Talkback Shopping Mall