On this day in 1938, Helen Wills Moody defeats a hobbled Helen Jacobs 6-4, 6-0 to win her eighth Wimbledon singles title. The victory was the final major championship for Moody, who had been the dominant player in women’s tennis for the better part of two decades.
Born Helen Wills in Centerville, California, on October 6, 1905, the future tennis star grew up in the Bay Area. Wills won the Girl’s National Championship in 1921 and 1922, and then won her first U.S. Open at just 17 years old in 1923. Wills developed her game, which featured a powerful forehand, by practicing against men, just as her idol, the French tennis sensation Suzanne Lenglen had done in the 1910s and 1920s. In 1926, Wills traveled to Europe for the first time to play Wimbledon, where she reached the final before losing to England’s Kitty McKane. This was the only Wimbledon that Wills entered and lost; she went on to win eight more Wimbledon singles titles. Later that year, Wills also played her only match against her idol Lenglen, in Cannes. Though she lost, there was a silver lining: Wills met her future husband, the financier Frederick Moody, after the match.
From 1927 to 1933, Wills won a remarkable 180 matches in a row and snagged 14 of her 19 major singles championships in just six years. In 1933, a back injury forced her to sit out of competition for two years. After returning and winning Wimbledon in 1935, Wills retired. In 1938, though, the now married Helen Wills Moody, intent on winning Wimbledon just one more time, made a comeback.
In that year’s Wimbledon final, Moody faced her old rival Helen Jacobs, who had beaten Moody only once in her career, in the 1933 U.S. Open, and whom Moody had beaten to win Wimbledon three times, in 1932, 1933 and in an especially close match in 1935. The 1938 match was set to be a contrast in styles between Moody’s booming forehand and Jacobs’ powerful serve and deceptive topspin. The match began as one for the ages, with the two champions trading points to a 4-4 tie in the first set. However, Jacobs then suffered an ankle injury, which forced her to limp through the next eight games as she lost in straight sets. After the match Jacobs said she had “never been more sorry about anything in my life.”
Helen Wills dropped Moody from her name after her divorce in 1939. After retiring from tennis, she published an autobiography and a mystery novel and worked as a painter. She also served as a model for Diego Rivera’s San Francisco Stock Exchange mural.
Wills’ record of eight Wimbledon singles titles was not broken until Martina Navratilova won her ninth Wimbledon title in 1990. She died in 1998 at the age of 92.