Contemporary dominance in tennis is best defined by what Rafael Nadal has done `at Roland Garros: 14 titles, 112 match wins, three losses.

For another variation on the theme, head back to the late '20s and early '30s and the reign of Helen Wills. According to the book, The Bud Collins History of Tennis, at one point in her career, Wills won 158 straight matches. Over the course of this streak, Wills won four titles at Roland Garros, six at Wimbledon, four at the U.S. National Championships (since 1968 known as the US Open). As far as the Australian Championships goes, Wills never played it, likely for two reasons. First, in those days, getting to Australia usually required a lengthy boat ride. Second, at that point in tennis history, the concept of the “Grand Slam” did not yet exist (but that’s another story).

As Wills dominated tennis year after year, she put to rest any notions of serious rivalry. But certainly, one of those contenders at least raised the idea of succession—and did so with eerie proximity.

This one too was named Helen—Helen Hull Jacobs. Three years younger than Wills, Jacobs was also a Californian, who sharpened her game at the Berkeley Tennis Club, the same spot where Wills had honed her skills. For a time, the Jacobs family lived in a Berkeley house previously occupied by Wills and her parents. Each also attended the University of California at Berkeley.

But there were also contrasts. Wills was reticent, a quality which earned her the nickname “Little Miss Poker Face.” Jacobs was more gregarious. Spicing things up was that Wills and Jacobs hardly spoke to one another. Though nowhere near as distant as a Jimmy Connors-John McEnroe-like rivalry, Wills-Jacobs lacked little of the camaraderie that marked such Australian mates as Rod Laver and Roy Emerson.

Wills would later be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1959

Wills would later be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1959


Coming into the 1933 U.S. National Championships final, Wills had never lost to Jacobs and was highly favored to keep her winning streak going. But earlier that year, at Roland-Garros, Jacobs had received a tactical pointer from the great champion of the ‘20s, Suzanne Lenglen. Lenglen had beaten Wills the only time those two had played one another. Her advice to Jacobs: Don’t try to outhit Wills from the baseline. Better instead to make her move forward for sharp crosscourt shots. Lenglen practiced with Jacobs for hours in Paris. Jacobs also believed it was important to charge the net as often as possible.

So it was that on this day at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y., Jacobs played as well as she ever had versus Wills, her mix of slices and volleys helping her win the first set, 8-6—the first time Jacobs had ever taken a set from Wills. “But one set was not the match,” Jacobs wrote years later. “I had no illusions about the roughness of the road ahead of me. Helen was a fighter: she was a master of the drive and the lob.”

Wills won the second set, 6-3.

In the third, Jacobs won both of Wills’ first two service games. About to serve at 3-0, Jacobs looked across the court and was struck to see Wills making her way to the umpire’s stand and putting on her sweater.

As Jacobs recalled, Wills said, “My leg is bothering me, I can’t go on.”

Jacobs asked if Wills wished to rest and eventually resume play (there were no specific rules for this then).

Helen’s temperament had always been her most valuable asset. On this day it was her greatest liability. Jacobs on Wills


According to Jacobs, Wills said, “No, I can’t go on.”

As press, photographers and officials came onto the court, Jacobs suggested Wills swiftly leave the court.

Soon after, according to the New York Times story written by its longstanding tennis reporter, Allison Danzig, Wills issued a statement that included these words: “In the third set of my singles match I felt as if I were going to faint because of pain in my back and hip and a complete numbness of my right leg.”

Wrote Jacobs, “There is no doubt that Helen, for her own sake, would have been wiser if she had remained on the court for the twelve points necessary for me to end the match in the third set. But what one does under the stress of emotion and pain cannot be calculated in the cold-blooded terms of the spectator. Helen’s temperament had always been her most valuable asset. On this day it was her greatest liability.”

That proved the only time Jacobs ever beat Wills. The eventual head-to-head: 10-1.