For ten years Helen Wills Moody had so completely dominated women's tennis that when she met Helen Jacobs for the American championship at Forest Hills on August 26, 1933, it was not a question of whether she would win but of how long it would take her to run out the match. Since the two first met in a practice match in 1923 (won by Helen Wills, 6-0, 6-0, in 20 minutes) the Jacobs girl had never taken a set from her. Three times they had clashed at Forest Hills, twice at Wimbledon, and the best Miss Jacobs could do was to get three games in one set; the worst, a 6-0, 6-0 drubbing in the Seabright final two years before. For this reason, only 8,000 people were in the stadium to see the two Californians have at each other. The gallery would have been even smaller had it not been for the known coolness existing between the two, stemming from a home town rivalry, and the fact that Miss Jacobs was the defending American champion. She had won the title the previous year in a tournament Mrs. Moody did not enter.
Although she was the challenger, Mrs. Moody was still the Queen of tennis, invincible since 1926, loser of only one set here or abroad since 1927. Statuesque, with classic Grecian features, cool and imperturbable, she was the hardest hitter from both the forehand and backhand that women's tennis has ever known. Her blazing speed had gained her six Wimbledon championships, three French titles and now at the age of 27, she was seeking her eighth American championship.
The blonde and more solidly built Helen Jacobs, two years younger than her foe, was an artist at the forehand chop, possessed a powerful service and backhand and had a sound net game. She knew that she could not win by swapping drives with the Queen, that she must come to the net to volley and smash. This she did with telling effect in the first set which went to 3-3 and then 6-6. At that point, Miss Jacobs broke Mrs. Moody's service and ran out the set, 8-6, the first she had ever taken from the Queen.
It was apparent that Mrs. Moody was off form. Few knew that she had been under a doctor's care for an injured back some weeks before, or that Miss Jacobs had entered the tournament against her doctor's advice be cause of an acute inflammation of the gall bladder. These ailments, however, did not prevent them from sweeping through the tournament to the final.
In the second set Mrs. Moody was back on form. Mixing drop shots with her accustomed baseline drives, she took it, 6-3, and when the girls walked off the court for the 10-minute intermission (as usual, without exchanging a word) it looked like it was going to be another Moody day.
But from the start of the final set there was little doubt that Helen Jacobs was going to win. Playing brilliantly and with confidence, she forced her opponent into a series of errors and soon had a 3-0 lead. At the beginning of the fourth game Miss Jacobs, who was about to serve, turned to the ball boy for the balls, her back to the court. When she turned around to serve she was astonished to see an empty court. Queen Helen had walked off and was at the umpire's stand calmly putting on her blue sweater.
"My leg is bothering me. I can't go on," she said when Miss Jacobs reached her. As umpire Ben Dwight announced that Miss Jacobs had won by default, Queen Helen walked unassisted and without limping to her dressing room. The girls did not shake hands.
Mrs. Moody's walkout produced a roar of controversy. The Jacobs partisans shouted that Mrs. Moody was a quitter, that she should have remained on the court for a few more minutes even if she were in extreme pain, which they doubted anyway. The Queen's supporters held that had she continued she would have fainted and might have suffered permanent injury. How was it then, the Jacobs camp replied, that shortly after the walkout she announced that she would play in the doubles final that very afternoon? (She was talked out of it by one of the officials.) And so the controversy raged, in the press and even among those who had never seen a tennis match.
The two Helens met twice again and Mrs. Moody won both matches. The last time, at Wimbledon in 1938, Miss Jacobs was tied with Mrs. Moody in the first set when she injured a tendon in her right foot and could not run for anything. But Miss Jacobs did not default. Although she didn't win another game, she limped through to the finish.