Yesterday marked the birthday of tennis champion Helen Jacobs. Born in 1908, Jacobs learned her trade in Berkeley, California before going on to a term as the world’s top-ranked player and the winner of nine Grand Slams. Jacobs was best known as the rival, if frequent victim, of fellow champ Helen Wills Moody, the top women’s star of the late 1920s and 1930s. In eleven matches against Moody, Jacobs went 1-11. And in that one win, Moody retired with an injury while down to Jacobs at the 1933 United States final (precursor to the US Open). It was Moody’s first loss in almost seven years.
Whatever Jacobs’ accomplishments on the court, though, she had a profound influence on the game—and our lives—in another way. She insisted on playing in shorts.
“They were cool and comfortable,” she said, “and increased my mobility so much that I knew I would never want to play in dresses again.” As Jaime Schultz tells us in Qualifying Times, Jacobs refused to back down despite in uproar within tennis:
Through it all, Jacobs maintained her commitment to shorts, telling reporters at the 1933 U.S. National tournament at Forest Hills, “They’re really a tremendous advantage. . . . Nothing but prejudice has prevented our wearing them for years. I know they improve my game and all the other girls say the same. I know I’ve lost many points through my racquet catching in my skirt. Not only that, but they are cooler and enable one to get around so much faster, particularly in the latter stages of a hard match.” Jacobs later confessed that shorts also gave her a “psychological jump” on her opponents: “I thought, too, that I should play better without skirts flapping around my legs. I noticed another thing: my footwork was improving. This, I supposed, was because my legs were more conspicuous than usual, and when I made mistakes in footwork it was very apparent to me.” Her superior play and rationale for the garment struck a chord with other players.
To say nothing of the uproar across America:
In the summer of 1936, citizens of several states sought to ban shorts, though there was “some confusion as to whether the issue is moral or esthetic.” Residents of Dover, New Jersey decried the “demi-nudists” who invaded their town in the summer months, and police officers were ordered to “bring them in whenever you see them on the streets.” The town of Covington, Kentucky also objected to shorts on a moral basis. Said the head police matron, “Authorities have enough trouble protecting girls and young women without their flaunting themselves in the faces of men, dressed in such scanty costumes.” In Yonkers, New York, there was concern for the “too fleshy bodies” parading about the street. Municipal leaders did not take the issue lightly, decreeing that “anyone violating the ordinance against shorts in the streets of Yonkers is liable to a fine not exceeding $150 and a sojourn in jail of not more than thirty days.”