2013 Book of the Year: Fifteen-thirty

2013 Book of the Year (also Best Biography and Best Sports Book):  In its 125 year history, my high school has produced many athletes who have continued their careers in college and some professionally (including two from my own class), but none have been more accomplished than 1923 alum and Tennis Hall of Famer, Helen Wills.  Her nineteen Grand Slam singles titles and two Olympic gold medals helped propel her to international stardom for almost two decades.  I recently read her 1937 autobiography, Fifteen-thirty: the story of a tennis player, in which she describes her career and life during this era.

Although she does not mention the school by name, her description of her experience would resonate with today’s students: “My school was nearby, so that it was easy to divide the day into three parts–classes in the morning, tennis in the afternoon, and study at night. I was painfully conscientious. Not only were my ‘lessons’ first, but I worried about them continually. … With me, learning lessons was a ponderous business. I learned slowly, and I could not distinguish the point where it would be possible to stop and yet ‘get by.’ I knew only one way and that was to do as well I could. I would have been terribly disappointed if I had not been on the honor roll each month.”

This chronological memoir is evenly split between tournament memories and her life as a celebrity off the court.  Her writing style is quite elegant, but also dry, and the clinical analysis of her matches may not appeal to non-tennis fans.  The personal remembrances are certainly not scandalous by modern standards, but instead present a unique perspective on a time when tennis players at the highest levels were still amateurs and traveled to events was by train and steamship.  She frequently details the writing and illustrating assignments for news organizations that she completed in order to help finance her playing career.  Throughout the book she sounds like a humble, straightforward person and I regret not taking the initiative to use our school and tennis connections to reach out and contact her in Carmel before she passed away in 1998.

Used copies of this title, discarded from libraries without dust jacket, sell online for around $50 while complete originals go for around $250.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

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