At Roland Garros in 1970, Helga Niessen Masthoff became the first German to reach a Grand Slam final in the Open Era – a feat that also gave her a role in Margaret Court’s historic Grand Slam season. In singles, she reached at least the quarterfinals at the other three majors – including a semifinal run at the first US Open to offer equal prize money, in 1973 – and was also runner-up in the doubles in Paris in 1976. A Top 10 regular who ranked as high as No.6 in 1970, according to the legendary Bud Collins, her other tournament highlights included winning the German Open title three years running from 1972-74. Gold medalist in both singles and doubles at the Olympic demonstration event in Mexico City in 1968, Masthoff also compiled an impressive 38-18 record in Fed Cup play for her country.

Helga Niessen Masthoff at Wimbledon in 1970.

Photo by Getty

How did you get into tennis?
HM: My father was president of a tennis club in Essen, Germany. This club was just across the street from our house and since my father was a passionate tennis player his three kids – my sister, brother and I – were destined to play tennis at an early age.

At what moment did you realize that you wanted to pursue the sport as a career?
HM: At the age of 13, I became club champion at that small tennis club and then changed to a much bigger club (ETUF in Essen) where the potential for coaching and fitness training was better. That's really where my tennis career started. After a couple of years of hard work with various trainers and club teams – of course, always alongside attending school – I became German junior champion and then German national champion. I was on my way.

What were your strengths as a player?
HM: Most of the time I played from the baseline, had a strong forehand and an excellent backhand and my dropshot was much feared. Because I’m tall – 1.83m was unusual back then – and had a good reach, I could also often be found at the net.

Describe your most memorable match and what you learned from it.
HM: I made a great run to the final at Roland Garros in 1970, including a win over Billie Jean King, who was the No.2 seed, in the quarterfinals. But in the final against Margaret Court I played much too passively and lost in straight sets. After that, I decided to play more aggressively at the right time and to build in net attacks more often.

Helga Niessen Masthoff and Billie Jean King at the 1967 Fed Cup in Berlin.

Photo by Getty

What was our favorite tournament?
HM: My favorite tournament was Monte Carlo, where I won three times. At that time, many different tournaments were played on the Côte d'Azur, all in a wonderful atmosphere. The finals always took place in Monte Carlo, with Princess Grace hosting the award ceremony. It was very special.

Your career spanned the amateur days and then the introduction of Open tennis and the professional tour. What were some of the differences between these two periods?
HM: In the 1960s, tennis was indeed an amateur sport and players were invited by tournament organizers. Travel expenses, free board and lodging (which sometimes meant staying with private families at their homes) was taken care of by event managers or the respective federation. There was no such thing as prize money – sometimes just a kind of starter’s fee and trophies, certificates and presents from the sponsors.

The tournament series that came later tended to be managed more professionally, with increasingly consistent standards. I played some tournaments in the United States at the beginning of the Virginia Slims Series and I have very nice memories of those days, since we stayed with private families and this way got to know the country and its people much better.

Any funny stories to share from your time on the tennis circuit?
HM: In 1974, I played against Martina Navratilova three times during the clay swing. I beat her in the final of the German Open in Hamburg, then she won in the quarterfinals at Rome, and then I got the upper hand again at Roland Garros. I remember before one of the matches she said to me: “Let me win today, you're already older than me.” I’m sure I won that day!

Earlier on in my career, I first met Ion Tiriac and Ilie Nastase in Travemuende, Germany round about 1965 or even earlier and played mixed doubles with Ion. He instructed me how to play, and what I remember is that he told me that when the opposing woman made her service I should always play directly to the man, so that he could no longer cross the court. As I was already well known in Germany, Ion asked if I could arrange invitations for them at German tournaments – plus a little pocket money of 10 Deutschmarks for him. It was then that I thought to myself that he would go far in business, which turned out to be right.

Helga Niessen Masthoff in 2020.

Photo by Courtesy of Helga Niessen Masthoff

What have you been up to since retiring?
HM: This coming August 25th, my husband and I celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary! In 1976, we built a tennis and sports hotel in the Canary Islands with 100 beds, six tennis courts, a large swimming pool, three saunas, jacuzzi, driving range and putting green. My tennis life gave me valuable impulses for my new life in the hotel business. From staying at good hotels around the world, I knew what guests expected and thanks to my travels I could also influence the cultural entertainments we offered. The Spanish language I still had to learn but, on the Canaries, English and German are also quite common. Sports-wise, the hotel’s guests sought my expertise and together with our excellent Spanish cook, I was able to cultivate a healthy and sportive cuisine for our menus.

Do you still take the opportunity to play tennis, in the Canaries or in Germany?
HM: Unfortunately, due to arthrosis in my hands I can no longer play tennis and have changed to the smaller golf grips. But I am still in touch with former colleagues and players and many other tennis friends, who just like me are now into golf. We always enjoy our lively talks and memories. And of course, I like to visit national and international tennis tournaments, also the senior ones. All in all, I regard my tennis career as a great joy – an entertaining and wonderful journey which also taught me to be open-minded.

How do you feel when you see how strong German tennis became and those players who followed in your footsteps?
HM: Steffi Graf and Boris Becker are tennis heroes with great personalities and Angelique Kerber with three Grand Slams is a worthy successor. Today’s generation, with a big entourage, is more athletic, faster and strategy-orientated. Playing the backhand with two hands allows a more powerful game but sometimes perhaps at the expense of a more playful, intuitive and alternative one.

Who do you look up to in tennis, and why?
HM: I very much admire Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. After so many active years they still play with tremendous power and passion and they fascinate me each time. In fact, I follow all the big WTA and ATP tournaments with great interest and enthusiasm, along with the Grand Slams as well as the Davis Cup and Fed Cup. Among the current women, my favorites include Simona Halep, Sofia Kenin and Bianca Andreescu.

Interview by Adam Lincoln.

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