In 1985, a Hurricane originating in Vancouver touched down in New York taking the tennis world by storm.
Helen Kelesi, age fifteen, a lowly qualifier in only her second professional tournament in Monticello, set the tennis world abuzz by knocking off two top-ten players and making the finals. Her fiery demeanour and salty language used to criticize certain calls earned her the nickname ‘Hurricane.’
For over a decade, the thundering serve and volley game and blustery attitude of ‘Hurricane’ Helen lifted crowds to its feet and blew her competition away with more force than a Kansas twister.
Today, she is regarded as one of the greatest tennis players in Canadian history and certainly the best-ever female player to come out of BC.
Born in Victoria and later living for long periods in Vancouver, both of Kelesi’s parents played competitive tennis. She got her start at age three, when at a tournament in Toronto officials tied a tennis ball to a string and hung it from a tree branch to keep the youngsters occupied. While her parents played, Kelesi spent the afternoon bashing away at this hanging ball.
Something clicked for Kelesi that afternoon. She liked this game and she liked to hit the ball. Hard. In fact, as a young girl, critics of her style of play would tell her not to hit the ball back over the net so ferociously. Thankfully, she didn’t listen.
Her father, Milan, a Czechoslovakian immigrant to Canada, became her coach and although an admitted taskmaster, he knew how to properly guide his daughter up the various rungs of the sport. By age twelve, Kelesi had won the Richmond Tennis Club women’s tournament and a year later she won the under-18 Canadian indoors title—without losing a set.
Often compared to the other young female tennis phenom from Canada, who was only a month older, ‘Darling’ Carling Bassett, Kelesi had none of the financial advantages of the well-to-do daughter of Toronto media mogul John F. Bassett. In the first few years of regularly playing in professional tournaments in North America and Europe, Kelesi had no sponsors or endorsements. Her father scrimped, saved, borrowed, worked odd jobs at odd hours—anything to get the money to move on to the next tournament. By the time Kelesi broke into the world’s top-50, he estimated it had cost over $300,000 out of his pocket.
In ensuing years, she became one of the top players on the WTA circuit, never ranking outside the top-25 from 1986-1991. Her best ranking came in 1989 when she reached #13 in the world, the second highest ranking for a Canadian woman ever. Twice she won WTA events—the 1988 Citta de Taranto and the 1991 Midland One—and she advanced to the quarterfinals of the French Open at Roland Garros on two occasions.
In an era marked by an especially strong group of young international women on the Tour, Kelesi played them all and often defeated the very best including Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Conchita Martinez, Jana Novotna, and Helena Sukova.
Kelesi represented Canada in Federation Cup play from 1986-1993, bringing out her fiery best with a career 11-5 singles record, often playing the opposing nation’s top player. Making a habit of coming from behind to win matches in Fed Cup play, the press dubbed her ‘Helen of Try.’ She also represented Canada at the 1988 Olympics, the first time tennis was included on the Olympic schedule.
Retiring in 1995, her career WTA singles record stood at 263-182 with earnings of $905,972. Twice she was awarded the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as Canada’s top female athlete, while four times she was voted Tennis Canada’s singles player of the year. She was inducted into the Canadian Tennis Hall of Fame in 2002.
The landscape of Canadian tennis was forever changed by Helen Kelesi. The impact of this Hurricane proved more powerful than any had forecast possible.
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.