Class of 2018
World No. 4 in singles (1985)
World No. 1 in doubles (1990)
Grand Slam Results
14-time major champion, 12-time finalist
Overall Record: 1366-527
Singles Record: 614-307
Doubles Record: 752-220
Member of the Czech Federation Cup Team 1981-1989, 1992-1993, 1995-1996
Member of the Championship Czech Federation Cup Team 1983-1985, 1988
Overall Record: 57-16
Singles Record: 45-11
Doubles Record: 12-5
1988 and 1996 Silver Medalist in Women’s Doubles (both with Jana Novotna)
Helena Suková Made Tennis A Team Sport
Helena Suková’s brilliant career disproves the notion that to succeed in tennis, a player must conduct oneself as a solo act. Suková is testimony to the power of tennis as community, that competition and camaraderie go hand-in-hand, both inside and outside the lines.
Then again, such was Suková’s pedigree – tennis lineage of the highest order. Her father, Cyril Suk II, was president of the Czechoslovak Tennis Federation. Helena’s mother, Vera Suková, was even more accomplished, in 1962 the Wimbledon singles finalist. That run was highlighted by a win over two-time Wimbledon champion, Maria Bueno, Vera that fortnight revealing a penchant for the major upset on the big occasion that Helena would subsequently demonstrate repeatedly.
Vera was regarded by her opponents as an extremely smart player, a student of the game who did things such as film Margaret Court’s serve-and-volley game, all the better to break it down and pass those techniques on to others she coached, be at is Fed Cup captain in the ‘70s or as a devoted mother, passing those lessons on to her children.
Czech Tennis Legacy
Helena was born on February 23, 1965. Nearly two years later came a brother, Cyril. The two grew up well aware of their rich Czech tennis legacy. This small nation’s accomplishments spanned decades, to such greats as one of Bill Tilden’s rivals, Karel Kozeluh, and the accomplished lefthander, Jaroslav Drobny, a winner of three major singles titles. And it would continue, aided by the involvement of Helena’s parents, with such champions as Jan Kodes, Martina Navratilova, Hana Mandlikova, and Jana Novotna. All six of those Czech-raised players would end up enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
For young Helena, there was no separation between tennis and family. Even as she enjoyed such activities as piano and guitar, tennis more than anything seamlessly wove its way into her life. She built a powerful, wide-ranging arsenal, adept at attacking with a big forehand, strong serve and sharp volleys. By the end of 1981, boosted by a run to the round of 16 at the Australian Open, the 16-year-old Suková was ranked 74 in the world.
Consummate Team Player
But even as she methodically made her way up the ranks in singles, Suková’s skill at team play was becoming instantly apparent. Starting in 1983, she was an integral member of four champion Czech Fed Cup squads ('83-’85, ’88). By the end of 1985, the year Suková turned 20, she’d already won ten doubles titles, including her first major, the 1985 US Open (partnered with Claudia Kohde-Kilsch).
It wasn’t just Suková’s strokes that made her so good at doubles. Kind and gracious, she persistently supported and connected with a wide range of partners. All told, Suková would reach 127 women’s doubles finals, winning 69 titles, including nine majors at all four Slams with four different partners.
Suková’s prowess also extended to mixed doubles, where she won five major championships. No doubt three of her finest moments came when she paired with Cyril to win three titles – Roland Garros in ’91 and a pair of Wimbledons in ’96-’97.
Dangerous Singles Opponent
In singles, Suková won ten WTA events and six straight times finished the year ranked inside the top ten, attaining a career-high ranking of number four in the world in 1985.
That ascent came off the heels of an Australian Open match that Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford would describe as “one of the most exciting matches ever played at Kooyong Stadium.” This was a semifinal at the ’84 Australian Open (during the years the tournament was played at the end of the calendar year). Suková was up against Navratilova, who at that point was at the height of her powers. Navratilova had won six straight majors, 74 straight matches and stood two wins away from becoming only the fifth player in tennis history (and third woman) to earn the precious calendar year Grand Slam.
On a cold, overcast day, Suková dropped the first set, 6-1. The result seemed a formality. But she persevered. Suková took the second set, 6-3, and then won the first three games of the third. Navratilova rallied, but Suková remained calm. “When I lost a point, I’d just say, ‘Let’s try another and forget that,’” Suková said after the match. “I wasn’t nervous or anything.” Withstanding a barrage of Navratilova winners, Suková at last closed it out on her sixth match point. Though she would lose the final to Chris Evert, it was clear Suková was an exceptionally dangerous opponent.
There came other great singles runs. At the 1986 US Open, Suková took out such formidable opponents as Zina Garrison, Wendy Turnbull, and the mighty Evert to reach the finals. This time she was thwarted by Navratilova. But at the ’89 Australian Open, Suková once again took down Navratilova in a thriller of a quarterfinal, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7.
Once again in Australia, Suková had turned the draw upside-down and gone on to reach a major final. And alas, once again, she came across a titan – in this case, Stefanie Graf. In a brisk 71 minutes, Graf emerged the victor, 6-4, 6-4. As usual, Suková was thoughtful even in defeat. “It's difficult to say what you have to do to beat Graf, but you certainly have to play better than I did today,” she said. “'She puts so much pressure on you every point that when you finally get an easy shot, you are so relieved you miss it.”
1993 and the US Open Triple
Never, though, was Suková’s versatility more richly on display than at the 1993 US Open. Over the course of two amazing weeks, entered in all three events, Suková reached the finals of all of them. Seeded first in the mixed with nimble Australian Todd Woodbridge, the duo dropped just one set on the way to the title. In the women’s event, paired with the Spaniard, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, the third-seeded team successfully blended Suková’s height and power with Sanchez’s speed and counterpunching skills. The highlight of the Suková-Sanchez run was a 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 semifinal victory over the title-holders, first-seeded Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva. Proof yet again for Suková’s aptitude for the big upset: Fernandez-Zvereva had won the year’s first three majors.
All told, Suková over the course of that New York fortnight would win 17 matches. In the singles, seeded 12th, she struggled early, eeking out tight three-setters in two of her first three matches. In the round of 16, a familiar face: Navratilova. And here, as she had twice in Australia, Suková was poised, this time winning in straight sets, 7-5, 6-4. There followed an exceptionally dramatic semi, Suková taking out Sanchez, 6-7, 7-5, 6-2. Unfortunately, the fourth Slam singles final was not the charm, Suková losing to an inspired Graf, 6-3, 6-3.
Team play remained a Suková staple. In 1996, Suková joined forces at Wimbledon with a precocious prodigy half her age, 15-year-old Martina Hingis – a run highlighted by three straight three-setters to win the title.
Suková retired in 1998. It had been a brilliant, enduring career. She had reached Grand Slam finals in her teens, 20s, and 30s. In an era of specialization, Suková was an elite player in both singles and doubles.
Rapidly, Suková greatly aided the Czech tennis community, engaged in everything from the Olympics to work with children. She earned a doctorate in psychology, serving as vice president of the Association of Sports Psychologists in the Czech Republic. She also became a member of “Champions for Peace,” an activist organization of over 90 world-class athletes. While many tennis players struggle away from the professional life, for Suková, the transition was seamless. And, like her tennis, smooth, powerful – and, as always, highly collaborative.
- Written by ITHF Historian-At-Large Joel Drucker
Photo: Getty Images
Australian Open: F 1984, 1989
French Open: SF 1986
Wimbledon: QF 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1993
US Open: F 1986, 1993
Australian Open: W 1990, 1992
French Open: W 1990
Wimbledon: W 1987, 1989, 1990, 1996
US Open: W 1985, 1993
Australian Open: F 1994, 1998
French Open: W 1991
Wimbledon: W 1994, 1996, 1997
US Open: W 1993