Class of 2006
Pro. World No. 1 (1930)
Native New Yorker Vinnie Richards spoke his mind freely and descriptively. In one breath the Hall of Famer described Czech Karel Koželuh as “seamy-faced, cadaverous-looking and, in general, resembling a cigar-store Indian.” In the next description, Richards said Koželuh was “the Fred Astaire of the courts, with faultless ground strokes and a safecracker’s touch at the net.”
There’s no disputing that Richards was enamored with Koželuh’s game – his grooved groundstrokes, speed, endurance, and athleticism. In 1928 he put the squeeze on Koželuh to turn professional on the U.S. tour, and may have regretted that decision later. Richards won the 1928 U.S. Pro Championships, 8-6, 6-3, 0-6, 6-2 at the West Side Tennis Club over Koželuh, but a year later Koželuh returned the favor by winning an epic five-setter over Richards, 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 4-6, 7-5. For the next 10 years, Koželuh would be a thorn in the field’s side, winning championships in 1932 and 1937 and appearing in the finals in 1930, 1934, and 1935.
You won’t find Karel Koželuh’s name listed in any minor or major amateur tournament. He never competed at the Australian, French, Wimbledon, or U.S. Nationals. As a young tennis talent, he taught tennis professionally, which the amateur established decreed was a no-no, and Koželuh was ruled ineligible to compete in tennis’s biggest events. Had he been able to showcase his all-court game, there’s little doubt he would have been in the mix to win several major championships. Koželuh never changed racquet grips; he used a continental grip on both his forehand and backhand, and rarely charged net. The 5-foot-8, 145 pounder wasn’t a hard hitter, and footage of matches against Richards show him patiently returning every ball with great mobility, but with a lack of body flexibility. His left arm hardly ever left his side, seemingly attached to his hip. In 1930, Richards and Koželuh played for a third straight time at the U.S. Pro, and their rivalry continued in earnest with Richards winning in four sets, 2-6, 10-8, 6-3, 6-4.
He first faced Bill Tilden in 1931 when Big Bill was making his professional debut on February 21, 1931 in New York City, and Koželuh was defeated 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. The two were an intriguing match-up and drew large then-record setting crowds through the early 1930s throughout their professional careers.
In 1932, Koželuh defeated Hans Nüsslein at the U.S. Pro in straight sets, 6-2, 6-3, 7-5. He played Nüsslein tough in the 1934 final on clay at the South Shore Country Club, losing in four sets. The following year he played a bizarre U.S. Pro final against Tilden at the Terrace Club in Brooklyn, New York, winning two sets 6-0, 6-0 against the titan of tennis, but losing the match, 0-6, 6-1, 6-4, 0-6, 6-4.
His 1937 U.S. Pro championship was earned as a 41-year-old over Bruce Barnes in what had become the norm – a lengthy battle with unpredictable momentum swings, 6-2, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-1.
On the play-for-pay tour, Koželuh won six French Professional Singles Championships in a row (1925-30) and one more in 1932. He also won the European Professional Tour Championships (1932) and the World Professional Championships (1925). One of his biggest accomplishments was winning the prestigious Bristol Cup played in Menton, France six times (1926-1932).
Koželuh was a gifted athlete, playing as a national soccer team member for both Austria (when Czechoslovakia was part of Austria-Hungary) and Czechoslovakia and winning a European championship player in ice hockey.
Koželuh was tragically killed in a car crash in 1950 while travelling in Prague.