Helena Sukova reflects on the legacy of Czech tennis | WTA Tennis
2018 Hall of Fame inductee Helena Sukova tells WTA Insider how Czech tennis evolved into an international powerhouse.
WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen
February 8, 2018
Phone calls that come in the middle of the night rarely bear good news, so when Helena Sukova answered a late-night call from her home in the Czech Republic, she certainly breathed a sigh of relief a the sound of a familiar voice on the other end of the line. That relief turned into elation when she soon learned she would be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2018.
"Stan Smith called me and he told me 'Yes, you made it' and I was very surprised because I didn't believe I was going to make it," Sukova told WTA Insider at the Australian Open last month. When Smith confirmed she had been voted into the Hall of Fame, Sukova said she was stunned.
"I was already a nominee twice and this was really the last chance and there were other big names as nominees," she said. "I'm happy I made it."
"Now I'm proud of everything I was able to achieve. When I stopped in 1988 I was mad at myself because I didn't do as well as I thought I would and I didn't win what I thought I would. For two years I didn't know where my racquets were. I was disappointed because I didn't make it and I stopped because I didn't believe I was going to get any better. But now I'm happy and all the trophies are back out and my Olympic medal is in a nice cupboard."
"Reflecting back now, remembering how I started tennis with my parents and my mom being one of the best tennis coaches in the world and me being lucky that she was there for me from the beginning, this is also kind of a memorial to her and the family history."
Sukova was born into one of the most influential Czech tennis families in Prague in 1965. Her mother, Vera Sukova was a Wimbledon finalist in 1962 and would go on to captain the Czech Fed Cup team. Her father, Cyril Suk II was the president of the Czech tennis federation. Sukova's brother Cyril Suk III would also go on to play professional tennis on the ATP and the two teamed up to win three mixed doubles titles together at the French Open and Wimbledon.
"We spent a lot of time at the Sparta club when I was young," Sukova said. "Me playing tennis gradually came from that. I had to play piano and I hated that. I was pushed to play that and I quit as soon as I could. When the doctors said I couldn't play tennis when I was seven years old because my body was growing awkwardly - spine wasn't growing correctly and my left leg was shorter than my right - suddenly I wanted to do it. I had always wanted to play soccer because tennis was just running on a court and nothing special. Then when the doctor told me I couldn't play it, then it became attractive and tennis was what I wanted."
While Sukova's path into tennis looked like a foregone conclusion, she says she did not realize until later in life just how badly her parents wanted her to pick up a tennis racquet. "There was a rule at home that we didn't speak about tennis at home," Sukova said. "Me and my brother never felt any pressure that our parents wanted us to play. Now I know they really did! But at the time we didn't really know that so it was perfect tactics from them.
"When I was an adult and my mom was gone, we would speak to my father about the past and he told us that when I was born there was difficulty with one of my hips. My mom was told that I wouldn't be able to do any professional sports. She was crushed! But I had no idea about all this."
Despite all the physical difficulties she endured when she was young, Sukova's prodigious talent was evident. Winning came easy and winning was fun. "I was a little bit lucky because I started my first tournament a 10 and I had success at the beginning. I think that's what gets a kid to like it. Success is fun. Kids like to win and they like to succeed."
"The rule in Czech under the old system is if you were No.1 or No.2 then you could travel to international tournaments," Sukova said. "If you were not then tough luck. I was No.1 or No.2 under 14s so luckily I was able to play. I made the Fed Cup team in Japan and I was the No.4 player and I ended up playing the singles and I won. I came down to Australia and I won the juniors in Sydney and they gave me a qualifying wildcard to the Australian Open and I qualified. That was my beginning.
"It felt special that the announcement came here because here is where I made the biggest step in women's tennis."
By 16-years-old, Sukova was ranked in the Top 100 as a 16-year-old. She would go on to be ranked No.1 in doubles, winning 69 doubles titles, and as high as No.4 in singles, winning 10 singles titles and making four major finals. She is a two-time Olympic silver medalist as well, having paired with Jana Novotna.
Sukova's most famous match came a the 1984 Australian Open, where she famously snapped Martina Navratilova's 74-match winning streak and stopped Navratilova's quest for the Calendar Grand Slam at the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club. Sukova, 19, came into Melbourne having won her first WTA singles title in Brisbane a few weeks earlier, and she rallied from a set down in the semifinals to stop Navratilova's bid for her seventh consecutive major title.
"I used to write down every match that I played in the juniors, so up until 18 I remember every single match," Sukova said. "After 18 I don't remember anything! I don't remember what came before or after. I'm not like Martina who remembers every shot she hit. I'm the opposite. I'm like 'Yeah, it happened, but I can't tell you when or how.'
"The media brings up the match against Martina in 1984 and that was the first time I beat her. I've seen the footage of that match than any other match, so that stands out. But if you ask me what moment stands out the most in my mind it is probably the match point I had against Pam Shriver in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.
"I choked on the return. She choked on her serve and I choked on the return and put it in the net. I can still remember it, out on Court 1. I should have just killed the ball!"
"What's unique about tennis is that the moment you win, the emotional part, the excitement is there for a few seconds, maybe a few minutes, and then it's gone. But nothing beats that feeling.
"When someone asks me if they should stop playing I say if your body holds up, keep playing! Because nothing beats that feeling when you win. That's the moment you work for. I never really liked to practice but you knew you had to do it to be good. That's what kept you going and working hard.
Now 56-years-old, Sukova works as a general psychologist. Some of her clients are athletes and her Hall of Fame experience has come in handy when servicing them.
"It helps you in that you know how the athletes are feeling at a certain stage so you know what to look for," she said. "Every person is different but a lot of these deep things are similar. If I was a player now I would be so smart, telling myself what to do. I would be winning all of them!
"It's like they say, now you have the experience, but you don't have the body."
With her family's key role in shaping the early tennis success in Czechoslovakia, Sukova is proud to see the tennis tradition carried forth in the seemingly never-ending pipeline of Czech talent in the current game. When asked what's the secret of a country as small as the Czech Republic constantly pumping out talent, Sukova shrugged.
"I think if we knew that we would give that water to our men," she said with a laugh. "We have Berdych but other than that there is nobody."
"In the old days, tennis was something where you could succeed and you could succeed on the international level," Sukova explained. "Other sports and jobs you couldn't really make it internationally because of the system that was there.
"Thanks to Jaroslav Drobny, thanks to my mom, then to Martina Navratilova, Jan Kodes, tennis always had stars so the system always let us play the international tour. When I played, I never had a problem to get out of the country and play the tournaments. The East Germans couldn't travel. Before tennis became an Olympic sport, the East countries wouldn't really let their athletes travel internationally. But luckily, because we had those past players and the success they let us go out and play.
"When I was growing up we had Ivan Lendl, Jan Kodes, and Martina Navratilova. The kids wanted to play like them. Now the kids want to be like Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova. So we need those girls and we're happy to have them."