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When Skills in the Kitchen Outranked Skills on the Court

Karen Hantze Susman won the women’s singles title at Wimbledon in 1962.


Published: July 6, 2012

Fifty years ago, a 19-year old newlywed from San Diego won the women’s singles title at Wimbledon, but she did not make it back the next year to defend her crown. Sports Illustrated referred to her as “a pretty girl who has won at Wimbledon and can make a good meatloaf,” in a cover piece on the “loveliest” women in tennis after the biggest win of her life.

These days, Karen Hantze Susman, now 69, is still playing tennis, despite two serious health scares, and she can still bake a mean meatloaf.

“I’ve had 50 years of practice, so I’d better be good at it,” she said in a recent telephone interview, when asked about S.I.’s piece about her in the summer of ’62. “It is kind of funny how the press viewed us in those days. We weren’t even on the radar as far as being taken seriously.”

With the equal-pay issue dominating the headlines in the first week of Wimbledon this year, looking back to Susman’s era, when female players received scant attention and few considered the sport a viable career option, provides perspective on how far women’s tennis has come in the last half century.

Susman won Wimbledon in 1962 as the No. 8 seed, beating Czechoslovakia’s Vera Puzejova Sukova, the mother of the future United States and Australian Open finalist Helena Sukova, 6-4, 6-4. The final was dubbed a matchup between a “Czechoslovakian housewife” and an “American college freshman” in an amusing period newsreel.

Susman, the daughter of a teacher who was not part of the sport’s country-club set, said her family members were in California and missed her Wimbledon triumph, but she recalled asking to call her mom in the locker room after the match.

“An international call in those days was a big deal, so I kept it brief,” she said, noting that the match was not on television in the United States.

Nancy Richey, finalist and French and Australian champion who played against Susman frequently, described her as a child prodigy who was already one of the best players in the country at age 15.

“She was the Jennifer Capriati of her time,” Richey said in a telephone interview from her home in Texas.

But unlike Capriati, Susman did not burn out or get in trouble with the law. She married Rod Susman, also a tennis pro, at 18 and had to endure lectures from many who told them they were making a big mistake. (Last year they celebrated their 50th anniversary.) Only six months after her win in the summer of ’62, she became pregnant.

“My daughter Shelley was born in October ’63; she’s the reason I didn’t defend my title,” Susman said. “It’s a unique excuse not to defend a title, isn’t it?”

Susman said no one from the All England Club called to inquire if she would defend her title, and the idea of competing while four months pregnant was not a consideration.

“In those days it would seem funny to have a husband and child with you on tour,” she said. “I knew after I got married that that would be the end of tennis as it was.”

Nonetheless, after taking ’63 off, she was able to reach the quarterfinals at the French and United States Open in 1964 before leaving the sport.

“There was no money back then, and we knew we had to do something different to make a living,” she said. “I would have loved to have played in an era where we made millions, but that wasn’t the dynamic of the sport back then.”

But many of the sport’s keenest observers, including Richey, and the tennis commentator and historian Bud Collins, think Susman could have won more majors if circumstances had been different.

“She definitely would have contended for majors if she’d stayed on the tour,” said Collins, who visited Wimbledon for the first time in 1961 and took Susman and King out for dinner after they won the doubles title because they did not have appropriate attire to attend Wimbledon’s champions ball. “Karen had a marvelous volley; that’s an art that’s been lost in the sport these days.”

Susman, who also won three major doubles titles with King and reached a career-high rank of No. 4 in ’62, moved to St. Louis so her husband could pursue a career in insurance while she settled in as a mother and part-time tennis coach. After being away from the sport for nearly a decade, Susman was persuaded by King to play World Team Tennis in 1974, and for the next few years, she played a few tournaments each year, including the United States Open.

“I wouldn’t call it a comeback,” she said. “It was more of a visitation.”

After making it to the third round of the United States Open in 1980, Susman left the tour for good but remained active as a coach. Nine years later, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor that required surgery but turned out to be benign, and in 2004, she underwent several months of radiation treatment to beat breast cancer.

“I couldn’t play for a while because the radiation wipes you out, but my students inspired me,” she said. “As soon as I recovered, one of my adult students said to me, ‘What do you love about life? You love tennis, you’ve been given a reprieve, so you need to get back on the court to play,’ and I did.”

Susman has not been back to Wimbledon since she played her last match there in 1977, but she said she was a “real tennis fan” who wakes up early to watch the action from her home near San Diego.

In the early ’60s, tennis was a passion but not a viable career option for women like Susman and Richey.

“We didn’t see any money coming on the horizon in the '60s,” Richey said, noting that even after the beginning of the Open era in 1968, she received only $3,000 for making the final of the United States Open, while the male finalist made more than double that.

Susman fell in love and got married, while tennis prodigies today are more focused on ranking points.

“We just played because we loved tennis,” she said.
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