WATCH—Hereos - Helena Sukova:
For our sixth annual Heroes Issue, we’ve selected passages from the last 50 years of Tennis Magazine and TENNIS.com—starting in 1969 and ending in 2018—to highlight 50 worthy heroes. Each passage acknowledges the person as they were then; each subsequent story catches up with the person, or highlights their impact, as they are now. It is best summed up with a quote from the great Arthur Ashe, that was featured on the cover of the November/December issue of this magazine in 2015: “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”
She says she is, and indeed seems to be, happy living in Czechoslovakia rather than a less gray, less restricting Western locale. - Roger Williams / May 1987
Every sport has them. They are the people who eat, sleep and drink the game, giving their all to the enterprise they love yet passing through it almost unremarked upon. Some are victims of poor timing, overshadowed by peers. Others simply don’t care for the limelight. Both of those qualifiers apply to Helena Sukova.
At 6'2" with a massive serve, heavy forehand and surprisingly soft hands, Sukova was born into a royal tennis family. Her father was a former head of the Czech tennis federation. Her mother, Vera, was an elite player and captain of a Czech Fed Cup team featuring Martina Navratilova.
The lineage helps explain why doing well in the sport she loved always seemed to be enough for Sukova. It may also account for her prowess and appreciation for the game of doubles. She’s a paragon for anyone who simply burns with love of the game.
Sukova reached four Grand Slam singles finals, losing one to Navratilova, one to Chris Evert and a pair to Steffi Graf. Despite reaching No. 4 in the world, she was never was able to benefit from that bit of luck that the draw gods or upset makers sometimes provide to propel a player of her caliber to break through.
Sukova compensated for some of her Grand Slam final shortcomings as a soloist by bagging 10 tour singles titles—and a staggering 69 doubles titles. She won nine Grand Slam doubles titles, five more in mixed doubles and reached No. 1 in the world rankings. Sukova’s wingspan, bone-crunching overhead and crisp volleys created a perfect foundation for grand-scale doubles success.
Battling through four Grand Slam singles finals without a win is probably enough to make anyone seek therapy. Sukova went one better: after retiring from tennis, she earned a doctorate degree in psychology and now works as a therapist with, among others, athletes. She also serves as vice president of the Association of Sports Psychologists in the Czech Republic.
“When I was growing up we had Ivan Lendl, Jan Kodes and Martina Navratilova,” Sukova told WTA Insider this summer. “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.”
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[Artwork details: Julie Mehretu. “Refuge.”