Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Half a Century Ago at Wimbledon…

By Mert Ertunga

Tradition and tennis are two words that seem to get associated more often at Wimbledon than at any other tennis event in the world. All aspects related to the history of Wimbledon from the beginnings of the strawberries and cream tradition to the rule about players having to wear white outfits have been studied, commented on, and cherished, as well as criticized. Wimbledon officials themselves, proud of its tradition and selling power, have made every effort to keep accurate records of past tournaments and honor those who have contributed to the tournament, from past groundskeepers to ball boys and girls who have worked on the grounds.

Having said that, I felt that when I embarked myself on a learning journey back to 50 years ago (thus the title of this article) to the 1962 Wimbledon Championships, I would have very little trouble finding tiny tidbits of information and interesting anecdotes about the men's and women's singles champions of that year. However, what I encountered was a vast gap between how much the men's champion has been revered over the years and how little is known about the women's champion.

I was guilty of it myself, knowing from the top of my head that Rod Laver won the 1962 men's title (after all, it was his first of two Grand Slam years, a historical accomplishment, and he is still considered by many to be the greatest tennis player in history) and having no idea who won the women's title. I tried to guess before I looked it up: could it have been the legendary Billie Jean King or the iconic Margaret Smith Court? Perhaps Maria Bueno? Even Lesley Turner, who has never even reached the finals of Wimbledon, crossed my mind.

When I finally looked up the name, I was invaded with feelings of shame as the name Karen Hantze Susman appeared on the winners spot; I admit that the only thing I knew about her was that she was the doubles partner of Billie Jean King in the early 1960s. I had absolutely no idea that she was the winner of a Slam tournament, let alone Wimbledon. So the reality that I did not know the history of the game that I love as well as I thought I did slapped me in the face and I decided that I needed to educate myself better on this enigmatic character from San Diego, California.

Unfortunately, what little I could find left me unsatisfied and only contributed to aggravate my curiosity about this mysterious champion. I learned that Wimbledon 1962 was the only singles Slam title that she holds and that she has not even reached the semifinals at any other time in any other Slam tournament. I learned that she won three Slam titles in doubles with Billie Jean King. I learned that in 1960, two years before she won her only Slam singles title, she also won the juniors title at Wimbledon — one of only four women in the history of Wimbledon to accomplish this feat with Martina Hingis (1994 and 1997), Ann Haydon-Jones (1956 and 1969), and Amelie Mauresmo (1996 and 2006). But other anecdotes about her were far more intriguing.

Her career in the Slams extended over 22 years! She reached the U.S. Championships third round in 1958 in her first Slam tournament, and her last Slam was also the U.S. Open in 1980, where she also reached the third round. We are talking about a time period that starts with Althea Gibson winning Slams to the times of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova collecting Slam trophies like a kid collects candy during Halloween. Ironically, the enigma around Susman's career was less in her accomplishments during this period of 22 years than in her absence during that time period!

First of all, she has never participated in a single Australian Open. Furthermore, she only participated in the French Open once, in 1964, reaching the quarterfinals. She played Wimbledon only five times (1960-62, 64, 77). She did not show up in 1963 to defend her title, and threw in a gap of 13 years after 1964 before playing it again one last time in 1977. She did not just show up either on those five years, always winning at least one round in each appearance. She did participate in the U.S. Championships/Open 10 times, losing in the first round only twice, with plenty of no-shows in between those years. In 22 years of competition in Slams, she averaged barely above one Slam per year! This was truly a unique career in terms of Slam performances in the history of women's tennis. When I tried to research the reasons for it, it felt like I hit a brick wall.

Susman was considered an extremely promising junior. According to a Sports Illustrated article in 1962, she won the U.S. girls (under 18) championships at the age of 14. I tried to find out if this was a record, but my efforts were fruitless; I am betting, however, that she may hold the record as the youngest girl to win that title. The same article, published within two months of her title at Wimbledon, also portrays Susman as a teenager who does not seem to care too much about tennis, and who is ready to dedicate her life at the time to her husband, and "the house and the cookbooks."

Rod Susman and his wife fell in love and married as teenagers, despite strong resistance from their immediate surroundings. Susman got pregnant soon after and only returned to regular competition in 1964. There is speculation that her marriage to Susman impeded the fulfillment of her promising career (Nancy Richey allegedly speculated that her husband made her change her forehand ,which had negative results). There is speculation that she simply did not care about tennis that much, not even bothering to show up for the Wimbledon Centenary celebrations in 1984 when all of her peers were there.

But why then would Susman make a return to the WTA Tour in the late 1970s and play five Slams, including a doubles appearance with her old partner King in the 1977 Wimbledon? She clearly cared enough about tennis to make a full-fledged comeback after being absent from any action through the first half of the decade.

There is a contentious anecdote in 1965 with the USTA — then known as United States Lawn Tennis Association — when she was unseeded due to her lack of play and she drew Margaret Smith in the first round. She simply withdrew and did not make the trip to Forest Hills. She was allegedly unhappy with not being seeded despite her past accomplishments. Did the USLTA resent her for choosing "cookbooks and the house"instead of dedicating to tennis? There is also another alleged incident with Ann Jones in Wimbledon 1962, where she complained about Susman taking too much time between points, something that Susman apparently had built a reputation of doing. Was she not liked by her contemporaries and could that be the source of her unpopularity?

In any case, concrete information remains very hard to find on this little-known Wimbledon champion from half a century ago, and the more I tried to learn about her career the more questions seemed easier to come by than answers. Unfortunately, I am neither an investigative reporter nor a professional journalist, or else I would have put some time and effort into getting in touch with her and clear up these speculations and the vagueness surrounding the available information. She is still alive and living in her native town of San Diego. I am hoping that this article will motivate someone to do so. Who knows, it may even result in the International Tennis Hall of Fame to consider inducting Karen Hatnze Susman to its membership. Far less accomplished individuals have been inducted, and Susman certainly deserves the consideration.

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