SI Vault: Done in Down Under: Sukova ends Navratilova's '84 Grand Slam bid
This story first appeared in the Dec. 17, 1984 issue of Sports Illustrated.
The numbers that were supposed to have come up in Australia were seven and 76. But because of a kid named Helena Sukova, 11 and 16 turned up instead. In the end, Chris Evert Lloyd had completed yet another year with at least one Grand Slam title, and Martina Navratilova had gone another year without winning all the Grand Slam championships. History sighed under the heavy load of legends.
Navratilova had come to the Australian Open in Melbourne, to the hard-packed grass of Kooyong, as the cynosure of the tennis world, seeking to become only the fifth player to win the Grand Slam, which has become known as the Calendar Slam. This devaluation follows a 1982 bull from the International Tennis Federation. In place of the traditional Slam, it created the Cash Slam, complete with $1 million for anyone winning the four majors (Wimbledon and the U.S., French and Australian opens) consecutively, even if the victories are spread over two years. This is rather like decreeing that a player could break Roger Maris's home-run record by hitting 31 homers after the All-Star break one season and 31 before it the next.
Navratilova, of course, won a 1983-84 Cash Slam in June in Paris, but among the many people in tennis who don't accept the nouveau tradition is one Mr. John McEnroe. Bothered by a sore wrist, he pulled out of the Australian to rest for the Davis Cup final that starts on Sunday in Sweden. The injury, however, isn't disabling, and he could have played at Kooyong, going for his third straight major title. That way he might have been in position to win a Cash Slam in Paris in '85. But McClassicist firmly believes that the only Grand Slams are Calendar Slams. Whatever, McEnroe's cancellation removed all interest in the male half of the tournament—SUCH A YAWN, one headline said of the men's competition—which was won by one of those blond, two-handed-hitting Swedes who had somehow taken a detour on his way to PGA central casting.
That all the attention was devoted to the distaff side was somewhat ironic, too, because Australia has never been spotted in the forefront of the march for women's liberation. There are two genders Down Under: mates and sheilas. Mates are the people you have some beers with; sheilas are the things you ring up after a few beers with the mates. But this one time, the sheilas were all the show. If Navratilova triumphed, she would be the first player to win seven consecutive majors, and she would extend her modern record for consecutive match victories to 76. Moreover, if Evert Lloyd could win three matches, she would reach a thousand victories. And this she did, despite being so nervous that she forgot to bring any tennis panties to Kooyong. When she was presented with a cake bearing a thousand lighted candles, the flames leaped so high they threatened to engulf the entire hospitality tent, until a quick-thinking waiter tossed a wet towel over the inferno.
Although Navratilova had lost but once in the past 18 months—on Jan. 15 to Hana Mandlikova—there was a growing feeling on the tour that she was ripe for the taking, that the sheer weight of numbers pressed on her. "For months now, Martina's been playing not to lose, rather than to win," said Don Candy, Pam Shriver's coach. Navratilova's volleys had become more jabs than punches, her attacking slice backhand short and choppy. Also, since she'd started working on a new high-kick serve late last year, her wide and wonderful lefty delivery into the ad court often seemed to have been missing in action.
Only in doubles, where Navratilova's numbers are every bit as impressive but where onlookers don't count out loud, did her game remain in full flower. At Kooyong, not only would she and Shriver become the first women's team ever to win a Calendar Slam, but they also would win their seventh straight Grand Slam championship and an unprecedented 83rd match in a row.
While no one disputed that Evert Lloyd remained the second-best woman player, conventional wisdom held that the streak would be ended by someone who could give Navratilova, who had beaten Evert Lloyd 13 straight times, a taste of her own medicine, someone who could press her at the net. Navratilova was lucky, then, because three possible streak breakers who didn't play the Open are all serve-and-volleyers: Mandlikova, Kathy Jordan and Shriver, although the latter's body was flown to Melbourne and periodically put on display.
Certainly, no one imagined that Sukova—19 years old, 12th in the rankings—would be the instrument of defeat, for she was still more pedigree than performance. Her late mother, Vera Sukova, who in 1962 beat Maria Bueno to reach the Wimbledon final, became the patroness saint of Czech tennis, coach of the junior squad that a certain young Miss Navratilova starred on. Further, Helena's father, Cyril Suk (the ova is a Czech suffix denoting female gender; Martina's father is Mr. Navratil, Hana's is Mr. Mandlik, and so on), is president of the Czech Tennis Federation.
If Helena is spiritually her mother's child, she grew to resemble her angular father; at 6'1½" she's much taller and slimmer than her mother was. Vera won with her mind. "One of the truly great tennis brains, incredibly shrewd," says Judy Tegart Dalton, who was one of her rivals. It was Vera who encouraged the Czechs (and the Soviets) to follow Margaret Court about and film her serve-and-volley style. Before Vera died of brain cancer in the spring of 1982, she'd been instrumental in making her small country a tennis force and her daughter the best junior player in the world.
At that time Helena was pane-thin and painfully shy. Only recently has she filled out into a woman, and only in the last couple of months has she literally begun to walk tall, shoulders back, unashamed of her height, smiling and secure. With her new coach, Jan Kurz, Helena has reined in her looping Lendl-like forehand and made a dagger out of her snappy backhand. Now, suddenly transformed from a parochial Continental baseliner, she's at her best on alien grass (16-4 for 1984), and her worst surface is native clay (6-6). She won her first pro tournament on the turf in Brisbane, Australia in November, and after beating the injured and disconsolate No. 3 seed Shriver in the quarters at Kooyong, Vera Sukova's only daughter was who stood in the way of what could have been the 75th straight win for Vera Sukova's biggest star.
Last Thursday was a slate-gray day, cold and damp, the sort of dodgy weather Melbourne is famous for before the sweltering summer settles in around Christmastime. Last year, rainwater fell four feet deep on some courts at Kooyong. This year the weather turned so raw that on a couple of days the fans—what few hardy souls there were—came bundled up in tweeds and blankets. But, aha, this dreary Thursday afternoon brought the girls and boys of the tour together for some good old-fashioned camaraderie.
Here's the scene. Rain forces postponement of play, with Kevin Curren whipping up on the No. 1 male seed, Ivan Lendl. Lendl is in a mood no less foul than the weather, perhaps because, instead of wearing his familiar harlequin shirt, he has introduced in Melbourne a striped number that fashion experts immediately decided makes him look like the tail of a British Airways 747. Disgruntled, Lendl stomps off to the locker room. Unbeknown to him, next door the denizens of the women's locker room, without any of the 94 hours of Kooyong matches that were on Australian TV to amuse them, are growing restless. "Hey, I'll bet you $200 you won't go into the men's locker room and stay 10 minutes," Evert Lloyd says to Shriver.
"You're on," says Shriver. She sashays in and lies flat on the floor. Sadly, no one is buck naked—"That's the chance I took," Evert Lloyd would say glumly—although it's the Swedish blonds, purportedly the most sexually blasé of Homo sapiens, who appear most aghast at Shriver's Peeping Janism. Of all people, though, it's Lendl who, tossing his travails aside, comes over and begins to chat up the strange sheila on the floor. Soon, curiosity killing the cat, Evert Lloyd heads a patrol to check on Shriver. After that—get this—the boys start streaming over into the girls' locker room, whereupon the lot of them begin exchanging dirty jokes, snickering like prepubescents off to Camp Lottasilly for the summer.
The Navratilova-Sukova semifinal will be remembered as one of the most exciting matches ever played at Kooyong Stadium. Navratilova won the first set at one, but Sukova was marionette-loose, and the score was deceptive. Six of the seven games went to deuce. Certainly, at home in Perth, Margaret Court, the last Calendar Slammer, had no business leaving her TV to go shopping at that point, which is exactly, what Court did.
Sukova pulled on a blue sweater early in the second set and got a break for 4-2. When she held serve for a 5-2 lead, she looked over to Kurz and gestured mischievously that maybe she should walk off now,-because the modest goal they'd set was for her to win five games in a set. Sukova was simply having a dandy time, and she held again to win the set 6-3.
Almost nonchalantly, she powered her way to a two-break 3-0 in the third. Navratilova was volleying shakily and foolishly coming in behind all of her many shallow second serves, which were duck soup for Sukova's accurate artillery. In the women's locker room, the players began to cluster about a TV. Little Carling Bassett, at 17½ a whole year and a half younger than the doddering Sukova, sighed, "Oh, if you can just beat her, Helena, you'll be my idol for life." Hoots, catcalls.
Instead, Navratilova came back to tie the set at 4-4. But Sukova wasn't cowed. "When I lost a point, I'd just say, 'Let's try another one and forget that,' " she said later. "I wasn't nervous or anything." Then, to the astonishment of the 12,000 spectators, Sukova got the next break. After Sukova made a sharp volley and Navratilova botched an easier one, Navratilova twice failed to serve wide enough to the ad court. Sukova passed her both times to go ahead 6-5.
Quickly, Sukova went up triple match point. On the practice courts, men laid down their rackets to read history on the scoreboard high on the stadium's rim. In the women's locker room, bedlam reigned. Sukova hit three sterling serves. Navratilova responded with three forehand winners. Sukova earned two more advantages, and Navratilova slugged two more forehand winners. The kid had banged in five excellent first balls, but the champion had saved five match points, streak points, Slam points, history points.
Yet Sukova kept peppering the Navratilova forehand. If that's advertised as being Martina's better wing, she swoops in more naturally off her slice backhand. When, at the next deuce, Sukova finally missed a first serve, to the forehand, she had the audacity to deliver a second to the same side. Shocked, Navratilova pushed the return wide. Match point No. 6. "Dammit," Navratilova muttered. In the mad locker room, if one voice called it out, half a dozen did: The backhand, Helena.... Spin it, three-quarters.... Kick it three-quarters to the bloody backhand. And that, at last, is what Sukova did. The return feathered wide. The streak was over. Mo Connolly and Court are still the only Calendar Girls.
Navratilova, so gallant in the face of defeat, was never more gracious than after the fact. That night, back at her hotel, she ordered a video cassette. She chose Camelot. Let it not be forgot: six and 74.
Two days later, now in blazing summer heat, Evert Lloyd gave Sukova every chance to surpass the highlight of her mother's career. Evert Lloyd was tight, serving atrociously, humpbacking returns, stuttering with her feet. However, she was also like some cagey old baseball pitcher, even down to blowing on her fingers, knowing she didn't have her good stuff today. But hey, mix it up, change speeds and just try to hang on through the early innings.
Evert Lloyd almost bluffed her way to victory in the first set, but lost 7-4 in the tiebreaker, during which Sukova did her best serving and volleying of the match. Thereafter, though, Sukova lost her serve altogether, fighting her toss in the swirling wind—she got in just 43% of her first balls and double-faulted 14 times—kept drop-shotting without success and, even more suicidally, repeatedly sent approach shots to Evert Lloyd's backhand, a multitude of which Sukova watched come back across her bow. Evert Lloyd won the last two sets 6-1, 6-3. Rotten match, terrific triumph. "Only the real champions win when they don't have their good stuff," John Lloyd said afterward, trying to console a wife who was irritated by the esthetics of the thing.
And so: That's 16 Grand Slam singles championships for Evert Lloyd. She's 1,003-97 for her first 1,100 matches and has had at least one Grand Slam singles title for 11 consecutive years. Bjorn Borg is next in line, with titles in eight straight years. Evert Lloyd says she'll play only one more year, two maximum. And there's one more number. On Friday next, the 21st, our little Chrissie will have another cake. This one will have 30 candles on it.