Michael Stich, who won Wimbledon in 1991, will be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame along with Helena Sukova later this year. (AP)

Joel Drucker: Michael Stich and Helena Sukova Elected into Tennis Hall of Fame

MELBOURNE—Exceptional versatility, including everything from excellent serves to penetrating groundstrokes to sharp volleys, were among the attributes that have helped Helena Sukova and Michael Stich be elected into the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF) Class of 2018. Sukova and Stich will be formally inducted on July 21 at the ITHF in Newport, Rhode Island.

Sukova was here in Melbourne to mark the occasion. As she took a look towards Rod Laver Arena, Sukova said, “It’s a nice connection. The induction ceremony will be in the U.S., and the announcement came here in Australia. Those were the two places where I had played some of my best tennis.”

Twice in Australia, Sukova reached the singles final: in 1984 on the grass of Kooyong, and in 1989 on hard courts in Melbourne. She also won a pair of women’s doubles titles, in 1990 and 1992. As Sukova walked through the grounds of Melbourne Park, she noted how Australia was “the start of my big boom,” recalling how in 1981, at the age of 16, she won a junior tournament in Sydney that in turn earned her a wild card into the main draw of the Australian Open. Sukova maximized that opportunity, beating veterans Anne Smith and Barbara Potter before losing to her compatriot, future Hall of Famer Hana Mandlikova.

“Tennis has a storied history in the Czech Republic,” said Sukova, “and that history certainly played an important role in my tennis upbringing and my approach to the game.”

In Sukova’s case, it was a profoundly family affair. Her father, Cyril Suk II, was president of the Czechoslovak Tennis Federation. Her mother, Vera Sukova, was an elite player. A Wimbledon finalist in 1962, Vera earned a reputation as one of her era’s most adroit tacticians. Years later, as Fed Cup captain, Vera would coach a championship team led by Martina Navratilova. And Helena’s brother, Cyril Suk III, also became an excellent player, the siblings joining forces to win three Grand Slam mixed doubles titles.

Australia and Czechoslovakia twisted together for Sukova in a remarkable way when she played Navratilova in the semis of the 1984 Australian Open. In those days, this tournament was played at the end of the year. Navratilova had won the first three majors and was trying to become only the third woman to take all four in a calendar year.

“Since my mom had coached players like Martina and Hana, I looked up to them too much and wouldn’t play normally,” said Sukova.

Prior to that match, Sukova had never won more than three games in a set from Navratilova. And then she lost the first set, 6-1. “Every game went to deuce,” Sukova noted. She would win the next two sets, 6-3, 7-5, losing the final to Chris Evert in three sets.

But never was Sukova’s prowess more vividly demonstrated than at the 1993 US Open. Over the course of two amazing weeks, Sukova reached the finals of all three events she entered, winning 17 total matches. Sukova snapped up both doubles titles with a pair of future Hall of Famers—the mixed with nimble Aussie Todd Woodbridge, the women’s with the resourceful Spaniard, Arantxa Sanchez.

In the singles, seeded 12th, she made a surprise run, highlighted by yet another major win over Navratilova and a gritty three-set victory over Sanchez. But there was no mercy in this, Sukova’s fourth and last Slam final. Instead, there was the supremely motivated Stephanie Graf, who won that match 6-3, 6-3.

Sukova also demonstrated incredible longevity. She reached Slam finals in her teens, 20s and 30s, one of her final big efforts a run to the 1996 Wimbledon doubles title with the 15-year-old Martina Hingis. Retirement came in 1998.

Though it’s often quite challenging for ex-tennis players to find new forms of meaning after their careers end, Sukova found her next path as smoothly as she made her way from the baseline to the net. She’s earned a doctorate in psychology, aided hundreds of Czech athletes and also became a member of “Champions for Peace,” an activist organization comprised of nearly 100 world-class athletes.

Stich competed in what was arguably the most eclectic era of playing styles ever—and successfully went to toe-to-toe with each, be it versus such aggressive baseliners as Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, agile net-rushers Stefan Edberg and John McEnroe, or flame-throwing servers Pete Sampras and Boris Becker. He had tremendous tools in all three of those categories: elegant and powerful groundstrokes off both sides, deft command of the net and a serve that ranks as one of the greatest of all time. Those were the tools that helped him win one singles major, at Wimbledon in 1991, and reach the finals of two others, on hard courts at the US Open in 1994, and on clay at Roland Garros in 1996.

Raised in a Hamburg suburb, Stich cared more about soccer than tennis as a child. But by 1986, he’d become Germany’s best junior tennis player. Four years later, he was ranked 80th in the world. Twelve months after that came a run for the ages. Having already made a major statement with a run to the semis of Roland Garos a month earlier, Stich took it to another level at Wimbledon in 1991. In his second straight Slam semi, Stich played the title holder, Edberg. In a battle marked by just one service break, Stich was a gunslinger par excellence, winning it 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6.

Next came Becker. While Becker was playing his sixth Wimbledon final and 26th match on Centre Court, Stich was competing on the hallowed lawn for only the third time. But as Stich would say afterwards, “I got the feeling I could touch every ball I wanted to.”

Wimbledon was the greatest of Stich’s 18 singles titles. Other notable runs for Stich included the 1993 ATP World Championships, where his five victims included a trio of future Hall of Famers—Michael Chang, Courier and Sampras—and the 1992 Grand Slam Cup, where Stich again beating Chang and Sampras, as well as Edberg and Richard Krajicek.

One of Stich's more notable accomplishments came in the summer of 1992. Imagine how mentally and physically skilled one must be to earn major doubles titles in the same summer on two different surfaces with such live-wire personalities as McEnroe and Becker.

First came a remarkable Wimbledon with McEnroe, the two closing out the title by fighting off two match points to beat Americans Jim Grabb and Richey Reneberg, 19-17 in the fifth in a match that lasted one minute past five hours. A month later, at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Stich paired with Becker on the red clay to win the gold medal.

Stich’s skill at team play also surfaced a year later in a major way. With Germany hosting Australia in the 1993 Davis Cup finals on the clay of Dusseldorf, Stich took charge, scoring all three points, including the clincher.

Well-attuned to making a difference outside the lines, while still active as a player, Stich created the Michael Stich Foundation, focused on children in need and charity programs aimed at HIV and AIDS awareness. More 50,000 children have been reached in over 110 schools through this program, an effort that has earned Stich the Federal Cross of Merit.

“Michael's laser focus and the versatility in his game made him a Wimbledon champion,” said ITHF president and Hall of Famer Stan Smith. “Helena put up outstanding results at all four Slams, the Olympics, and in WTA competition for nearly two decades."

Read more articles by Joel Drucker

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