She’d overslept. Not just by a few minutes. But by 90. The plan was for Karen Susman to wake up at 8:00. Finally, at 9:30, she was ready to warm up for a tennis match she was scheduled to play that afternoon. Oh, by the way, the match happened to be the 1962 Wimbledon singles final.

Many years later, her husband, Rod, recalled what happened that July morning. Nervous about what was to come, he slept poorly and was up at 5:00 a.m.

“I’m going ballistic, trying to coordinate the car that’s taking us there, the practice, everything,” said Rod. “Karen, she has a mind of her own.”

She also had a game of her own. Some tennis players are innately fast. Others are naturally strong. Karen was exceptionally smooth, poised, and elegant, akin to such greats as Maria Bueno, Evonne Goolagong and, to cite a contemporary example, Ashleigh Barty.

Young Karen Hantze’s game had been sharpened in her native San Diego. One of her early coaches was Eleanor “Teach” Tennant, who’d worked with Grand Slam champions Alice Marble, Bobby Riggs, and Maureen Connolly. Already the owner of a fluid throwing motion, Karen further refined her delivery under the tutelage of Les Stoefen. If you haven’t heard of Stoefen, you’ve seen him frequently; he was the model for the so-called “trophy position” that adorns many a tennis honor.

By age 16, Karen was the best junior in America, her graceful serve-volley game setting the pace for all others—including an ambitious teenager from Long Beach named Billie Jean Moffitt, later known to the world as Billie Jean King.

“Oh, she was smooth, and she was pretty, and she could roll her way through opponents and make it all seem nice and good,” said King. “But I’ll tell you this: Karen hates to lose. Hates it, hates it, hates it.”


In 1961, King and Hantze won the Wimbledon doubles title, a pair of Southern California teenagers who celebrated their victory by having dinner with another future tennis legend, journalist Bud Collins.

“All we would do was laugh and laugh and laugh,” said King. “With Karen, you better be alert. You’d sit around and giggle all day long, and then if you played her—POW!”

Later that year, Karen married Rod Susman, an excellent player then attending Trinity University. Moving with Rod to San Antonio, Karen worked as a file clerk for $1.25 an hour and scarcely hit a ball until a month before heading to London.

Karen played three Wimbledon tune-up events and didn’t win a match. Seeded eighth due to having reached the quarters the two previous years, she figured she’d be home soon enough.

But when Billie Jean upset top-seeded Margaret Smith (later to be Margaret Court), the draw opened up and Susman kept playing her brand of serene, proficient tennis. In the finals, she played Vera Sukova, mother of future Hall of Famer Helena.

It only took 57 minutes for Susman to win, 6-4, 6-4. She was 19 years old.


And then she quit.

This was 1962, well before there was any belief that a woman could make a living playing tennis. Billie Jean had just begun to imagine what the future might hold. For Karen, though, there was little appeal to the tennis player’s nomadic life, one subject to the whims of amateur officials and random, under-the-table payments. In October 1963, she gave birth to a girl, Shelley. The next year, Karen and Rod took one more go around the world. Reaching the third round at Wimbledon, Susman lost to the top-seeded Smith, 11-9, 6-0.

Once the tennis boom kicked into high gear in the 1970s, Susman made a few forays back to competition. But this was well past her prime.

Asked once where she kept her Wimbledon trophy, Susman said she’d lost track of it for a while. But one day, poking through her kitchen pantry, there it was, alongside several cans of tuna.

Susman turns 80 today. She never appears at public events, politely declining invitations to appear at Wimbledon or other venues. Consider her tennis’ Greta Garbo—at once reclusive and eternally stylish.