The sports world loves to put people into neat categories. Giving them labels has always been a popular, on-going national pastime.
And, professional tennis stands as one of the guilty parties. Why else would we see headlines like this:
Pigtailed Teen-aged Baseliner Wins Tournament.
Boom-Boom Becker Defeats Bobo.
Joakim Nystrom: The Silent But Deadly Swede.
But the tennis world has had difficulty categorizing Helena Sukova. Every time a label is placed on her, it falls off.
At 21, the 6-foot-2 Sukova has been on the tour since 1981, but is 10 years younger than Chris Evert Lloyd and nine years younger than Martina Navratilova.
You can't group her with the latest wave of newcomers, either. Sukova is four years older than Steffi Graf and five years older than Gabriela Sabatini.
She is Czechoslovakian, but unlike Ivan Lendl and Hana Mandlikova, Sukova actually spends some time in her native country.
Sukova plays an attacking, serve-and-volley game like Mandlikova and Navratilova. Unlike Mandlikova, though, she isn't prone to bursts of erratic shot-making. And these days, Sukova very rarely loses to someone she shouldn't lose to.
Although her game has matured a great deal in the last two years, she doesn't have Navratilova's all-around game. Then again, who does? As far as on-court temperament is concerned, Sukova won't unravel from a few bad calls. However, don't call her an ice-woman.
"I'm not real cool like (Bjorn) Borg was," she said in a telephone interview from New York. "I think I'm something middle in the road."
That about sums it up. Helena Sukova, ranked No. 6 in the world, is a middle-of-the-road tennis star.
At the Virginia Slims Championships in New York, which concluded Sunday, Sukova beat the players she was expected to beat--Sabatini and her own doubles partner Claudia Kohde-Kilsch. And while most thought Graf would beat her in the semifinals, Sukova put up a tough fight, losing, 7-6, 3-6, 6-1.
Some observers overlook Sukova when trying to make predictions about the future of women's tennis after Navratilova and Lloyd retire. They prefer to look at the promise of Graf, Sabatini and 15-year-old Mary Joe Fernandez rather than the reality of an established player such as Sukova.
Sukova, who will meet Carling Bassett tonight in an exhibition at the Forum before Lendl plays Miloslav Mecir, has reached two Grand Slam finals. Graf and Sabatini haven't reached a single Grand Slam final yet.
The Czech right-hander stopped Navratilova's winning streak of 74 matches before losing to Lloyd in the 1984 Australian Open. In the 1986 U.S. Open, Sukova beat Lloyd in straight sets in the semifinals and fell to Navratilova, 6-2, 6-3, in the final.
Sukova views the second Grand Slam final as much more important.
"I was playing well this time, much more consistently," she said.
"I was more ready to win this match than two years ago. After all that time, I finally beat her (Lloyd). This year was more important because it was now. I'm more ready for it now."
The victory over Navratilova in 1984 basically solidified Sukova's position in the top 10. She was ranked No. 25 in 1982, No. 17 in 1983 and reached No. 7 by the end of 1984.
Her easy victory against Lloyd last September established Sukova as a viable contender for No. 1. It also signaled, to some, the beginning of the end for Lloyd. One writer even went so far to call the 31-year-old Lloyd, Chris Evert L'Old.
"I was playing well," Sukova said of the match, her first victory over Lloyd. "There is always something you can do. You can put more pressure on her, come in more. But I felt I was playing well all over."
After Graf beat Lloyd for the first time last spring, she used her new-found confidence to win three more tournaments before the French Open. That streak included a victory against Navratilova in the final of the German Open.
Although Sukova didn't have a hot streak as Graf did, she continued to play solid, consistent singles and doubles.
"It helped me a little bit to get more confidence because every player knows they have a good chance to go forth after that," Sukova said. "You think, 'I can be there too.' "
With the nearing retirement of the Big Two--Navratilova and Lloyd--Sukova expects a tough fight for No. 1. At this time, Graf, Mandlikova and Sukova would appear to have the best shot.
However, in women's tennis you have to put heavy emphasis on the word would.
While there have been many possible contenders--Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger and Kathy Rinaldi, to name a few--none have ever stayed at the top spot for any length of time.
Sukova is aware of this.
"If you look at the top 10, the top 15, there are so many players who could make it," she said. "It is so hard to predict. Someone can look good for a while but then six months later it's different. It can change every half year. "