Talk to those who knew Karen Krantzcke on the 1970s tennis scene and a recurring theme shines through. Standing more than six feet tall, the 1.85m Australian towered over most of her contemporaries and was known for her powerful, attacking game. But more than that, she was laid-back and kind, and a battler in the best Aussie tradition – an athlete who faced adversity but still managed to shine in the shadow of more celebrated countrywomen.
“Karen’s demeanor on the court never changed, winning or losing – everyone loved her,” says Peachy Kellmeyer, who was appointed the WTA’s first Director in 1973.
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“Things could get a little crazy at times on those early years of the tour – we were still finding our way as a professional sport,” Kellmeyer adds. “But Karen was always there with a smile and she had a calming effect, which I appreciated – although I’ve never met anyone who sweated so much! And I loved her laugh. Not loud, but just like you would imagine a Gentle Giant.
“When she passed away so suddenly, it was such a shock.”
Brisbane-born Krantzcke signaled her potential in 1966, when she won the Australian junior championships and posted a win over Margaret Court, who had already won all four of the Grand Slam tournaments at least twice.
By 1970, which would go down as her best season, Krantzcke had reached at least the quarterfinals at each of the majors, and that year was a semifinalist at both the Australian Open and Roland Garros – results which included wins over the likes of Virginia Wade and Francoise Dürr and sent her into the year-end Top 10.
In doubles, she was already a Grand Slam champion, having paired with Kerry Melville Reid to win their national title in 1968. Victory at that tournament, the last “all-amateur” major, would be followed by some 15 Open Era doubles titles pocketed by Krantzcke over the course of her career.
The 1970 season also delivered perhaps Kranzcke’s proudest achievement: a starring role in Australia’s triumph at what was then known as the Federation Cup – today, the Billie Jean King Cup.
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Circumstances dictated that Krantzcke and Judy Dalton went to the German city of Freiburg by themselves – minus the usual third team member, or indeed even a national manager. Though the conditions were less than ideal, the duo proceeded to cut a swathe through Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Great Britain and West Germany to earn Australia’s fourth competition triumph without losing a rubber.
It’s a run that still brings back fond memories for Dalton. “We practiced, then played our matches – singles and doubles each day – while also sharing a small room,” she recalls. “There was no laundry service, so you can imagine what our room looked like, with tennis clothes trying to dry each day.
“It certainly was cozy, but thankfully we were both playing really well and somehow we won the whole competition. To me this was a great feat. We really had to support each other – we could never have achieved a win like that but for our friendship.”
Four months later, Dalton became a member of the Original 9 when she signed up to play in Gladys Heldman’s groundbreaking Virginia Slims Invitational at Houston. For her part, Krantzcke jumped on board the ensuing Virginia Slims Circuit as it kicked off with a 16-woman event in San Francisco the following January.
Health issues cut her 1971 season short and she returned home to Australia, but in 1972 Krantzcke registered an encouraging win over Billie Jean King. At the beginning of 1974 she defeated Evonne Goolagong in the final of the New South Wales Open in Sydney for her biggest single title. Six months later she paired with Tasmania’s Helen Gourlay, with whom she had just won Eastbourne, to advance to the doubles final at Wimbledon – only to be beaten by Goolagong and Peggy Michel.
Another setback followed, however, as Krantzcke spent much of 1975-76 on the sidelines due to a forearm injury. But she rebounded to reach the semifinals of the Australian Open, unseeded, in early 1977 – and buoyed by that success, the 30-year-old set off for the United States to continue her comeback.
Her results were promising, but on April 10 – Easter Sunday – tragedy struck in Tallahassee, Florida.
That day, Krantzcke partnered with Kym Ruddell to win the doubles title at the Lionel Cup, a $20,000 event. The match, against Gourlay and Floridian Rayni Fox, was relatively quick, so Krantzcke told tournament officials she would collect her prize money cheque after going for a run. A short while later she was seen collapsing, not far from the club. A cardiologist who had watched the finals tried cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, and an ambulance was called, but Krantzcke didn’t respond and she was later pronounced dead at hospital.
Gourlay, a two-time Grand Slam singles finalist who won five doubles majors, accompanied Krantzcke to the hospital and stayed on in Tallahassee to make the necessary arrangements for her friend’s repatriation to Sydney.
“Karen and I were best mates and traveled a lot together, and her passing remains one of the saddest experiences of my life,” Gourlay says. “But I will never forget ‘Kran’. She had a great faith, which was epitomized in the way in which she lived her life. I also remember her love for the comic operas of Gilbert & Sullivan!”
As a way of dealing with its loss, the WTA family decided to name an annual sportsmanship award – which is still decided by a peer vote of players – in Krantzcke’s honor.
The iconic Goolagong was an appropriate first recipient in 1978. Since then, winners have included, among others, Chris Evert, Peanut Louie-Harper, Amanda Coezter, Lindsay Davenport, Elena Dementieva and Ana Ivanovic. Kim Clijsters and Petra Kvitova hold the record with eight wins apiece while in 2020 another Czech, Marie Bouzkova assumed the mantel from Kvitova.
“Karen was always so gentle, kind to everyone, softly spoken and dedicated to improving her tennis. Her attitude was, if you apply yourself, you will achieve,” says Dalton. “The Karen Krantzcke Sportsmanship Award is such a fitting tribute to someone who loved the sport, was modest, worked so hard for her successes and whose temperament on the court was an example to all.”