Karel Koželuh

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{TOC|right}} Karel Koželuh (March 7, 1895–April 27, 1950) was a top Czech tennis, soccer (association football), and ice hockey player of the 1920s and '30s. Koželuh never played in any of the major tournaments of amateur tennis but was an all-around athlete at the very highest level. Born in Prague, Austria-Hungary (today the Czech Republic), Koželuh had six brothers and two sisters. His younger brother, Jan Koželuh, was an excellent tennis player also, one good enough to be ranked as high as number 10 in the world and to twice reach the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.[1]

Koželuh's youthful sport was rugby and it was only at the age of 16 that he learned to play tennis. In 1914 he joined the powerful soccer team of Sparta Praha. In later years he also played for DFC Prag (Prague) and Teplitzer FK (Teplice). During World War I, in 1917, he was the center forward on the Austrian national soccer team. After the war he became a Czech citizen and played for the Czechoslovakia national soccer team until 1923. In 1925, as a member of the Czechoslovakian ice hockey team that won the European championship, he scored the winning goal in the final game.

The exact circumstances are unclear, but it appears that Koželuh became a professional tennis coach at a fairly young age, thereby making himself ineligible to play in any amateur tournaments. He did, however, compete in the very few professional tournaments that took place in Europe in the 1920s, contested primarily between teaching professionals. He became known in these tournaments for his speed, his endurance, and his fine groundstrokes from the baseline. He was 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 145 pounds. The American tennis player Vinnie Richards said Koželuh was "seamy-faced, cadaverous-looking and, in general, resembled a cigar-store Indian." Koželuh used the Continental grip, in which both the forehand and backhand are hit with the same grip, and preferred to play as much as 10 feet behind the baseline, returning balls endlessly to the other court, almost never advancing to the net. Seldom hitting the ball very hard, he was content to outrun and outlast his opponents in exhausting matches of attrition. He won the most prestigious of the European professional tournaments, the Bristol Cup, played in Beaulieu, France, 6 times.

When a true professional tour was at last started in 1927, Koželuh was one of the first players to join it, being signed up by Vinnie Richards, who made a special trip to Europe for that purpose. In the years to come Koželuh would achieve a certain prominence as a professional. In 1928, his first year as a pro, he beat Richards 15 matches to 5 at a time when Richards was generally considered to be one of the 5 or 6 best players in the world, amateur or professional. The two following years Koželuh continued to dominate Richards, in 1929 beating him 5 times to 2 and in 1930 4 times to 2. After watching one of their lengthy matches, a tennis expert of the time, J. Parmly Paret, wrote in American Lawn Tennis that Koželuh had "the most perfect defense that I have seen.... But defense alone does not make a champion." He went on to say that either Henri Cochet or Bill Tilden at their best would be able to defeat Koželuh by attacking him consistently from the net. Koželuh defended his somewhat tedious baseline style by saying: "Why should I change my style when it is so successful?"[2]

"Big" Bill Tilden, the greatest player of the 1920s, and by far the most famous, turned professional at the end of 1930 and organised a tour with several lesser players and with himself to play the headline match against Koželuh. Their first encounter was on 18 February 1931 before 14,000 spectators in Madison Square Garden in New York. Tilden won 3 straight sets in only 65 minutes, attacking from both the baseline and the net and overwhelming Koželuh with his power. Tilden won the next 8 matches as well, all of them played indoors on a canvas surface that seldom had enough room for Koželuh to play his normal game far behind the baseline. Koželuh finally won their 10th match on an outdoor concrete court at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. In the course of the year, both in the United States and in Europe, the Czech eventually beat Tilden 17 times while losing 50 matches to him. Koželuh had firmly established himself as one of the half-dozen best players in the world.

Koželuh had already beaten Vinnie Richards to win the United States Pro Championship in 1929. He went on to win the title again in 1932, defeating the young German Hans Nüsslein, and in 1937, at the age of 41, beating the American Bruce Barnes. As well as being the losing finalist in 1928 and 1930, he also played for the championship in 1934 and 1935. His only other major title was the French Professional Championship of 1930.

Koželuh was killed in a car accident outside Prague in 1950.

Koželuh was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, in 2006.


  1. (http://www.reflex.cz/Clanek24490.html) link to Czech article about Karel Koželuh
  2. The History of Professional Tennis, Joe McCauley (2003) Much of the above information relating to Vinnie Richards comes from McCauley's book.