Suzanne Kuhlman isn't the fancy type. Her life, like her tennis game, is filled with steady performance and hard work. When she graduates with a physics degree from Georgetown next month, she'll have a year to go in Catholic University's five-year engineering program.
But Kuhlman proved that steadiness can be as much a key to success as flamboyance. On Friday, in her final home match for the Hoyas, Kuhlman, 21, was trying to win her 60th consecutive dual-meet match. She struggled against Mary Washington's Kathy Healey, but settled down and won, 7-5, 5-7, 6-2.
She said some distractions made her lose her characteristic cool. Her friends were there, expecting her to win easily, as she almost always does. So were television crews, teetering at the top of a ladder poking out over the fence behind her.
"It got to a point where I started thinking about it too much," Kuhlman said about her winning streak. "I was kind of overwhelmed."
Usually, it is Kuhlman's opponents who are overwhelmed.
By the end of her junior year, she had a 99-5 record, with 48 dual meet victories. She lost in the AIAW final to Cherie Dow of William and Mary, but came back last fall to win the Big East singles championship. She also teamed with Brigid McCarthy to win the doubles championship. She has a 119-5 career record, with the NCAA regionals and nationals still ahead.
"She has tremendous concentration," said Kathy Kemper, Georgetown women's coach and a former touring pro. "She seems to adapt very well. I never see her show anxiety or stress."
Kuhlman is the eighth of 12 children, so "there was always somebody to play with. I can't imagine having one or two brothers and sisters. It would be so lonely."
She grew up in Fort Mitchell, Ky.: "It's really a suburb of Cincinnati--I missed the (Kentucky) accent by a half-hour," she said, laughing.
Her sister Julie played tennis for Georgetown, graduating in 1979. Another sister, Claire, a sophomore, plays for Kentucky, while Caroline, a junior in high school, plays junior tennis. Claire has a steady base line game, similar to Suzanne's, although she has a two-handed backhand. Caroline, says Suzanne, will be better than her older sisters.
If Suzanne Kuhlman's steadiness on the court is her best attribute, her lack of flamboyance is a minor concern, her coach said.
"She's not as creative as I'd like her to be," Kemper said. "She could be flashier--a little more touch, a little more wrist. Sometimes she'll come up against someone who can beat her at her own game, and she'll have to manipulate them."
The problem with that, Kuhlman said, is that she isn't threatened very often. Her match Friday was the first this season in which she lost a set.
Kuhlman isn't sure if she will try pro tennis. When she graduates, she might want to devote her energies to her work, whatever that might be. Besides, she said, she feels too old to begin the tour.
"Watching the young ones play is too much," she said. "They're so determined. I'd probably have to practice five hours a day. Also, it takes a lot of money to travel to tournaments. I don't have the funds.
"Actually, it's kind of scary. It's such a risk. I'd hate to be a failure."