Growing up, my first introduction to Eastern Europe was through men’s professional tennis. While watching matches I learned that there were nations such as Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland and Hungary. These were the homelands of Ivan Lendl, Ilie Nastase, Wojtek Fibak and Balázs Taróczy. I also learned that there was an Iron Curtain that divided Europe. Behind this curtain was an entirely different world, a controlled environment where faceless officials decided what people could or could not do. The Soviet Union was little more to me than two things, the place where Andrei Chesnokov was from and a system that took most of his prize money. Eastern European tennis players brought the words, defector and dissident into my vocabulary. My idea of communism was not Brezhnev or Gorbachev it was Lendl, though my assumptions about him ended up being totally wrong.
Now I can see the ATP Tour was the beginning of a lifelong interest in Eastern Europe. So many great players have come out of the region, both male and female, that it led me to wonder who the first great Eastern European tennis player was. Long before Lendl or Nastase won Grand Slam titles, there were other trailblazers. The first great Eastern European tennis player – a Hungarian by the name of József Asbóth – is now an obscure enigma, all but lost to tennis history. He came at a time when top class tennis was just getting restarted in the years following World War II. He deserves to be much better known for his achievement as the first Eastern European (and only Hungarian) to win a singles Grand Slam title. The way he won that title is just as amazing as the fact that he did.
Courting & Skirting War – The Rise of József Asbóth
József Asbóth was born during the First World War and had his career interrupted by a second one. The son of a railway worker in the far western Hungarian city of Szombathely, Asbóth came of age in the tumultuous interwar years of a Hungary, riven by the loss of two-thirds of its territory in the post- World War I peace settlement. This was a time when Hungary could no longer call itself part of an empire. Instead it was a medium sized nation surrounded by enemies on multiple sides. One way Hungary could still flex its muscle internationally was in sport. In both the 1928 and 1936 Summer Olympics Hungary finished in the top 10 medal count. Sport was an opportunity for Hungarians to achieve some semblance of greatness. József Asbóth was likely not immune to this desire. At the tender age of 20 Asbóth made his debut in international competition, losing a Davis Cup doubles match to the powerhouse German team. The next year he almost singlehandedly defeated Hungary’s hated archrivals, Romania in Europe Group play. He came from behind in both his singles match, on the road in Bucharest no less, to win each of them in five sets. Later that same year Asbóth won his first Grand Slam match at the French Open. He also made it into the main draw at Wimbledon. In 1940 he won three international tournaments, all in Italy. Asbóth seemed to have a bright future ahead of him. Then Hungary became inextricably involved in World War II.
Asbóth’s career was put on hold. He would not play any international tournaments outside of Hungary for five years. Truth be told, he was lucky to survive the war and even luckier that his tennis talent had not deserted him. With the Red Army occupying Hungary, the post-war period was filled with tension and strife. It would only be a few years before the Soviets would shut down all vestiges of democracy in the country. During the interim, Asbóth was allowed the freedom to play abroad. After an eight year absence he reappeared on the Grand Slam stage, making it to the third round at Wimbledon in 1947. A couple of weeks later he was in Paris at the French Open (in 1947 the French open was played after Wimbledon) primed to make a run for the title on his favorite surface, red clay. He was seeded fifth, the result of a title at Nice and semifinal showing at Monte Carlo earlier in the spring. These results were good, but nothing like what was about to happen.
From Oblivion To Greatness & Back Again
To say that Asbóth steamrolled through the French Open field in 1947 is an understatement. In six matches he lost only one set and a total of 52 games. In the semifinals he destroyed the #1 seed, American Tom Brown, relinquishing only five games. Asbóth’s run through the tournament was otherworldly. He won two more matches at the French Open that year then he had won in his three previous Grand Slam tournament appearances. He had waited years to play the tournament a second time and then dominated the field. This was unheard of. Asbóth ’s French Open career after his 1947 title turned out to be just as astonishing, but in a very different way. He would not play another match at the tournament until 1954. His title defense was a non-starter, as he was unable to take the court in 1948, losing in a walkover. This was a shame because his performance at Wimbledon that year proved he was still in fine form. He became the first and only Hungarian to make the semifinals on the finely manicured lawns at the All England Club.
From these heights Asbóth ’s play began to fall, as much because of officialdom as any deterioration in his game. To play Wimbledon Asbóth had to have the tennis loving Swedish King Gustaf V guarantee a personal warrant on his behalf. As Hungary succumbed to the Stalinist rule of the dictator Matyas Rakosi, Asbóth’s international appearances became fewer and fewer. Only after Rakosi was ousted from power did Asbóth start to appear in European tournaments again with regularity. In 1954, he took the court at the French Open for the first time since the 1947 title match. He easily defeated a 17-year old Australian by the name of Roy Emerson. Emerson would go on to win more Grand Slam singles than any player of the amateur era. Asbóth was in his late 30’s when he reappeared at the French. He would stay competitive with the top players until he turned forty. He then helped develop young tennis talent in Belgium. Later he moved to Germany, where he would work as a trainer until he died in 1986.
An Invisible Champion & Eastern Europe’s Rise To Tennis Greatness
Asbóth’s twenty years on the tennis circuit was characterized by fits and starts. Interruption by a world war, imposition of Stalinism on his homeland and the failed Revolution of 1956, were all events that coincided with Asbóth’s tennis career. He never had an opportunity to maximize his talent like so many others. His tennis was only able escape his nation’s troubles for a few years. During those moments his game soared. During his career, he won 31 tournaments with one of those being that epic run to the French Open crown in 1947. It set the stage for greater things to come for tennis in Eastern Europe. From Jaroslav Drobney to Jan Kodes through Nastase and Lendl up to Novak Djokovic today, the region has produced some of the greatest tennis champions. And that list of champions starts with the son of a railway worker from Szombathely, Hungary. József Asbóth, the Hungarian who forged a remarkable tennis career and French Open title run against incredible odds.