Istvan Gulyas won twenty titles during a long tennis career that spanned both the amateur and professional eras, but it was the one title match he did not win which Gulyas will be most remembered for. Prior to the 1966 French Open Istvan Gulyas had played in eleven consecutive French Opens and never made it past the third round. His career record at Roland Garros of 8-11 included four first round losses and three losses by walkover due to injury. Few players have had such a long and uneventful record in a Grand Slam tournament where they eventually found success. Gulyas’ run to the final in 1966 turned out to be a microcosm of his career, unexpected success that came later than usual.
In 1966 the 34 year old Hungarian was set to face Australian Tony Roche in the French Open final. The only problem was that Roche had badly injured his ankle in a doubles match the day before he was to play the singles final. The dire prognosis from a doctor gave little hope that Roche’s ankle would heal in time for the Saturday singles final. The only way he might be able to play was if the final could be moved to Sunday. Such a change could only take place if Gulyas would agree to it. The answer was never in doubt.
Behind An Iron Curtain – Hidden Talent
Gulyas was born in Pecs, a full decade before Hungary was changed irreparably by its involvement in the Second World War. The resulting political changes following the war led to a communist-totalitarian state which affected Gulyas’ career. The hard line Stalinist government that ruled Hungary allowed few of its citizens, including sportsmen, to travel abroad. It was only in the mid-1950’s when more moderate leadership came to power that opportunities for athletes to travel west of the Iron Curtain became available. The upshot was that Gulyas did not play at a Grand Slam event until 1955 when he was 24 years old. It took him several years after that to make a mark in international tennis. Perhaps the difficulty he experienced in getting to play internationally helped Gulyas form an attitude that took the breaks of the game in stride. To his fellow competitors he was known as a gentleman, never questioning a call and accepting what happened on the court without argument. This did not mean he was stoic, far from it. Gulyas talked to himself incessantly during matches. Whenever he hit a bad shot Gulyas would apparently apologize to himself with the phrase “Pardon Vishey.” His opponents were not quite sure what this meant and they were unlikely to find out since he did not speak English.
Success internationally did not arrive for Gulyas until he completed a degree in architecture from the Budapest University of Technology in 1957.After that he set about building a top level tennis career. His first major international success came in 1958 when he won a tournament in Beaulieu, France. He also won titles in multiple years at events behind the Iron Curtain including the International Champioships of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. He continued to play well in France winning several titles there in the early and mid-1960’s. Then in 1966, at the ripe old tennis age of 34 he produced his strongest results yet in the lead-up to the French Open, winning titles in Menton, Aix-En-Provence and Nice. Raising the level of his game, Gulyas arrived at the French Open playing some of the best tennis of his career. He entered the tournament dangerous, but still unseeded. Much would depend upon whom Gulyas faced in the draw. Fortunately Gulyas would play only one seeded player before the semis.
Final Decision – The Unlikeliest Of Outcomes
His first round opponent, an Australian named Bob Howe, had been playing and losing at Roland Garros for just as many years as Gulyas. Howe had an even worse record of 6-10 at the tournament. He offered tepid resistance as Gulyas won in straight sets. In his second round matchup against the Ecuadorean Miguel Olvera, Gulyas surrendered only six games. This victory setup a meeting with 12th seeded Thomaz Koch of Brazil. Koch preferred hard courts and grass over red clay. He had defeated the Hungarian in the 4th round of the U.S. Open three years earlier, but Gulyas had returned the favor at Roland Garros the next year. Once again, the surface favored Gulyas who defeated the Brazilian in four tough sets. In the Round of 16, Gulyas was lucky to avoid the hard serving Aussie John Newcombe who had been upset by the American Clark Graebner. Gulyas had never played Graebner before. They split the first two sets, but Gulyas was able to wear Graebner down, surrendering only two games in the fourth set.
With this win Gulyas was through to his first Grand Slam quarterfinal. His opponent was Ken Fletcher of Australia. Fletcher had upset two time French Open champion and fourth seed Nicola Pietrangeli in the third round. Gulyas showed few signs of nerves as he won easily in straight sets. His toughest test yet came in the semifinals against South Africa’s Cliff Drysdale. Drysdale won two of the first three sets, but the third set had gone all the way to 9-7. Unlike Gulyas who had easily won his previous match, Drysdale had survived a close four set battle against Fred Stolle. The South African began to tire while Gulyas raised the level of his game to win the final two sets 6-2, 6-3. Gulyas had shocked the tennis world by making the final. Now he had the choice of whether or not to allow Roche an extra day of recovery for his ankle. If Gulyas decided the final should be played on Saturday as scheduled than Roche would have to forfeit and the Hungarian would be the French Open champion. He chose otherwise. In an act of first class sportsmanship Gulyas said the final could be played a day later, allowing Roche enough recovery time to play.
Ultimate Respect – An Unexpected Success
The final turned out to be not much of a match. Roche, who had to get pain killing injections just to play the final, dominated in a resounding victory 6-1, 6-4, 7-5. It would be the only Grand Slam singles title of Roche’s career. It was also the only Grand Slam singles final of Gulyas’ career. It was a strange ending to a remarkable run. Gulyas was lauded for his decision. He was the recipient of the UNESCO International Fair Play Award in 1967. Years later Roche would say, “I won this final I shouldn’t have played. But it was only through the generosity of Istvan, which was something very special. I couldn’t imagine a similar scenario playing out in today’s game.” Istvan Gulyas may not have won the 1966 French Open title, but through his act of sportsmanship he earned the ultimate respect of his opponent and tennis fans forever.