An Imposing Style – Roderich Menzel: Czechoslovak Tennis Star & German Author

It could be said that Roderich Menzel’s life was one of fortune and fate. A man of vast and varied talents he led a star crossed tennis career, but later made a name for himself as a writer and world traveler. Menzel had the misfortune of hitting his prime as a world class player when Fred Perry, Don Budge and Gottfried Von Cramm were dominating tennis in the 1930’s. Those tennis greats were the chief reason that Menzel failed to win a grand slam tournament. In the middle of his career a heart condition sent him into convalescence at spas in search of medical treatment. Then as an ethnic German and Czechoslovak national, Menzel ended up trading one nation for another after his homeland was forcibly annexed by Nazi Germany. He had been the leading Czechoslovak Davis Cup player throughout the 1930’s, but in 1939 he suddenly found himself as a member of the German team. The war and its aftermath put Menzel on a much different career path. He would become a latter day renaissance man displaying multi-faceted literary abilities, but it all started with tennis.

Roderich Menzel - displays his style of attacking tennis

Roderich Menzel – displays his style of attacking tennis (Courtesy: Alex Nieuwland)

Towering Heights – A Sizeable Advantage
Roderich Ferdinand Ottomar Menzel was born in 1907 in northern Bohemia. This was in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Menzel’s family lived quite comfortably due to his father’s position as a partner in a manufacturing firm. The young Menzel’s idyllic upbringing was shattered by the death of his father due to a heart attack when he was a teenager. It was around this same time that Menzel made a crucial life decision to choose tennis over football. Not long thereafter, he was crowned the Czechoslovak junior tennis champion at the tender age of 14. His game continued to progress. This was due in no small part to Menzel’s imposing height. By adulthood he measured 6’3” in height and usually weighed at least thirty pounds more than his opponents. His size advantage found its expression in a game that relied heavily on power. Menzel had an excellent serve and followed it up with piercing volleys. In 1928, at the age of twenty-one, he made his first Wimbledon draw.

Throughout the 1930’s Menzel competed at the highest level, but could not quite breakthrough. An excellent clay court player, he made his first Grand Slam semifinal in 1932. In 1934 he lost in five sets to Von Cramm at the French Open and then Perry at Wimbledon. The next year he lost again to Perry at Wimbledon. He was always a notch below the world’s best. It must have been extremely frustrating for Menzel who came of age in an era with some of the greatest players to ever play the game. Frustration was something Menzel knew well. He would often argue with officials and even spectators during matches. In 1936 and 1937 he developed more serious problems with his heart kept him out of many tournaments. This must have been especially frightening for a man who had lost his father to a heart attack.

Roderich Menzel - still holds the Czech record for most Davis Cup win

Roderich Menzel – still holds the Czech record for most Davis Cup win

Second Best – Menzel’s Moment Passes
For most of 1937 it looked like Menzel might be done with tennis, but then he put together a stunning run at the French Open, a tournament he had not played in three years. His march to the final was aided by the fact that Von Cramm had been arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis on trumped up charges and was unable to play in the tournament. Menzel came in as the third seed and proceeded to blitz through his side of the draw with the loss of only a single set. He nearly pulled off a rare triple bagel while defeating Dragutin Mitic in the quarterfinals 6-0, 6-0, 6-1. He had little trouble in the semis with another Yugoslav Franjo Puncec, winning in straight sets. This put Menzel through to the final where he would play the American Don Budge. No one knew it at the time, but Budge was in the process of becoming the first player to win the Grand Slam. The two had played only one time before, at Los Angeles in 1935 when Budge prevailed after losing the first set. The final at Roland Garros was not that close. Budge was clearly the better player, winning twice as many games as Menzel in defeating him without the loss of a set. The match lasted less than an hour. Menzel’s moment had passed. He had no idea at the time that this would be his last appearance at the French Open. World War II ended his career near the top in tennis.

Menzel was more fortunate than Germany’s two other tennis stars during the war. Von Cramm was sent to the Eastern Front and subsequently wounded. Henner Henkel, the 1937 French Open champion, died from combat wounds in the same theater of war. As for Menzel, he found work editing foreign radio broadcasts in Berlin and managed to survive the conflict. His competitive tennis career did not. He would only play in minor events after the war, but tennis had led him into a second career, one in which he was highly successful. Menzel began to write articles and books about sports. Playing tournaments around the world also fostered a love for travel. Menzel was filled with a boundless curiosity. He published four different travel books through the years while traveling to such far off places as Egypt, India, and China on multiple occasions. His literary output expanded as he grew older. The range of Menzel’s writing is fascinating. He covered a wide range of genres, including novels, biographies, children’s books, medicine and science.

Roderich Menzel - one of a kind

Roderich Menzel – one of a kind (Credit: Sam Hood – State Library of New South Wales)

An Unmatched Record – Fortune Over Fate
Later in life he began to wax nostalgic for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the multinational polity that was his first homeland and a haven for an incredibly diverse range of ethnic groups. Menzel himself had lived in two empires that had been extinguished by war. He was also a man of two nations, one of which, Czechoslovakia, no longer exists. What does still exist is Menzel’s record as the most victorious Czech Davis Cup player in history. He won 61 out of 84 matches, a record unlikely to ever be exceeded. Menzel managed to come out on top despite changes in his fate and fortune. He was an excellent tennis player with a brilliant intellect, a man who got the most out of life despite living through the best and worst of times. There will never be another player or writer like Roderich Menzel.

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