Fanciful comebacks, victories beyond reason, defeats so devastating they would have sent most players cowering beneath a pillow for months on end, unimaginable highs and unfathomable lows. From 1946 to 1954, Jaroslav Drobny was the drama king of a grass court theater at the All England Club. No one in the history of Wimbledon has ever had a run of thrilling matches quite like Drobny did during that nine year period.
It all began in 1946 at Wimbledon’s post World War II restart when Drobny managed to defeat tournament favorite Jack Kramer in a five set quarterfinal that included a 17-15 set. The following year he faced off against another American, Budge Patty, in the first of what would become a series of memorable encounters. Patty overcame a two sets to one deficit, prevailing in five sets. In 1948, Drobny was the victim of a second round upset at the hands of Italian Gianni Cucelli. A match that also went to five sets and involved a 16-14 second set.
A year later Drobny made it all the way to the final, winning a couple of five setters along the way including a come from behind win over Patty in the third round. Unfortunately Drobny would lose his third five set match of the tournament in the final against American Ted Schroeder. He suffered a devastating loss a round earlier in 1950 when he blew a two set lead against Frank Sedgman in the semifinals. In 1951 Drobny came into Wimbledon fresh off winning his first Grand Slam title at the French Open. It hardly mattered as he was upset by Britain’s Tony Mottram in the third round. Of course the match went five sets. Then in 1952 he clawed his way to a runner-up finish by winning two consecutive five setters in the quarters and semis. At one point from 1947 through 1949 six of the ten singles matches Drobny played at Wimbledon were five setters, including all three of his losses. It was an incredible record.
Match Of The Half-Century – Drobny vs. Patty: 1953 Wimbledon
By the time of the 1953 Wimbledon Championships Drobny was thirty-one years old. Time was running out on his chances to win the singles title. On two different occasions, he had been within a handful of games of the title. These missed opportunities now haunted him. Even when he had triumphed in five setters, such matches took a toll on his stamina, leaving him drained and vulnerable in later rounds. Nothing would prove this point better than a titanic struggle Drobny would have against his old foe and doubles partner Patty in the third round at Wimbledon in 1953. It is still referred to as one of the greatest matches ever played. Certainly it was one of the most dramatic.
The matchup was highly anticipated. The pair had played each other four previous times in a Grand Slam event with each of them winning twice. In three of the four matches the winner had come from two sets to one down to win. The same thing was about to happen again. There was little doubt that the two players were evenly matched. The 1953 Wimbledon encounter would only reinforce the obvious. Drobny won a tight first set 8-6. The second was even closer with Patty finally winning it 18-16. This gave him momentum which he used to quickly secure the third set 6-3. It had taken 57 games just to complete the first three sets. The real drama began in the fourth set with Drobny serving, down 4-5, 30-40. Patty hit the ball just long to lose the point. Twice more during the set, Patty had match points with Drobny serving. He lost them both. Drobny went to break Patty in the fourteenth game to level the match at two sets apiece.
“I could hardly see a thing” – Victory Before Darkness
In the fifth set Drobny struck first with a break that gave him a 4-2 lead. He was eight points from victory, but subsequently failed to hold serve. Patty took to sipping brandy each time they changed sides, better to calm his nerves and deal with stiffness. At 5-6 with Drobny serving, Patty had three more match points which he failed to convert. The match went on deep into the evening. As darkness closed in both players battled injuries to leg muscles, but still managed to keep holding serve. At 9:00 p.m. with the score tied 10-all, tournament officials decided to allow only two more games to be played, then the match would be suspended. Drobny suddenly showed renewed resolve. He quickly broke Patty’s serve, then hit a succession of aces which carried him to final victory 12-10 in the fifth set.
The match had been the longest in Wimbledon history up to that point, at 4 hours and 23 minutes. This at a time when five set matches rarely went any longer than two and a half hours. Drobny had won exactly one more game than Patty (47 to 46). Of the 605 points played, Drobny had actually won three fewer points than Patty (301 to 304). Years later, when interviewed by The Daily Telegram, Patty recalled the match’s final games, “I could hardly see a thing and I was so tired I barely knew where I was.” Drobny was just as tired, but had to prepare for his next match in the days to come. As had happened so often in the past, Drobny’s victory set up his downfall later in the tournament. He somehow won two more matches despite being injured. Finally in the semifinals he gave out, proving little match for the unseeded Dane Kurt Nielson who easily defeated him in straight sets. Drobny was still without a Wimbledon title and it looked like he would never win one.
Hope In Exile – The Mystery Of Promises
At this point in his life Drobny was an Egyptian citizen, who was Czechoslovakian by birth and culture, now married to an English woman. He was the greatest player ever in exile, a man of many nations. No one from Eastern Europe had ever come as close as Drobny to winning Wimbledon. It had always looked like he would be the first. Now it seemed that he would have to be satisfied as the first finalist, twice over, from that dark and mysterious region now cordoned off by the Iron Curtain and under the dark spell of Stalinist influence. Drobny’s future Wimbledon chances seemed about as promising as freedom for his homeland.