From Feel Good To Fairy Tale – A Champion In Exile: Jaroslav Drobny’s 1954 Wimbledon Championship (Part Three)

No one would have blamed Jaroslav Drobny if he had skipped the 1954 Wimbledon Championships. During the first half of 1954 his performance was mediocre at best. His best result, a runner-up showing at the Argentine International Championships, where he had lost the last set of the final 6-0. At the French Open he wasa upset in the fourth round. This was the first time that Drobny had failed to make it as far as the semifinals at Roland Garros in the post-World War II era. Adding to his woes, the powers that be at Wimbledon lowered his seed from fourth to eleventh. Drobny was so irritated by this rapid demotion that he contemplated withdrawing from the tournament altogether. Only after being convinced by his English wife Rita – a former Wimbledon player herself – was his entry confirmed. Unlike in years past he would not play in the doubles portion of the event. Drobny would instead focus only on singles, but not with his usual thorough preparation. This time he preferred to go fishing rather than practice between matches. Such a devil may care attitude was a striking departure from his past efforts. Gone was the uber-intensity. Drobny played at Wimbledon in 1954 like a man who had nothing to lose. Soon it would become apparent that he had everything to win.

Jaroslav Drobný - one of Eastern Europe's greatest tennis players

Jaroslav Drobný – one of Eastern Europe’s greatest tennis players (Credit: Bilsen, Joop van/Anefo)

Twice As Old & Better Than Ever
The 1954 Wimbledon Championships were Drobny’s eleventh appearance in the tournament. At 32 he was now twice as old as when he first played the tournament sixteen years before. Due to his low seeding Drobny would face a top player earlier than usual. He proceeded to sail through the first four rounds without losing a single set. Now he faced the second seed and super talented Australian Lew Hoad. In a stunning display of power and skill, Drobny annihilated Hoad in less than an hour. His play reached its apogee on the final point of the second set when Drobny broke Hoad’s serve with a magnificent forehand passing shot that he hit from a place wide of the sideline and managed to swing back into the court. The ball landed just inside the corner of the baseline. The third set was a mere formality.

Drobny was now through to the semifinals where he would once again face Budge Patty. The two men had treated the center court crowd to the longest match in Wimbledon history the previous year. Another close battle was expected. Each of the three previous times Drobny had defeated Patty at Wimbledon he had come from behind. This time he proved that things were going to be different for him at this Wimbledon. Drobny charged out to a two sets to love lead then was able to hold off Patty’s comeback attempt by winning the fourth set 9-7. The match had lasted half as long as their meeting from the year before.  He was through to his third final.

In the championship match Drobny would face 19 year old Aussie, Ken Rosewall. The contrast in age was striking. Rosewall was only three years old when Drobny played his first Wimbledon. It looked like Rosewall’s youth would give him a big advantage in fitness, but each of his matches save one, had been four or five set affairs. In the previous two rounds Rosewall had come back from two sets to one deficits. Conversely, Drobny had only lost one set the entire tournament, helping him rest his 32 year old body. Nonetheless, bookmakers all favored a Rosewall victory. Drobny’s feel good story was thought to be just that, but few expected a fairy tale ending.

The Final Drama
Going into the match Drobny was in a completely different frame of mind than in his two previous appearances in the final. As he stated in his autobiography A Champion In Exile, “I was totally calm and I approached the final against Rosewall in a state of complete peace of mind. I had been written off as a ‘has been’ or ‘never was’. On the eve of the final I caught a few fish in our nearby lake, watched other players chasing tennis balls around the court on television, and sat back in an easy chair at home and told my wife ‘I will win’.” Drobny had not anticipated making it to the final, for that matter he had only decided at the last minute to play the tournament. Now for the third time he was a single match away from his ultimate goal of winning the championship, except this time he really did not seem to be worried about that goal. Most importantly he was no longer burdened by the weight of expectations or self-imposed pressure. He was now primed to play his best.

Of course, nothing ever came easy for Drobny at Wimbledon. And as proof of that point he started the final by losing his serve right away and went down 0-2. He immediately fought back winning four straight games to give himself an opportunity to serve for the set. Rosewall broke back with a laser forehand pass on the deciding game point. At 7-6 Drobny served for the set again and failed. In the 21st game of the set Rosewall broke Drobny and subsequently had a set point while serving at 11-10. Drobny saved it with an overhead that just clipped the baseline. This was probably the most important point in the match. If Drobny had lost the first set, a comeback might have been too much to ask. Instead he went on another run, winning the final three games and the set.

Rosewall got his masterful backhand going in the second set. He broke in the eighth game then followed it up by serving out the set. In the third set Drobny changed tactics in an attempt to swing the match in his favor. He began to rush the net at every opportunity, even following service returns to the net. Rosewall was unable to pass or lob with any success. The set went to Drobny 6-2. The fourth set looked to be going the same way when Drobney broke to take a 5-3 lead. He was one game away from the title, closer than he had ever been. Luck at this moment favored Rosewall who broke with the help of a net cord on a backhand. The situation reversed itself in the fifteenth game when a net cord, this time for Drobny, dropped over giving him another break. For the second time he served for the championship. This being Drobny, dramatics were in order. First he went down 15-40. He managed to win the next three points in a row, the last of that trio with an ace.

Jaroslav Drobny - 1954 Wimbledon champion

Jaroslav Drobny – 1954 Wimbledon champion

The Moment That Lasts Forever
After 53 matches in 11 championships across 17 years Drobny had a Wimbledon match point. It turned out to be the only one he would ever need. He fired a serve to Rosewall’s backhand which promptly landed in the net. Game, set, match and 1954 Wimbledon Championship to Jaroslav Drobny, the first Czechoslovakian champion, the first eastern European champion, the first Egyptian champion all in one. The crowd rose to its feet for 15 straight minutes to give Drobny a well-deserved ovation. They had just witnessed the longest final in Wimbledon history. Against the odds, Drobny had overcome a fantastic opponent plus a litany of mental, physical and political obstacles. One can only imagine what the party bosses and apparatchiks back in Prague must have thought of their exiled countryman’s victory. Their vain attempt at control had helped create this man. And the man had created the moment, one that would last forever.


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