Very few people know the name of Pavel Hutka. Who he was and what he nearly did are buried in the deepest recesses of tennis history. His moment of glory never quite arrived. He was good enough to be a professional tennis player, but only on the very fringes of the Grand Prix circuit from 1974- 1981. He never won more than two consecutive matches at the highest level of the tour during those years. With a record marked by more losses than wins it is hard to discern any kind of career trajectory other than downward. He seemed to go from one bad loss to another, with a few scattered victories thrown in for good measure.
There have been hundreds of professional tennis players like Hutka over the past fifty years who have records just as forgettable. The only reason anyone remembers Hutka at all is for what he could not do. Over the course of a few hours at the 1976 French Open Hutka looked like a world beater. He was on the cusp of pulling off a major upset. No one could have known at the time, but if he would have defeated the Italian Adriano Panatta, it would have changed the course of tennis history. This would only become clear in retrospect, after the tournament ended with Panatta as the champion and Hutka as an afterthought.
The Survivors – Rising From Obscurity
Pavel Hutka came into the 1976 French Open with a poor record on the regular tour. Since his debut at the Grand Prix level in 1974 he had won four matches and lost nine. His best victory had come the year before when he defeated 30th ranked Andrew Pattison of Great Britain on red clay in Hamburg. Other than that victory Hutka had no other memorable victories. He played a few close matches against such clay court stalwarts as Juan Gisbert and Francois Jauffret, but ended up losing in the final set. His play during the spring of 1976 did not raise hopes. He lost three of four matches with his lone victory coming over Bernard Minquot, a Belgian lucky loser (someone who loses in qualifying, but gets into the main draw of a tournament because of another player’s withdrawal) at a tournament in Dusseldorf. The French Open would be his first Grand Slam tournament ever. He entered the event ranked #162 in the world. Hutka was fortunate to avoid qualifying, but the main draw was not kind to him.
Hutka’s first match would be against the mercurial Panatta who was seeded eighth. The Italian had been playing some of the best tennis of his life. He was coming off a magical, much lauded victory at the Italian Open. During that tournament he had cheated fate, somehow managing to survive eleven match points in the first round against Australia’s Kim Warwick. After that great escape, he rode a wave of confidence to the title. Little did Panatta or anyone else realize that he was about to undergo the exact same experience in Paris that he did in Rome. Instead of the highly regarded Warwick in the first round, he would face the barely known Hutka. The two would play one of the most memorable matches of the tournament.
Framed – Panatta Lucks Out
Hutka started the match in strong form, helped by an unorthodox style that gave Panatta fits. Officially the Czechoslovak played right handed, but he served and hit overheads as a lefty. This ambidextrous style was something Panatta had rarely experienced. Before he knew it, the speedy Hutka had run away with the first set, 6-2. Panatta then settled down. He seemed to hit his stride, easily winning the next two sets. It was in the fourth set that the match took an odd turn. Panatta lost his form, while Hutka soared. The Czechoslovak blanked the Italian 6-0. Hutka’s high level of play continued in the fifth set. He forced Panatta to hold serve on four separate occasions just to stay in the match. At 4-3 Hutka gave himself two break points on Panatta’s serve, but squandered them both. Five different times he was two points from winning the match. Then while leading 10-9, Hutka finally made it to match point. What happened next was incredible.
Panatta’s first serve was out. Hutka returned his second delivery with a shot that hit the net cord. Panatta came in behind a deep, penetrating shot. This forced Hutka to hit a lob that he struck with near perfect precision. Panatta was only barely able to reach the ball. His attempted smash struck the frame. Hutka nailed a cross-court backhand. Panatta lunged for the volley which hit his frame once again, but this time for a winner. Panatta pulled himself up off the court. He had somehow saved match point with two shots off the frame. It was an incredible turn of events. This boosted his self-confidence. Hutka must have been asking himself what else he could do to defeat the Italian. Panatta would go on win the final three games and the match 12-10 in the fifth. The match point save made him invincible. Panatta would go on to win six more matches, including a defeat of Bjorn Borg in the semifinals, to take the championship. As for Hutka, he became nothing more than an almost famous footnote in tennis history.
The Hard Truth – Going On To Lesser Things
Pavel Hutka would never come close to another upset like his near defeat of Panatta at the 1976 French Open. His career was that of a classic tennis journeyman. He attained a career best ranking of #103 in 1979. By 1981 he had played his final tour level match. One has to wonder what would have happened if Hutka had defeated Panatta at Roland Garros in that memorable match. Would he have gone on to greater things? It is more likely that he would have lost in the next round. Hutka’s game was such that he was unable to consistently compete at the highest level as his later results so often showed. He had enough talent to play one exceptional match that almost altered the course of tennis history, but in Hutka’s case almost was not good enough.