Genius Cannot Be Taught – The Mystery Of Miloslav Mecir: A Sly Slovakian

During the Cold War sports stars from Eastern Bloc nations would mysteriously appear from behind the Iron Curtain.  Out of seemingly nowhere a world class athlete would arrive on the scene. They would soon prove a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Due to the heavily censored nature of state-controlled media in the Eastern Bloc very few people in the west had any idea of such athletes until they made their mark. In the mid-1980’s a new star suddenly appeared on the men’s professional tennis tour from Czechoslovakia, a mercurial talent with a game unlike any seen before or since. The player’s name was Miloslav Mecir, also known by the nickname of “The Big Cat” because of his effortless court coverage.

Mecir had the ability to create angles that expanded the definition of tennis geometry. He had a limitless imagination and incredible court vision which helped him to construct mind bending rallies. His backhand was a work of art. The smoothness and fluidity with which he hit the stroke allowed him to disguise his shots. He tied his opponents in knots and left them tripping over their own feet. Mecir would consistently hit the ball behind them, to the point that by mid-match opponents would be utterly baffled. His game could lull them almost to sleep. It was the professional tennis equivalent of a strong sedative. That was up until the point Mecir’s opponents suddenly realized the match was all but lost. They had been lulled into playing Mecir’s game, a losing proposition for sure. The Big Cat was an original in every sense of the word.

Miloslav Mecir - celebrates one of his 11 career titles

Miloslav Mecir – celebrates one of his 11 career titles (Credit: Anefo Croes, RC- Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo)

An Argument With Himself – The Mentally Fragile Moment
My most enduring memory of Mecir is just as strange as his game. In 1989 I had the displeasure of watching Mecir’s first round meltdown at the French Open against the Frenchman Thierry Tulanse. Tulanse was a baseliner who relied on his heavy topspin groundstrokes, but had little else in the way of a game that could damage Mecir. Tulanse was a dirt baller in tennis parlance who was on the downside of his career. Mecir was favored to win the match and promptly took the first set without much of a problem. He then proceeded to fall completely apart. Mecir began to argue over line calls, something he rarely did. This would be followed by arguments mostly with himself.

Mecir tried insanely risky shots, such as an attempted `overhead smash that he tried to spike into the crowd while standing almost parallel with the net. It hit the top of the tape and landed out. As the match went on his play grew increasingly listless. He would rally for a while and then suddenly hit a low percentage shot that had little chance of success. I recall Mecir running his hand through his hair, grumbling while wandering around the baseline and staring at the chair umpire for no reason in particular. The usually imperturbable Slovak was showing signs of increasing mental fragility. He walked to changeovers with his head down and shoulders slumped. It was not long before he was walking to the net to shake the hand of the victorious Tulanse.

Miloslav Mecir with his wooden racket in 2016

Miloslav Mecir with his wooden racket in 2016

An Original In Every Sense Of The Word – Genius Cannot Be Taught
Mecir with his head hung low was not the image I would have preferred to remember of a man who was a tennis magician. It would have been much better to recall the countless times he was victorious over the large contingent of Swedish players that occupied the top ten during the 1980’s. Mecir was deeply feared by them, defeating the likes of Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, Anders Jarryd, Joachim Nystrom and others twice as often as they prevailed against him. Wilander once remarked after a particularly humiliating loss to Mecir that: “It feels like you’re doing everything you can and it’s still all up to him.” In 1988, the year Wilander won three of the four Grand Slam tournaments, his lone defeat was a clinical destruction at the hands of Mecir in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. The Big Cat only allowed Wilander seven games in an effortless victory over one of the greatest players of all time, having one of the greatest seasons. Mecir could dominate the very best without seemingly breaking a sweat.

One of Mecir’s most memorable matches was his upset of Boris Becker in the 1986 U.S. Open. Becker had once remarked that during warmups he wondered how someone with Mecir’s game could even be on the pro tour. By the end of the match though, Becker had no idea how to play, let alone beat Mecir. And Mecir defeated Becker using a Snauwert racquet that looked like it belonged to the pre-modern game. Mecir was the last player to make the final of a Grand Slam with a wooden racquet, at the 1986 U.S. Open. At that same tournament all four finalists on the men’s and women’s sides were from Czechoslovakia, but Mecir was different in this regard because he hailed from Slovakia, while the others were all Czechs. He was and still is the greatest Slovakian player of all time. Mecir also stood out because he did not have a coach. That was probably for the best, since his unorthodox game was unlike any other. Genius cannot be taught.

Miloslav Mecir - tennis magician

Miloslav Mecir – tennis magician

A Game Of Imagination – Angles Of Artistry
Just as fast as Mecir had ascended to the upper echelons of the game, so too was his fall just as precipitate. In 1990, at the age of twenty-six he was forced to retired due to back problems. The fact that he left the game at an age when most players were reaching their peaks left many in the tennis world wondering how Mecir would have combatted the up and coming big hitters who would come to rule the game during the 1990’s. Would Mecir have been able to deftly turn the power of Sampras, Agassi and Courier against them? Tennis fans would never learn the answer? It would have been fascinating to watch the man who had blunted the power of Becker and Lendl, who had struck fear into the hearts of all those top ten Swedish players, who had played the game with such sublime originality that the mere mention of his name today conjures images of an extraordinary artist reimagining tennis with mind bending angles. Miloslav Mecir, “The Big Cat”, was a quiet, shadowy figure from a little known land, playing the game in a way never seen before or since his mysterious arrival near the top of men’s tennis.

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