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.

 

Unsatisfied Desires – Jaroslav Drobny: Wimbledon’s Master Of Excitement (Part Two)

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.

The scoreboard says it all - Drobny vs. Patty 1953 Wimbledon

The scoreboard says it all – Drobny vs. Patty 1953 Wimbledon (Courtesy: Alex Nieuwland)

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.

Jaroslav Drobny - for many years found a Wimbledon title just out of reach

Jaroslav Drobny – for many years found a Wimbledon title just out of reach (AP Photo/Leslie Priest)

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.

Click here for: From Feel Good To Fairy Tale: A Champion In Exile: Jaroslav Drobny’s 1954 Wimbledon Championship

The Defector In Dark Glasses –Jaroslav Drobny: Exile On Center Court (Part One)

He was tennis’ answer to secret agent man. Taking the court clad in dark spectacles, Jaroslav Drobny had an air of mystery and intrigue about him. An ever changing nationality only added to his aura. He was either an exile or defector depending upon your perspective. Following the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia he fled west to the free world. After failing to get Swiss, American or British residency papers he called Egypt home after the country offered him citizenship. Drobny was not quite through with his nation hopping. He would eventually take up residence in Great Britain. During all this personal upheaval he still managed to compete and win in world class tournaments. His exile would culminate in the greatest victory of his career. When it seemed that all hope had been lost Jarsolav Drobny was often at his best. His comebacks were more miraculous than mysterious. They defined both his tennis and his life.

Jaroslav Drobny - a man of many nations

Jaroslav Drobny – a man of many nations

Flawed Greatness – A Backhanded Slap
Jaroslav Drobny grew up surrounded by tennis. His father had found employment and a home for his family at a local tennis club in Prague. Drobny became a ball boy at the age of 5. He was a precocious tennis talent. When he was just sixteen years old, local newspapers coaxed their subscribers into funding a trip so he could play at Wimbledon. He lost in the first round, but returned to the All England Club in 1939 and won two matches. Drobny looked like a future star. Unfortunately World War II intervened. He spent the war working in a factory making, among other things, shell casings for bullets that were to be used by the German Army. It would be another seven years before he played in another Grand Slam tournament. During the war he managed to keep his game in good enough shape that he would reemerge as an elite player. And what a game it was.

Short and strong, the left handed Drobny sported a powerful serve, that he could choose to hit flat, slice or with a wicked twist. His net play was just as effective as his serve, with an overhead that was second to none. His forehand completed this trio of weapons. Using a variety of spins and slices to vary the pace, his shot making was equally effective on clay or grass. His one true flaw was an inability to master a full backhand stroke. Under pressure it often broke down. He was then reduced to hitting a tepid chip or slice. This cost him many close matches at the biggest tournaments. Nevertheless, it did not prevent him from becoming one of the greatest players in the world during the post-World War II era.

Jaroslav Drobny - a master of clay

Jaroslav Drobny – master of clay

Wicked Twists – An Egyptian Czechoslovakian
Drobny was a magnificent athlete who also excelled at ice hockey. Hockey was the reason he always wore dark glasses on the tennis court. Splintered steel from an opponent’s skate had cut one of his eyes during a game. This injury did not inhibit him from continuing to play at the highest level. He would become a star at the center forward position for Czechoslovakia’s national team. In 1947 he led the team to their first world championship, averaging more than two goals per game. At the 1948 Winter Olympics, Drobny scored nine goals in eight games as the Czechoslovaks won the silver medal. The next year he turned down a reported five figure offer from the Boston Bruins that would have made him the first European to play in the National Hockey League. Drobny still had many goals he wanted to achieve in tennis. First and foremost of these was winning a Grand Slam tournament.

Despite super stardom or perhaps because of it, the late 1940’s brought political complications that interfered with Drobny’s athletic career. As a top sportsman he was used by the regime for propaganda purposes. He had become increasingly disillusioned with the travel restrictions placed on him by Czechoslovakia’s hard line Stalinist government. Drobny summed up the situation in his autobiography Champion In Exile as: “Quite simply, I hated being told by some Communist where and when to play because it suited their political aims and ambitions. At the time the Communists realized far better than Western democracies the tremendous propaganda level of international sport.”

Fed up and frightened for what the future might hold, Drobny made the decision to defect while playing at the Swiss Championships in July 1949. He had only a few material possessions with him and would spend the next several years living on the edge of poverty. Tennis would be his calling card with Egypt offering him a passport and citizenship. Incidentally the defection did not hurt Drobny’s tennis one bit. He was already playing at a high level prior to the defection, as a close five set loss in the Wimbledon final had shown. In the immediate aftermath his game continued to soar. He won three straight tournaments without surrendering a set.

By The Thinnest Of Margins –Making Memories
In 1950 it looked like Drobny might finally breakthrough to win his first Grand Slam tournament. All through the spring he was in stellar form. Playing on his preferred surface of red clay he won at Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid leading up to the French Open. Then at Roland Garros he advanced to the final. He dropped the first two sets in the title match against American Budge Patty, before roaring back to take the next two. The fifth set was a tense affair decided by the thinnest of margins, with Patty prevailing 7-5. This was the third loss for Drobny in the French Open Final (runner-up in 1946 and 1949 as well). It was also one of several five set thrillers Drobny played against Patty at a Grand Slam event. The two would face each other again several years later, at Wimbledon, in one of the greatest matches ever played.  At the moment though, Drobny must have wondered if his time would ever come. He was 0-4 in Grand Slam Finals and had lost three of those matches in five sets. As he inched closer to the age of 30 he must have reflected upon the fact that he had lost seven years of his career to the war. Would his luck ever change?

He answered this question in impressive fashion in his next two appearances at the French. In 1951 he lost only 13 games over the course of six sets in his semifinal and final matches to win his first Grand Slam title. He repeated that feat again the next year at Roland Garros with the loss of only two sets in the entire tournament. This primed him for Wimbledon, a championship he longed to win. He made the final by winning consecutive five-setters in his two previous matches. He then took the first set from Frank Sedgman, the man he had defeated just a few weeks earlier in the French final. Drobny was unable to sustain his level of play, dropping the next three sets in succession. Would he ever get such an excellent opportunity again? Drobny had no idea at the time, but the next two Wimbledons would be the most memorable of his career.

Click here for: Unsatisfied Desires – Jaroslav Drobny: Wimbledon’s Master Of Excitement (Part Two)

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.

In All Fairness –A Victory For Sportsmanship: Istvan Gulyas & The 1966 French Open Final

Istvan Gulyas won twenty titles during a long tennis career that spanned both the amateur and professional eras, but it was the one title match he did not win which Gulyas will be most remembered for. Prior to the 1966 French Open Istvan Gulyas had played in eleven consecutive French Opens and never made it past the third round. His career record at Roland Garros of 8-11 included four first round losses and three losses by walkover due to injury. Few players have had such a long and uneventful record in a Grand Slam tournament where they eventually found success. Gulyas’ run to the final in 1966 turned out to be a microcosm of his career, unexpected success that came later than usual.

In 1966 the 34 year old Hungarian was set to face Australian Tony Roche in the French Open final. The only problem was that Roche had badly injured his ankle in a doubles match the day before he was to play the singles final. The dire prognosis from a doctor gave little hope that Roche’s ankle would heal in time for the Saturday singles final. The only way he might be able to play was if the final could be moved to Sunday. Such a change could only take place if Gulyas would agree to it. The answer was never in doubt.

István Gulyás - Hungary's best tennis player during the 1960s

István Gulyás – Hungary’s best tennis player during the 1960s (Credit Harry Pot/Anefo – Nationaal Archief)

Behind An Iron Curtain – Hidden Talent
Gulyas was born in Pecs, a full decade before Hungary was changed irreparably by its involvement in the Second World War. The resulting political changes following the war led to a communist-totalitarian state which affected Gulyas’ career. The hard line Stalinist government that ruled Hungary allowed few of its citizens, including sportsmen, to travel abroad. It was only in the mid-1950’s when more moderate leadership came to power that opportunities for athletes to travel west of the Iron Curtain became available. The upshot was that Gulyas did not play at a Grand Slam event until 1955 when he was 24 years old. It took him several years after that to make a mark in international tennis. Perhaps the difficulty he experienced in getting to play internationally helped Gulyas form an attitude that took the breaks of the game in stride. To his fellow competitors he was known as a gentleman, never questioning a call and accepting what happened on the court without argument. This did not mean he was stoic, far from it. Gulyas talked to himself incessantly during matches. Whenever he hit a bad shot Gulyas would apparently apologize to himself with the phrase “Pardon Vishey.” His opponents were not quite sure what this meant and they were unlikely to find out since he did not speak English.

Success internationally did not arrive for Gulyas until he completed a degree in architecture from the Budapest University of Technology in 1957.After that he set about building a top level tennis career. His first major international success came in 1958 when he won a tournament in Beaulieu, France. He also won titles in multiple years at events behind the Iron Curtain including the International Champioships of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. He continued to play well in France winning several titles there in the early and mid-1960’s. Then in 1966, at the ripe old tennis age of 34 he produced his strongest results yet in the lead-up to the French Open, winning titles in Menton, Aix-En-Provence and Nice. Raising the level of his game, Gulyas arrived at the French Open playing some of the best tennis of his career. He entered the tournament dangerous, but still unseeded. Much would depend upon whom Gulyas faced in the draw. Fortunately Gulyas would play only one seeded player before the semis.

Istvan Gulyas - 1966 French Open finalist

Istvan Gulyas – 1966 French Open finalist

Final Decision  – The Unlikeliest Of Outcomes
His first round opponent, an Australian named Bob Howe, had been playing and losing at Roland Garros for just as many years as Gulyas. Howe had an even worse record of 6-10 at the tournament. He offered tepid resistance as Gulyas won in straight sets. In his second round matchup against the Ecuadorean Miguel Olvera, Gulyas surrendered only six games. This victory setup a meeting with 12th seeded Thomaz Koch of Brazil. Koch preferred hard courts and grass over red clay. He had defeated the Hungarian in the 4th round of the U.S. Open three years earlier, but Gulyas had returned the favor at Roland Garros the next year.  Once again, the surface favored Gulyas who defeated the Brazilian in four tough sets. In the Round of 16, Gulyas was lucky to avoid the hard serving Aussie John Newcombe who had been upset by the American Clark Graebner. Gulyas had never played Graebner before. They split the first two sets, but Gulyas was able to wear Graebner down, surrendering only two games in the fourth set.

With this win Gulyas was through to his first Grand Slam quarterfinal. His opponent was Ken Fletcher of Australia. Fletcher had upset two time French Open champion and fourth seed Nicola Pietrangeli in the third round. Gulyas showed few signs of nerves as he won easily in straight sets. His toughest test yet came in the semifinals against South Africa’s Cliff Drysdale. Drysdale won two of the first three sets, but the third set had gone all the way to 9-7. Unlike Gulyas who had easily won his previous match, Drysdale had survived a close four set battle against Fred Stolle. The South African began to tire while Gulyas raised the level of his game to win the final two sets 6-2, 6-3. Gulyas had shocked the tennis world by making the final. Now he had the choice of whether or not to allow Roche an extra day of recovery for his ankle. If Gulyas decided the final should be played on Saturday as scheduled than Roche would have to forfeit and the Hungarian would be the French Open champion. He chose otherwise. In an act of first class sportsmanship Gulyas said the final could be played a day later, allowing Roche enough recovery time to play.

Tony Roche & Istvan Gulyas - a victory for sportsmanship

Tony Roche & Istvan Gulyas – a victory for sportsmanship

Ultimate Respect – An Unexpected Success
The final turned out to be not much of a match. Roche, who had to get pain killing injections just to play the final, dominated in a resounding victory 6-1, 6-4, 7-5. It would be the only Grand Slam singles title of Roche’s career. It was also the only Grand Slam singles final of Gulyas’ career. It was a strange ending to a remarkable run. Gulyas was lauded for his decision. He was the recipient of the UNESCO International Fair Play Award in 1967. Years later Roche would say, “I won this final I shouldn’t have played. But it was only through the generosity of Istvan, which was something very special. I couldn’t imagine a similar scenario playing out in today’s game.” Istvan Gulyas may not have won the 1966 French Open title, but through his act of sportsmanship he earned the ultimate respect of his opponent and tennis fans forever.

“Shadow Prince” – Henner Henkel: From The French Open Champion To Stalingrad

He was born during the First World War and would die fighting in the Second. During his short, eventful life he rose to tennis stardom becoming the number three player in the world. Yet a little over five years after winning his first and only Grand Slam singles title he found himself trapped along with an entire German Army in the frozen wasteland around Stalingrad. There he would die on a brutally cold, mid-January day, one of millions of German soldiers who lost their lives on the Eastern Front. The only difference between him and so many others whose names have been lost to history was that his name has been etched into the tennis history books forever as a victor of the French Open. That man’s name, Heinrich “Henner” Henkel deserves to be remembered.

Heinrich "Henner" Henkel

Heinrich “Henner” Henkel (Credit Alex Nieuwland)

Best Of The Next Best – The Unexpected Champion
If asked to name the most famous German men’s tennis player of all time, most tennis experts would say Boris Becker. As a teenage wunderkind with a booming serve he took the tennis world by storm. By the age of 21 Becker had won three Wimbledon titles. In a long and notable career he won 49 titles, but none of these came on red clay. Clay was Becker’s kryptonite, especially at the French Open where he only made it as far as the semifinals twice. Because Becker and his countryman Michael Stich (runner-up 1996 French Open) failed to win in Paris, this left a forgotten man with a funny name as the last German to win the Grand Slam tournament. In 1937 the best German tennis player in the world was Gottfried von Cramm. Von Cramm played in three consecutive French Open finals from 1934-1936 winning two of them, but in 1937 the Nazi government would now allow him to play the event. He refused to comply with Nazi ideology and act as a tool for their propaganda. Von Cramm’s absence removed a major obstacle for Heinrich Henkel.

Dubbed “The Shadow Prince” because he played in the shadow of the more famous Von Cramm, the handsome, blond haired Henkel looked the part of a matinee idol. Born in Posen (present day Poznan, Poland), Henkel grew up in a family that loved tennis. Both his mother and father were avid players. When he started to show a keen interest in football, Henkel’s parents discouraged him from further pursuing the game. Instead they told him to focus on tennis. That he did, with fantastic results.  By the time he turned 19 Henkel was a two time German junior champion and had become a member of the David Cup squad. His game was solid and sometimes spectacular. A blistering first serve won him many points easily. Many tennis experts rated him a greater talent than Von Cramm, but he seemed to lack the same drive and focus that had propelled his countryman to the top of tennis. Henkel was light hearted, enjoying life to a much greater degree than other world class players.

A Shadow Prince and The Baron - Henner Henkel and Gottfried von Cramm

A Shadow Prince and The Baron – Henner Henkel and Gottfried von Cramm (Credit: State Library of New South Wales)

A Decisive Performance – A Devastating Fate
A better doubles than singles player, Henkel attained his greatest results playing with a partner. He made the finals of every Grand Slam tournament, winning both the French and U.S. Open titles with Von Cramm in 1937. Also in that year Henkel achieved his greatest feat in singles play on the red clay of the French Open. He started his title run in the second round. In those days, the French Open gave higher seeded players first round byes. Thus, to win the title Henkel would have to win six rather than seven matches. He cruised through the first three rounds against unseeded competition, losing only the 2nd set in a match against Raymond Tuckey of Great Britain. As the tournament went on Henkel’s play became even more impressive. Starting in the quarterfinals he defeated three consecutive seeded players, all without the loss of a single set. In the semifinals and final he destroyed the #2 and #1 seeds respectively, ceding only eight games to each of his opponents. It was one of the most decisive performances in Grand Slam history and one that Henkel would never repeat again in a Grand Slam singles tournament. He never played another match at the French Open. His best results from that point forward were a couple of semifinal finishes at Wimbledon.

As Germany became further and further engulfed by war, Henkel’s play at international tournaments was increasingly limited. He played his last major tournament abroad in Spain during the latter part of 1941. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the war increasingly began to hit home in the form of draft notices as the Third Reich required more and more manpower to sustain an army suffering massive casualties on the Eastern Front. Sporting heroes could not escape the grasp of military necessity. A total war meant mass mobilization.  In 1942 while playing at a tournament in the spa resort town of Bad Pyrmont, messengers from the telegraph office brought news from the military recruiting office that Henkel had been drafted. He made it all the way to the final in what was to be his last tournament.

How he will be remembered - Henkel in all his glory

How he will be remembered – Henkel in all his glory

Always Known & Rarely Mentioned – A Famous Footnote
Later that same year Henkel received his baptism of fire in the fighting around Stalingrad. During battle he was seriously wounded in the upper thigh by a bullet. With the German Army surrounded on all sides there was no chance at evacuation. His condition soon worsened. The bitterly cold weather did not help matters. In mid-January 1943, Henner Henkel died from his wound in Rossosh, Soviet Union.  He was just 27 years old. Three weeks later the German 6th Army surrendered. Henkel’s death was just one of an estimated 734,000 killed, wounded or missing German casualties. In a strange way death allowed Henkel to escape what would have proved an even harsher fate. If he had been one of the 108,000 Germans captured, it is almost certain that he would have been subjected to forced labor. Instead he was able to die with at least some dignity. Today Henner Henkel is little more than an answer to trivia questions, a footnote in French Open tennis history. His name is rarely mentioned, but at least it is known. He rightfully earned himself a place in the record books with his magnificent play at the 1937 French Open. For that he will always be known as a champion, a title that war can never take away from him.

 

History Almost Repeats Itself – Marton Fucsovics & Hungary’s Davis Cup Defeat Of Slovakia

In 1980, led by the rocket forehand of Ivan Lendl, Czechoslovakia became the first Eastern European nation to win the Davis Cup. During the eighties Czechoslovakia produced many excellent players including all time-great Lendl, the mercurial Miloslav Mecir and Tomas Smid. After the Iron Curtain fell the country split during the Velvet Divorce of 1993. Development of top level professional tennis talent continued. The Czech Republic has won two more Davis Cups (2012 and 2013) since the split while the less tennis mad Slovaks managed to make it all the way to the 2005 final. The center of the men’s tennis world in Eastern Europe has now moved south to the Balkans, where several Grand Slam champions (Novak Djokovic and Marin Cilic) have been developed. In between these two tennis hubs lies Hungary. The Magyars have a very poor record in the Open era of men’s professional tennis (since 1968). Other than the superb Balazs Taroczy, Hungary has produced only one other top 50 player during the Open era.

Marton Fucsovics - after a Davis Cup victory

Marton Fucsovics – after a Davis Cup victory

A Fetish For The Obscure – Hungarian Men’s Tennis
Only those tennis aficionados who have a fetish for the obscure can recall the name of Peter Szoke, a Hungarian who lost in the 1971 German Open final and two years later climbed to #47 in the world before turning his focus to doubles. No Hungarian has come anywhere close to matching Taroczy for titles (13) or highest singles ranking (#12). Since Taroczy retired in 1990, Attila Savolt and Sandor Noszaly have been the only Hungarians who have managed to break into the top 100. The current crop of Hungarian men’s tennis players has failed to attain Savolt or Noszaly’s meager level of success. In Davis Cup, the Hungarians have produced an endless succession of underwhelming performances. They have made the World Group twice, losing both times in the first round. Their last appearance was over two decades ago in 1996. Thus it was with great surprise that news arrived this past weekend of the Hungarian Davis Cup team producing a stunning upset of Slovakia. Playing an away tie in Bratislava the Hungarians managed to prevail 3-1 during Africa/Europe Group One play. The star of the tie was Marton Fucsovics who won both of his singles matches and was also a part of the winning doubles tandem. Fucsovics was an unlikely candidate for hero, especially in light of his play last year during a home tie in Budapest also against Slovakia.

In mid-July of 2016 Hungary faced Slovakia in Davis Cup for the first time ever. The tie was played on red clay in Budapest. The advantage of playing at home, turned out to be no such of a thing for Hungary. It was little surprise when the Hungarians lost the first match. Peter Nagy was ranked several hundred spots lower then Slovak Andrej Martin who quickly dispatched him in straight sets. The second match was the critical one. Fucsovics faced Joszef Kovalik, a player ranked forty-one spots above him. To compound matters, red clay is Kovalik’s favorite surface, while Fucsovics prefers grass or a fast hard court. The choice of the wrong surface for the home team proved decisive. Fucsovics split the first two sets with Kovalik, but the Slovak managed to eke out the 3rd set in a tiebreaker 7 to 5. After that, Fucsovics will was broken as was his serve multiple times in the fourth set. Kovalik coasted to victory. The next day Fucsovics was part of the losing doubles team as Slovakia completed the rout. Hungary had managed to win a grand total of one set in three matches. Fucsovics may have been Hungary’s best player at the time, but the tie had proved that he was no match for the Slovaks or did it?

From Champion To Journeyman – The Rise & Fall Of Fucsovics
In tennis parlance, Marton Fucsovics is a journeyman. He first rose to prominence by winning the Wimbledon junior title in 2010. Soon thereafter he was ranked as the top junior in the world by the International Tennis Federation. Later that same year he turned pro, but did not meet with anywhere near the same success of his junior career. In 2013 he won two challengers, including an indoor event in Andria, Italy where he defeated three of the top four seeds all in straight sets. In October 2014 he achieved his highest ranking ever at #135. From that point he began a slow, but steady slide, bottoming out at #275 in September 2015 while suffering from neck and back problems. Fucsovics has climbed back to his current ranking of #163, which means he is good enough to compete at the challenger level, but not quite up to the regular tour. He is certainly not the first world junior number one to have found the pro tour to be extremely difficult. Now at the age of twenty-five the question is whether Fucsovics reached his peak several years ago. The answer would likely have been yes, but his performance this past weekend has raised hopes once again.

History can repeat itself, but only up to a certain point. Fucsovics proved this when he found himself in exactly the same position in 2017 as he did last year against Slovakia in Davis Cup. Just as in 2016 Hungary lost the first match of the tie. Fucsovics then faced Jozef Kovalik once again. He won the first set and lost the second. At this point in 2016, the match had turned in Kovalik’s favor. This time though, Fucsovics made history rather than repeating it. The difference in the match was his return of serve. He actually won a greater percentage of points returning Kovalik’s first serve (42%) rather than an easier second serve (34%), a rare feat that decided the match in his favor.  In the doubles, he teamed up with Attila Balzas for a five set victory. Hungary suddenly was one win away from an upset.

Márton Fucsovics - leader of the 2017 Hungarian Davis Cup team

Márton Fucsovics – leader of the 2017 Hungarian Davis Cup team (Credit: Diliff)

A Surprise In Slovakia – Hungarian Tennis Reemerges
Then on the final day he faced his greatest test against Martin Klizan, ranked #35 in the world and playing in front of his home fans. Klizan took the first set, but Fucsovics ran off the last three sets in succession. He relied heavily upon his serve, finishing with 18 aces and winning 83% of his first serve points. He also feasted on Klizan’s second serve, winning 68% of those points. It all added up to a surprising victory for the Hungarians, almost entirely due to the play of Fucsovics, on the road no less. What had changed in the space of six months for Fucsovics? Obviously he had raised the level of both of his service and return game. Confidence is a strange thing, but it snowballed for him during the tie. He was also helped by the Slovak decision to play the tie on a fast, indoor hard court, Fucsovics favorite surface. Now the question will be if these three victories lead him to greater heights. Hungary has been waiting a long time for another top 100 player. Will it be Fucsovics? After his latest victories there is reason for optimism, a rarity in Hungarian tennis.

“I lost a lot of respect for you today” – The Final Verdict: Ion Tiriac & The 1972 Davis Cup (Part Two)

In the opening match on the third day of the 1972 Davis Cup Final the American Stan Smith found himself in an extremely difficult position. Up against the trickery and dubious tactics of the Romanian Ion Tiriac he lost the first set 6-4. Finding himself in the unenviable position of being down a set with the Romanian crowd roaring with delight in his ear, Smith now faced his greatest challenge. This was the exact opposite of how he had started his other two matches in the Finals. In both of those, he had won the first set on the way to straight set victories by playing nearly flawless attacking tennis under the most intense pressure imaginable. Neither the partisan Romanian crowd nor the slow red clay could defuse Smith’s power game in those first two matches. In Tiriac, though, he faced an entirely different type of challenge.

Tiriac’s game was much more limited than his superstar and much higher ranked countryman Ilie Nastase who had been decisively defeated by Smith. Tiriac stood little chance against Smith if he tried to outhit the American. Instead he slowed down the match both during and between points. His tactic during play was to hit high, loopy groundstrokes denying Smith the pace his game fed off. This would often lead to openings which Tiriac was able to exploit. Then between points he would stall and interrupt in every way imaginable. These tactics reaped early rewards for the Romanian as Smith struggled to gain control. After less than an hour under a slate grey sky he found himself a set down to Tiriac.

Stan-Smith - hero of the 1972 Davis Cup Final

Stan-Smith – hero of the 1972 Davis Cup Final

“They weren’t going to let me win” – Unsportsmanlike Conduct
To make matters worse he was having trouble holding his serve to open the second set. At game point Smith did something totally out of character with his usual gentlemanly demeanor. When his first serve was called out, Smith fooled the referee into overruling the call. With another chance at a first delivery, Smith produced an ace. Instead of complaining, Tiriac applauded Smith for his gamesmanship. The tide suddenly turned in the match. Over the next two sets Smith steamrolled Tiriac by playing confident, aggressive tennis. The difference between the two in talent and skill level became obvious. The plodding Tiriac could do little under the weight of Smith’s serve and volley assaults. Smith looked like what he was; one of the best tennis players in the world. Tiriac, meanwhile, plodded around the court looking all but finished.

The difference in the two players’ skill level was so vast that it looked like Tiriac’s antics would not win him more than one set against Smith. Yet the Romanian still had a few tricks left to play. And play he did, but it was not so much pro tennis, as it was head games. The linesmen willfully assisted Tiriac in his effort to scheme a way to victory. The situation grew so bad in the second set that after one of them made three wrong calls in a row against Smith, the American captain Dennis Ralston succeeded in having him removed. The blatant cheating became even more apparent in the third set when Smith had four consecutive close calls go against him. At that point, he would have been well within his rights to walk off the court. Somehow he managed to maintain his composure enough to finish off the set. Later he said that “I started to believe they weren’t going to let me win…no matter how well I played.”

Ion Tiriac in action at the 1972 Davis Cup Final

Ion Tiriac in action at the 1972 Davis Cup Final

“Going Nuts” – Smith Nearly Loses Control
Smith’s doubts about winning must have risen to a whole new level in the fourth set when he grew so angry and flustered that he nearly lost all control of himself. The result was that for a while he did lose control of the match. Tiriac, the linesmen and the crowd were a lethal combination. The culmination of all this unsportsmanlike conduct occurred when Tiriac hit a serve out and Smith smacked the ball for a clean winner. The call was then completely reversed. The linesman said that Tiriac’s serve had been in and Smith’s return out. An incredible turn of events!  Soon thereafter Tiriac had won the fourth set by a score of 6-2. Smith was on the verge of self-destruction or so Tiriac and the vociferous Romanian fans thought. Smith later admitted that by the end of the fourth set he was “going nuts.”

What happened next was just as improbable as the rest of the match. Smith came out for the fifth set in rare form, unleashing a barrage of unreturnable winners. His shots were so far inside the lines that there was no way they could be called out. Tiriac failed to marshal a response, the crowd was silent and the linesmen could only watch impassively as Smith hit one powerful stroke after another. Tiriac was left flat footed and helpless. His antics were useless at this point, cheating was out of the question and the crowd was drained. Tiriac was being destroyed by a superior player. The man who had been the tennis incarnation of Count Dracula, casting his dark magical spells over the court for three days was now reduced to stoic bystander.  Tiriac’s upset bid withered in the end. He lost the final set 6-0. It was game, set, match and Davis Cup to the Americans.

Ion Tiriac

Ion Tiriac – still lurking after all these years

Losing A Match, Gaining A Reputation – The Tiriac Way
After the final point, Smith is reported to have told Tiriac during their obligatory post-match handshake, “I lost a lot of respect for you today.” What Tiriac thought of Smith’s comment is not known. Judging by his behavior throughout the Final it is unlikely Tiriac cared. His goal was to win, whatever the cost. Damage to his reputation from the match was minimal. Tiriac likely enjoyed his standing as a mysteriously fearsome character. It was his main weapon against much more talented opposition. In an interview decades later, Tiriac stated that he did not regret his behavior in the matches. For him the memory was of just another Davis Cup Final that Romania had lost to the United States.  It would be the last time Tiriac or Romania appeared in the Final. At least they were able to say their loss was memorable…for all the wrong reasons.

Going Mental – Psyched Out: Ion Tiriac & the 1972 Davis Cup Final (Part One)

He referred to himself as “the best tennis player in the world who cannot play tennis.” This unvarnished self-assessment came straight from the lips of Ion Tiriac, one of the greatest strategists in the history of tennis. Tiriac, a Romanian from the old Saxon city of Brasov, was a player of marginal talent whose success had little to do with technique or physical ability. Instead Tiriac relied upon his wits and razor sharp intellect. This was a man who could speak eight languages. He put his smarts to good use in the field of tennis. His superior tactical knowledge resulted in one singles and forty-six doubles titles on the men’s pro tour, including a 1970 French Open Doubles championship with his tempestuous countryman Ilie Nastase. They had an on-again, off-again friendship reflective of their emotionally charged temperaments.

Tiriac’s post-playing career met with even greater success. He facilitated the rise of Boris Becker, coaching the German wunderkind to multiple Wimbledon titles.  In the realm of sports management and business he would be wildly successful, using his many connections in Eastern Europe to make a fortune after the Iron Curtain crumbled. Tiriac is now said to be a billionaire. Yet for all of his considerable achievements, he was unable to bring about victory in the most famous match of his career, the fourth rubber of the 1972 Davis Cup Final against American Stan Smith. In one of the most infamous tennis matches ever played Tiriac lost a golden opportunity to win the Cup for his homeland of Romania. It would have been the first Davis Cup championship won by any Eastern European nation, but it was not to be, despite the best efforts of Tiriac and his countrymen to cheat, cajole and connive their way to victory.

A dynamic and dark duo - Ion Tiriac & Ilie Nastase

A dynamic and dark duo – Ion Tiriac & Ilie Nastase

Subversion & Secretiveness – The Romanian Challenge
The morning of Sunday, October 15th dawned cold and gray as the air hung thick over Bucharest. This heavy weather was in line with the turbulent mood of the Davis Cup Final. After two drama filled days on the slow, red clay at the Club Sportiv Progresul, the United States held a surprising 2-1 lead on Romania. To gain this lead the Americans had exhibited preternatural control. The matches had been marred by bad line calls in favor of the Romanians, an intensely partisan crowd that disrupted play and outrageous antics from Tiriac in a victorious come from behind singles win over Tom Gorman in the second match. Off the court, the Americans were confined to the twelfth floor of their hotel and were shadowed by an intense security detail throughout their stay.

There were rumors of possible threats against the lives of two Jewish players on the squad, Brian Gottfried and Harold Solomon. This was coming in the wake of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the Olympic Games in Munich earlier that summer. The tense situation was compounded by the fact that the Americans were playing in a Romania that was held in the iron grip of its leader, Nicolae Ceaucescu. Oddly enough, Romania and the United States were enjoying an uptick in relations because Ceaucescu refused to follow Soviet policies. Nevertheless, he presided over one of the most draconian police states in the communist bloc. It had long been rumored that Tiriac was a member of the Securitate, the Romanian secret police. There was always something dark and mysterious about Tiriac, as though he was up to illicit activities. It took subversion to thrive in Ceaucescu’s Romania. Telling the exact opposite of the truth was a basic survival instinct. Such dark arts came in handy on the tennis court for the less talented Tiriac.

Ion Tiriac - the self-confessed best tennis player in the world who cannot play tennis

Ion Tiriac – the self-confessed “best tennis player in the world who cannot play tennis”

Guile & Gamesmanship – Tiriac Inside The Head
As the final day of competition dawned the Americans needed only one more victory to defend their title. The first match between Smith and Tiriac would decide everything. If Tiriac could manage to pull off an upset, then Nastase would be heavily favored to defeat Gorman in the final match.  Tiriac had many things going for him. His constant stalling, arguing and subversive gamesmanship had been integral to his victory over Gorman. At one point in that match he sat down on a linesman’s platform, unhappy that a serve had been called in. He was able to force the point to be replayed. The crowd also engaged in zealous partisanship. They took to cheering when Gorman missed his first serve. Their cries of Ti-ri-ac echoed in the American team’s ears throughout the match, growing to a roar by the end of the fifth set. Tiriac came from two sets down to achieve an improbable victory. The defeat stunned the Americans, showing them that Tiriac would resort to almost any kind of behavior to win.

Coming into his match against Smith, Tiriac held one major advantage. It would be played on Smith’s least favorite surface, slow red clay. The surface effectively neutralized his attacking game, while placing a premium on strategy. Points were drawn out. Longer rallies would be to Tiriac’s advantage. Yet Smith had played two phenomenal matches in the lead up to the final day. He had always struggled on clay, but not in Bucharest. Smith had yet to surrender a set in two victories, one over Nastase in singles and a complete dismantling of the formidable Tiriac/Nastase team with the help of his partner Erik van Dillen in doubles. In the latter match, Smith and van Dillen had lost only five games. Smith’s play thus far in Bucharest was his best ever on red clay.

Ion Tiriac - working his subversive magic during the 1972 Davis Cup Final

Ion Tiriac – working his subversive magic during the 1972 Davis Cup Final

The Psychological Battle – Victory or Defeat From Within
Smith knew that Tiriac would pull out all the stops in an effort to rattle him. This was nothing new, as Tiriac had long been known for his tactical brilliance which made up for his decided lack of natural tennis talent. The Romanian was blessed with an icy, ominous demeanor that could intimidate even the most formidable opponents. In his autobiography, Nastase said that Tiriac “stays cool always, he doesn’t show his emotions, and his temper doesn’t flare up like mine. He never loses his control.” While Tiriac kept his own emotions largely under wraps many of his opponents lost control of their own. This allowed Tiriac to defeat more accomplished and talented players. The biggest question going into the match looked to be whether or not Tiriac could get inside Smith’s head. It would be a dramatic battle, more psychological than physical.

Maximizing The Moment – József Asbóth’s Achievement: The 1947 French Open & Eastern European Tennis Greatness

Growing up, my first introduction to Eastern Europe was through men’s professional tennis. While watching matches I learned that there were nations such as Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland and Hungary. These were the homelands of Ivan Lendl, Ilie Nastase, Wojtek Fibak and Balázs Taróczy. I also learned that there was an Iron Curtain that divided Europe. Behind this curtain was an entirely different world, a controlled environment where faceless officials decided what people could or could not do. The Soviet Union was little more to me than two things, the place where Andrei Chesnokov was from and a system that took most of his prize money. Eastern European tennis players brought the words, defector and dissident into my vocabulary. My idea of communism was not Brezhnev or Gorbachev it was Lendl, though my assumptions about him ended up being totally wrong.

Now I can see the ATP Tour was the beginning of a lifelong interest in Eastern Europe. So many great players have come out of the region, both male and female, that it led me to wonder who the first great Eastern European tennis player was. Long before Lendl or Nastase won Grand Slam titles, there were other trailblazers. The first great Eastern European tennis player – a Hungarian by the name of József Asbóth – is now an obscure enigma, all but lost to tennis history. He came at a time when top class tennis was just getting restarted in the years following World War II. He deserves to be much better known for his achievement as the first Eastern European (and only Hungarian) to win a singles Grand Slam title. The way he won that title is just as amazing as the fact that he did.

József Asbóth in action prior to World War II

József Asbóth in action prior to World War II

Courting & Skirting War – The Rise of  József Asbóth
József Asbóth was born during the First World War and had his career interrupted by a second one. The son of a railway worker in the far western Hungarian city of Szombathely, Asbóth came of age in the tumultuous interwar years of a Hungary, riven by the loss of two-thirds of its territory in the post- World War I peace settlement. This was a time when Hungary could no longer call itself part of an empire. Instead it was a medium sized nation surrounded by enemies on multiple sides. One way Hungary could still flex its muscle internationally was in sport. In both the 1928 and 1936 Summer Olympics Hungary finished in the top 10 medal count. Sport was an opportunity for Hungarians to achieve some semblance of greatness. József Asbóth was likely not immune to this desire. At the tender age of 20 Asbóth made his debut in international competition, losing a Davis Cup doubles match to the powerhouse German team. The next year he almost singlehandedly defeated Hungary’s hated archrivals, Romania in Europe Group play. He came from behind in both his singles match, on the road in Bucharest no less, to win each of them in five sets. Later that same year Asbóth won his first Grand Slam match at the French Open. He also made it into the main draw at Wimbledon. In 1940 he won three international tournaments, all in Italy.  Asbóth seemed to have a bright future ahead of him.  Then Hungary became inextricably involved in World War II.

Asbóth’s career was put on hold. He would not play any international tournaments outside of Hungary for five years. Truth be told, he was lucky to survive the war and even luckier that his tennis talent had not deserted him. With the Red Army occupying Hungary, the post-war period was filled with tension and strife. It would only be a few years before the Soviets would shut down all vestiges of democracy in the country. During the interim, Asbóth was allowed the freedom to play abroad. After an eight year absence he reappeared on the Grand Slam stage, making it to the third round at Wimbledon in 1947. A couple of weeks later he was in Paris at the French Open (in 1947 the French open was played after Wimbledon) primed to make a run for the title on his favorite surface, red clay. He was seeded fifth, the result of a title at Nice and semifinal showing at Monte Carlo earlier in the spring. These results were good, but nothing like what was about to happen.

József Asbóth won 31 tournaments and is still the only Hungarian to win a Grand Slam Singles Title

József Asbóth won 31 tournaments and is still the only Hungarian to win a Grand Slam Singles Title

From Oblivion To Greatness & Back Again
To say that Asbóth steamrolled through the French Open field in 1947 is an understatement. In six matches he lost only one set and a total of 52 games. In the semifinals he destroyed the #1 seed, American Tom Brown, relinquishing only five games. Asbóth’s run through the tournament was otherworldly. He won two more matches at the French Open that year then he had won in his three previous Grand Slam tournament appearances. He had waited years to play the tournament a second time and then dominated the field. This was unheard of. Asbóth ’s French Open career after his 1947 title turned out to be just as astonishing, but in a very different way. He would not play another match at the tournament until 1954. His title defense was a non-starter, as he was unable to take the court in 1948, losing in a walkover. This was a shame because his performance at Wimbledon that year proved he was still in fine form. He became the first and only Hungarian to make the semifinals on the finely manicured lawns at the All England Club.

From these heights Asbóth ’s play began to fall, as much because of officialdom as any deterioration in his game. To play Wimbledon Asbóth had to have the tennis loving Swedish King Gustaf V guarantee a personal warrant on his behalf. As Hungary succumbed to the Stalinist rule of the dictator Matyas Rakosi, Asbóth’s international appearances became fewer and fewer. Only after Rakosi was ousted from power did Asbóth start to appear in European tournaments again with regularity. In 1954, he took the court at the French Open for the first time since the 1947 title match. He easily defeated a 17-year old Australian by the name of Roy Emerson. Emerson would go on to win more Grand Slam singles than any player of the amateur era. Asbóth was in his late 30’s when he reappeared at the French. He would stay competitive with the top players until he turned forty. He then helped develop young tennis talent in Belgium. Later he moved to Germany, where he would work as a trainer until he died in 1986.

József Asbóth - the 1947 French Open Champion

József Asbóth – the 1947 French Open Champion

An Invisible Champion & Eastern Europe’s Rise To Tennis Greatness
Asbóth’s twenty years on the tennis circuit was characterized by fits and starts. Interruption by a world war, imposition of Stalinism on his homeland and the failed Revolution of 1956, were all events that coincided with Asbóth’s tennis career. He never had an opportunity to maximize his talent like so many others. His tennis was only able escape his nation’s troubles for a few years. During those moments his game soared. During his career, he won 31 tournaments with one of those being that epic run to the French Open crown in 1947. It set the stage for greater things to come for tennis in Eastern Europe. From Jaroslav Drobney to Jan Kodes through Nastase and Lendl up to Novak Djokovic today, the region has produced some of the greatest tennis champions. And that list of champions starts with the son of a railway worker from Szombathely, Hungary. József Asbóth, the Hungarian who forged a remarkable tennis career and French Open title run against incredible odds.