Mismatched– Ivan The Underdog & The Ugly American: The 1984 French Open Men’s Final

When I think back to how my fascination with Eastern Europe began my memory gets hazy. There is no single moment that served to stimulate my interest. It was more an accretion of events, newspaper articles, television programs and school classes that eventually brought about a lifelong fascination. Many of my earliest memories came from sporting events. A touchstone among these was the 1984 French Open final between John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. The contrast between the two men was reflective of the differences between West and East. McEnroe was the explosively temperamental and insanely talented American. He was individualistic to the point of being iconoclastic, both his game and behavior were anything ever seen in tennis.  A deeply flawed genius, in 1984 McEnroe was enjoying one of the greatest seasons in tennis history. His main rival at this time was Ivan Lendl, a taciturn Czechoslovakian who had an air about him that was colder than a Russian winter.

The power and the glory - Ivan Lendl won three French Open titles

The power and the glory – Ivan Lendl won three French Open titles

The Artists Versus The Automaton – A Rivalry Of Contrasts
Lendl’s game was the polar opposite of McEnroe’s. He bludgeoned opponents with a deadly forehand and laser like serves. Whereas McEnroe’s game was a display of artistry, Lendl’s was mechanistic. He seemed robotic and rigid, reflective of a cold and brusque ideology sequestered behind the Iron Curtain. In truth, Lendl had a canny, dry sense of humor, while McEnroe could be a first class jerk. It hardly mattered to the public since on the court Lendl was stereotyped, as a taciturn Eastern Bloc automaton. This colored my opinion of him. I did not care for Lendl because his game lacked imagination, but I was fascinated with what he seemed to represent. There was something scary and alluring about the man. For someone who was said to be cold and emotionless, men’s professional tennis’ equivalent of a human backboard, he was remarkably fragile in high stakes matches, tending to crack under extreme pressure.

Lendl had lost four Grand Slam finals while notoriously falling apart in the latter stages of these matches. There were questions of whether he would ever win a Grand Slam title. The 1984 French Open Final did not look promising for Lendl’s title hopes. He would face McEnroe, who was well on his way to possibly the greatest season in tennis history. The American had won his first forty-two matches that year, with five of those victories coming over Lendl. Traditionally McEnroe’s weakest surface had been clay, but he trounced Lendl twice on the surface prior to the French. As for Lendl, each of his losses in the first half of 1984, save one, were to McEnroe. He could beat anyone, except for his greatest nemesis, much like the fact that he could win any tournament other than a Grand Slam event.

Just out of reach - John McEnroe never won the French Open

Just out of reach – John McEnroe never won the French Open

Getting Personal – Johnny Mac & Ivan The Underdog                                            
Then again I was not quite for Lendl either. His personality and demeanor induced more fear than reverence. There was one thing that made me favor Lendl in this match, he was a decided underdog. A little over an hour into the match he was looking less like an underdog and more like an abject failure. McEnroe dominated the first two sets, allowing Lendl a total of five games and breaking his serve thrice. Lendl looked out of his element, McEnroe was on fire. That was until the second game of the third set. At this juncture, the score was 1-1 with McEnroe up 0 -30 on Lendl’s serve.  If McEnroe broke here, he would be well on his way to becoming the first American man in 30 years to win the French Open. At this critical juncture what ended up breaking was McEnroe’s temper. He took it upon himself to explode at a courtside cameraman in a bizarre show of nervous tension. McEnroe followed this up by losing the game. He would then go on to lose the third set.

In the fourth set McEnroe once again forged ahead. He broke Lendl’s serve to take a 4-2 lead. He was now a mere two games away from the coveted title. The seventh game would end up being the turning point of the match. The crucial moment came with McEnroe serving at game point, 40-30. He came in to the net behind a serve to Lendl’s backhand. The Czech hit a slice that dipped low causing McEnroe to hit his backhand volley from a difficult position. McEnroe pushed the volley a bit too much. It ended up going just long. After winning that point, Lendl dominated the rest of the set, winning five of the last six games. McEnroe made one last push in the fifth set, getting a couple of break points on Lendl’s serve, which he failed to convert. Lendl finally wore McEnroe out, breaking the American’s serve in the twelfth game to win the match the score of 3–6, 2–6, 6–4, 7–5, 7–5. Lendl became just the fourth player to come back from two sets to love down and win the French Open final.

Ivan Lendl Triumphant - 1984 French Open Champion

Ivan Lendl Triumphant – 1984 French Open Champion

Lendl Has The Last Word – His Game Does The Talking
The match altered the Lendl-McEnroe rivalry. They would play seventeen more times after that French Open final with Lendl winning twelve of those matches. McEnroe would make it to three more Grand Slam finals, winning two of them. His career would go into perpetual decline while Lendl continued to excel. The Czechoslovak played in twelve more Grand Slam finals and won seven of them, becoming the world’s top player during the latter half of the 1980’s. During this time he also became Americanized. After moving to the United States in 1986 he was declared an “illegal defector” by the government of Czechoslovakia. He was effectively banished from his homeland. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 Lendl was a permanent American resident and also a three time French Open champion. Lendl slowly grew on me. I respected his superhuman work ethic, intense focus and competitive play. Lendl’s values were not eastern or western, but universal. In any country or ideology this translated well.

 

An Obscure Madness – Dreams & Disappointments: Under The Spell Of Hungarian Men’s Pro Tennis

Fanatical followers of Hungarian tennis have to grasp at whatever hope they can find. Hope is the one thing in the absence of good results that can sustain interest in such an obscure and totally random subject. For instance, I still have hope that Victor Filipenko can somehow climb out of the 788th position in the world rankings. In other words, I am hoping Filipenko can win a match, any match on the satellite circuit, the lowest level of the pro tour. The only person that feels this desperate about Filipenko’s poor play is likely Filipenko himself. Actually it would be nothing short of a miracle if anyone else cared. The same goes for the eleven other Hungarians who have managed to earn at least one ATP ranking point in the past year. The words “no hoper” come to mind when recalling the rather thin list of accomplishments from men with strange names such as Mate Valkusz, Matyas Fuele and Levente Godry. No hoper means the player has little, if any chance of ever earning a decent leaving playing professional tennis, but that certainly does not stop them from trying.

Levente Gödry - one ATP ranking point away from oblivion

Levente Gödry – one ATP ranking point away from oblivion

The Peasants Of Pro Tennis – Satellites Of Serfdom
A popular website with news about men’s pro tennis players who toil on the challenger circuit (one level below the ATP World tour) is called Footsoldiers of Tennis. Challenger draws are filled with players usually ranked between #100 and #300. The Hungarian names mentioned above rarely get to play at this level. They are more like the peasantry of tennis, toiling for years on end in serfdom at satellite events, calling their own lines, stringing their own rackets and dreaming of direct entry to a few challenger events. A first round loss at an ATP World Tour event would be the holy grail of their career. Hope only goes so far when cheering on Godry who debuted at the pro level in 2011. His highest ranking ever was #937. He is now 24 years old. By this age, someone like Rafael Nadal was dominating Grand Slam events. Then again, there is only one Nadal, while there are hundreds of Godry’s lurking in the lower recesses of ATP Tour rankings.

What keeps a player such as Godry going is beyond me. Perhaps it is the memory of his lone victory on the tour over the past year, when he defeated Sweden’s Patrik Rosenholm who had to retire in the second set with an injury. This victory came at a satellite event or as they are officially now known, “Futures”. Since that time, Godry has managed to lose ten consecutive matches, several of which were to players ranked lower than one thousandth in the world. Godry suffered the ignominy of being double bageled (losing a two set match without winning a single game) by countryman Attila Balazs at a satellite event in Hungary last year. Godry has never defeated anyone in singles play ranked above #457 in the world over his seven year career. In his only match thus far in 2017, Godry lost in straight sets to a man with a great name and not so great game, the 929th ranked Tal Goldengorun of Israel. Godry might assuage fears of his ever dwindling career prospects by recalling the fact that he was part of a winning doubles tandem at a Serbian satellite event last year and also made two other doubles finals at that level back home. Quite marginal by most standards, but it does offer a bit of solace.

I do not want to sound defeatist, but the chance of Godry ever making it to the next level is next to nothing. It may be time for him to give up a dream that has long since been tarnished by innumerable losses. The same thing could have been said several years ago. Perhaps Godry considers his only career option to be that of a touring professional. I pity the man if that is true. Then again, there are plenty of people who are really bad at their chosen professions, but manage to hang around the office for years while collecting a paycheck. The problem for Godry is that collecting a check on the pro tennis tour is contingent on a certain level of proficiency. Anything less than victory will not be good enough. The world of men’s professional tennis is cruel and indiscriminate. Win, go home, go broke or find another career. When a touring pro gets desperate enough, he will cling to any shred of hope. Thus Godfry can console himself with the fact that, despite his abysmal results, he is the twelfth best men’s tennis player in Hungary. That means something, but probably only to him and a few hangers-on, of which I am one of the few.

Attila Balazs on the comeback tour

Attila Balazs on the comeback tour

Dreaming Of Greatness – In Praise Of Attila Balzas
Conversely, the man who destroyed Godry in Budapest last autumn, Attila Balazs, is a shining example of a player turning hope into reality. Balazs’ career is suddenly on the upswing after he disappeared from the tour for almost two years, likely due to injury. I have a special place in my heart for Balazs due to a rather bizarre connection between him and Hungarian tennis greatness. His last name is the first name of Hungary’s greatest men’s tennis player, Balazs Taroczy. In my world of unexplainable sporting superstition that counts for something, exactly what is open to question. For two years, beginning in August 2014, Balazs did not play any matches on the pro tour. He started his comeback nine months ago unranked and was forced to qualify for Futures events. He ran off a string of 15 consecutive wins in taking titles at three tournaments. A couple of months later, he won 20 more matches in a row while garnering four more Futures titles, this time in the tennis backwater of Tunisia.

Balazs reached a new level just this past week, as he qualified at the Ostrava Challenger and then made it all the way to the semifinals.  This will allow Balazs to jump another thirty or so places in the world rankings, moving him up to around #230 in the world. If Balazs keeps up this level of play he might be able to top his all-time highest ranking of #153 which he attained almost seven years ago. It might not sound like much, but for me and those few other eternally suffering Hungarian tennis fanatics it would be cause for a wild celebration, giving rise to greater hopes. This is the life I have chosen, following the careers of men I will never know, from a nation that I love, in the lower levels of a sport few follow. Dreaming of greatness and suffering disappointment, all in the service of an obscure madness. My dreams are the same as those Hungarian men who toil in anonymity on the pro tennis tour. We are in search of a greatness that remains forever out of reach, but never beyond belief.

A Ten Way Tie For Last Place – Tennis Triviality: A Fanatic Falls For The Hungarian Open 

You know your life has grown pathetic when a passion for Eastern European tennis has you transfixed by a few random results from a lower tier tour event that no one really cares about other than the Betfair folks, a few wildly enthusiastic tennis tour groupies and a promoter who has staked his entire existence on a week’s worth of mediocre matches. Yet such was the situation I found myself in last week as I spent several days searching for scraps of news and compulsively checking results from the Gazprom Hungarian Open in Budapest. The sponsor, a behemoth Russian energy giant not known for transparency, left a bit to be desired, but certainly provided packets full of prize money. My interest had little to do with the top players in the draw. I did not have one measly cent wagered on a match. Instead, I was almost certainly the only one out of 321,400,000 Americans obsessed with the outcome of a handful of matches featuring Hungary’s finest men’s tennis players.

These professionals were a motley group of journeymen at best, men whose one shining moment would either be a top 100 or top 1000 ranking. The kind of players who lurk in Davis Cup Group 2 Europe/Africa zone draws, dominating Andorra’s finest before being drubbed in turn by Belarusians. Cheering on Hungary’s finest men’s tennis players is almost always a thankless task. A kind of sporting chore that drove me to distraction for several days with thoughts of epicless efforts by clay court warriors with the names of Attila (of course!), Marton (very Teutonic with a fierce first service) and Zsombor (sounds like a sibling of Zamfir, that master of the pan flute who I once saw mocked in a Sprite commercial, I think). My hopes and dreams for one week were invested in the results these men might produce. I yearned for a few acts of greatness – such as a first round victory – while preparing for almost certain disappointment. In my zeal for transcendent obscurity, I overlooked a player in the draw with a deep, but less obvious Hungarian connection. I will get to that momentarily, but allow me to first set out a few of the facts surrounding last week’s tournament in Budapest.

Center court - at the Gazprom Hungarian Open held in Margaret Island in Budapest

Fill it up with dreams – center court at the Gazprom Hungarian Open held in Margaret Island in Budapest from April 24-30, 2017

Futility & Self-Flagellation  – The Plight Of Hungarian Tennis
The Gazprom Hungarian Open was nothing less than a landmark event for the Hungarian Tennis Association. It was the first time an ATP World Tour level event was held in Hungary. What in the name of Balazs Taroczy took so long? Hungary is a nation in love with football, water polo, rowing and handball. Tennis comes in about a ten way tie for last place. To everyone’s surprise Budapest stole a march on Bucharest, sweeping the tournament away from the Romanian capital, where it had been held since 1993. That is what a good or at least a wealthy sponsor can do for an ambitious promoter. Never mind that it was a 250 level tournament, the lowest tier of the ATP World Tour, this was akin to holding a Grand Slam event in Hungary. Wimbledon on the Danube anyone! The Hungarian Open was going to be a big deal, so much so hardly anyone in the world paid attention. Hungarian men’s professional tennis has these disappointments. Being a fan is an exercise in both futility and self-flagellation. Unfortunately only three Hungarian men were entered in singles, two in the qualifying and one in the main draw.  This shows the continuing dearth of talent for Hungarian men’s professional tennis players.

The results of those entered in the tournament were decidedly mixed. Seventeen year old Zsombor Piros played in his first ever tour level event. Ranked #1397, it is not surprising that he was unable to qualify for the qualifying. Instead, he needed a wild card just to gain entry and then proceeded to lose his first match in straight sets. Attila Balazs did better, winning his first qualifying match in an upset over second seeded and #79 ranked Dusan Lajovic of Serbia, before bowing out in a close match with an American hardly anyone has ever heard of, the exquisitely named Bjorn Frantangelo. Hungary’s great hope was the nation’s top ranked men’s player, Marton Fucsovics who made the most of his wild card entry by easily defeating Mikhail Youzhny in the first round of the main draw. Fucsovics then lost to a former world top tenner, Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, but not before nearly winning the first set in a tiebreaker. This ended a decent week for the Hungarians, but nothing really remarkable. A great depression started to consume me. I stared at the draw listlessly. All hope was gone. The idea that playing on home turf might inspire the Hungarian men to raise the level of their games was a good one, but the results never really materialized. The truth was they hardly ever do. Yet a ray of light broke through the clouds of defeat. I noticed the name of Laslo Djere, an ethnic Hungarian who happens to be a citizen from next door neighbor Serbia. Djere had the most memorable week of his young career, offering a triumph of hope over experience.

Márton Fucsovics - Hungary's top ranked men's tennis player

Márton Fucsovics – Hungary’s top ranked men’s tennis player (Credit: Diliff)

Cut From A Different Mold – Hungarian Tennis Stars By Way Of Serbia
A little known fact hidden in plain sight is that the greatest ethnic Hungarian tennis player in history and one of the all-time great women’s players was Monica Seles. Though she started her career playing under the flag of Yugoslavia, Seles grew up in Novi Sad, which is now part of Serbia. The city is located in the Vojvodina region of northern Serbia, home to 250,000 ethnic Hungarians. The Hungarians of Vojvodina were stranded there after the post- World War I Treaty of Trianon severed the region from Hungary and made it part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Monica Seles’ ancestors were among many ethnic Hungarians who stayed in the area despite their minority status. Few know about Seles’ Hungarian roots. I figured it out because I love to know a lot about nothing in particular, tantalizing myself with trivialities. The connection with 21 year old Laslo Djere is obscure, but good enough to keep me engaged in my forlorn hope for some kind of Hungarian tennis greatness. Djere was born in the town of Sentes, whose demographic makeup is 80% ethnic Hungarian. It is the kind of place no one will ever visit, unless they live there.

Until March, Djere had shown little promise of making a breakthrough on the World Tour. He had never won a world tour level match and only qualified for the main draw in a handful of events. His greatest feat had been qualifying for the French Open in 2016 before losing in the first round. His record in Challenger events was not exactly raising hopes either. He had managed runner-up finishes at Milan and Cortina in 2016 on red clay, his favorite surface. By April 2017, Djere was ranked #184, but his recent results were some of the worst of his career. He lost in seven straight challenger events, the last five losses of which he failed to win a set. The only reprieve was a one week drop down to the satellite tour where he gained a confidence boost by winning a small event in Croatia. I do not know what boggles the mind more, the minutiae of Djere’s 2017 swoon or the fact that for some unexplained reason he started playing like a top one hundred player in April.

Laslo Đere - anything is possible

Laslo Đere – anything is possible (Credit: Frédéric de Villamil)

Drizzle & A Dream – Laslo Djere’s Moment In The Rain
Perhaps winning the satellite event helped turn Djere’s game around. Two weeks later he achieved a career first, qualifying for and winning a first round match at the world tour event in Marrakech, Morocco. He nearly made it to the quarterfinals, losing in a taut three set match to Albert Ramos. Then it was on to Budapest where he exceeded all expectations, including my own. Djere barely made it through qualifying by winning two close matches. He then sailed through his first two matches in the main draw. That set him up against Fucsovics’ slayer, Fernando Verdasco in the quarterfinals. The match was played in less than ideal conditions, as rain fell intermittently. This helped Djere, as the slow conditions dented Verdasco’s powerful game. Nonetheless, the Spaniard won the first set and held match point in the second. Down on serve 30-40, 4-5, Djere pulled off a shocker. After saving match point he went on to win the set in a tie-breaker, then handily won the final set 6-2.

It was an incredible result, one that I could scarcely fathom. The next best thing to a Hungarian in the semis was an ethnic Hungarian who spoke the language. Though Djere subsequently lost in the semifinals, he had won four main draw matches in Marrakech and Budapest. That is four more ATP World tour level matches than he had ever won on tour before. Djere could have rubbed a rabbit’s foot raw his entire career and not expected to get this lucky. But was it luck or skill? The coming months will likely answer that question. Perhaps I am mistaking a sneeze for a hurricane, but his latest results are nothing short of miraculous. Could Djere, by way of Serbia, be the answer to Hungarian professional tennis fanatics wishes? Does anyone care? I do.

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.