On my bookshelf I have a wonderful volume called Eminent Hungarians. In it the author, Krisztian Nyary, tells the stories of Hungarians from all walks of life who became heroes through extraordinary acts of courage and perseverance. A few of these eminent personages were from the sporting world and several were Jewish. As I began to research the exploits of the Hungarian Jewish tennis star Zsuzsa Kormoczy I would not have been surprised to find a chapter dedicated to her in Nyary’s book. Her story was not included in the book, but it would have been a worthwhile addition. Kormoczy came from a tiny rural village in a relatively impoverished part of the country. She was a Hungarian Jew who managed to survive a time when they were being murdered on an industrial scale.
This petit woman, who would come to be known as “Suzy K”, excelled in a bourgeoisie sport despite playing under the watchful eyes of a Stalinist regime that considered anything formerly associated with the upper classes tantamount to treason. Kormoczy first learned to survive, and later to thrive at an advanced age, achieving tennis stardom. She did all this despite the adversity life had presented to her. Another school of thought might say her accomplishments were a product of the will and determination she had developed in overcoming numerous obstacles. After years spent overcoming discrimination, ideological conformity and injuries she found herself in the spring of 1958 on the cusp of greatness. The crowning achievement of a career which had been shadowed by so much darkness came in the City of Light, Paris.
Courting Greatness – A New Level Of Focus & Fitness
Coming into the 1958 French Open, Zsuzsa Kormoczy’s play was nearing its peak. She had already won two clay court tournaments along the French Rivera earlier in the spring. Now Kormoczy turned her attention to the game’s only Grand Slam event played on her favorite surface, red clay. Her past results at the French were promising. The year before she had been unlucky in having to face top seeded Brit Shirley Bloomer in the quarterfinals. Kormoczy was blown off the court, first by high wind gusts and then by Bloomer, managing to only win two games. She hoped 1958 would be different. Her preparation, specifically with fitness, was much more extensive than in the past. Kormoczy’s coach, Joszef Somogyi, worked her into prime shape with a training regime focused on running and gymnastics. Her fitness level would be crucial to success.
She breezed through the early rounds without any problems. Her first tough match came against Ann Haydon of Great Britain in the quarterfinals. Kormoczy was sick with a cold while the left handed Haydon’s game made her suffering worse. The Brit’s game was unorthodox, a contradictory combination of looping, topspin forehands and sliced backhands. Kormoczy came from 0 -2 down to win six of the next seven games and the set. She quickly fell behind in the second set 1-4. Her strategy of throwing Haydon’s rhythm off by drawing her into the net led to a quick turnaround. Kormoczy swept the final five games to take the match 6-3, 6-4. Her semifinal match against South African Heather Segal looked like it would be a grind after it took Kormaczy ten minutes just to win the first game. This turned out to be an aberration as Kormoczy surrendered only one game the entire match, easily moving onto her first Grand Slam Final where she was to play Bloomer, the woman who had blown her out the year before.
Peak Performance – Springtime In Paris
Kormoczy may have been the underdog in the final, but she had one major advantage. In advancing to the title match she had yet to surrender a set. On the other hand, Bloomer had come from a set down three consecutive times just to make the final. She had to be suffering from fatigue after this trio of close calls. Once again Bloomer fell behind as Kormoczy took the opening set 6-4. Oddly enough, in the second set Kormoczy was the one feeling fatigue. As she related many years later in her autobiography, it may have been due to tiredness from nerves. Instead of expending what energy she had left in a likely losing battle in the second set, Kormoczy changed her tactics. She would cede the second set to Bloomer, but at the same time run her as much as possible in the hopes of tiring her out. The tactic worked as Kormoczy won the first five games of the deciding set. Bloomer fought back to 5-2.
In the next game, Kormoczy raced to a 40-15 lead and on her second match point she forced a long return from Bloomer. Game, set, match and French Open Championship to Zsuzsa Kormoczy. After playing international tennis on and off for two decades while surviving periodic bouts of tumult and terror she finally had reached the pinnacle of women’s tennis. At the time of her title, she was 33 years and 8 months old, making her the oldest French Open Women’s Singles Champion up to that point in history. This is a record that she still holds today. Kormoczy was a well deserving if highly improbable titlist. Self-belief carried her through all the ups and downs of a career that mirrored her life, periods of tumult followed by brilliance. In the process she became the only Hungarian female to win a Grand Slam singles title. A feat that has never been matched.
New Beginnings – Always A Champion
The 1958 French Open was not the end of Kormoczy’s career, but yet another beginning. Later in the summer she would advance to the semifinals at Wimbledon. The next year she once again advanced to the French final. She fell short in her quest for back to back titles, but went onto play several more years at the highest level, adding another title at Monte Carlo and also winning the prestigious Italian Championship. After retiring, she became a coach at Vasas, the same club where the Hungarian men’s great Balazs Taroczy played. She also led the Hungarian National Tennis Association. Kormoczy lived to the age of 84, a beloved and revered figure off the court just as much as she had been on it. After she died, Andrea Temesvari, Hungary’s second greatest female player of all time paid Kormoczy the ultimate compliment, saying “She belonged to the all-time greats.”