A Natural Death– Biełaviežskaja Pušča:  Viskuli, Belarus & The Extinction of the Soviet Union

Many people assume the Soviet Union was created after the Russian Revolution in October 1917, they are mistaken. It was not until after the Russian Civil War ended in 1922 that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were able to declare supremacy over a large part of the Eurasian land mass.  The Soviet Union was only then unified into a singular political entity. On the eve of New Year’s Eve, December 30, 1922 the Soviet Union was officially declared to the world from the stage of one of Russia’s most venerated institutions, the Bolshoi Theater. It was unified under the Treaty of the Creation of the Soviet Union which was signed by the Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine, the Transcaucasus and Belarus. Oddly enough it was in the latter republic sixty-nine Decembers later, that the Soviet Union would be dissolved. The scene of its denouement was far from the glittering prominence of the Bolshoi stage. Instead, it occurred in a remote section of a provincial outpost, on the extreme western frontiers of an empire that would soon cease to exist. Less than ten kilometers from the Polish border in the Biełaviežskaja Pušča, which contains the last remnant of Europe’s primeval forest, a group of six dignitaries put the Soviet Union out of its misery. The location for this historic event could not have been more ironic, nature is eternal, the ideology of man is mortal.

Viskuli - the hunting estate that was the scene of the Soviet Union's dissolution

Viskuli – the hunting estate in Belarus that was the scene of the Soviet Union’s dissolution

Lost In The Woods – The Paradox Of Progress
Communism was a contagious idea for many reasons, one of which was the appeal of creating an entirely new world. Industrial strength and the proletarian masses were to lead the way. Of course that was not what happened. Whether it was Lenin or Stalin, Brezhnev or Gorbachev, communism had an element of tyranny and anti-reform that planted the seeds of its own destruction. This brave new world was at the point of collapse by the late 1980’s all across Eastern Europe.  It held on for a little longer in the Soviet Union, but by December 1991 the last rites of communist totalitarianism were being prepared just as a long cold Russian winter was turning the world to ice. The document which would put an end to an almost seven decade long experience in human misery would be signed at Viskuli, a hunting estate in western Belarus.

Viskuli had been constructed as a dacha complex used for vacationing by communist officials from the Soviet Union. In itself, that was nothing special. It was the forest that stretched out in all directions from Viskuli which made the area rare and unique. Before man conquered nature this same type of primeval forest covered the entire northern European Plain, but human “progress” over thousands of years had eradicated almost all of it. Much of the forest was turned into farmland or transformed into villages and cities. Even today on the periphery of the Bielaviezskaja Pusca farming still threatens this World Biosphere Reserve’s health. Pesticides and fertilizers seep into the area through run off from farms. Yet despite such threats, this oldest of the old growth European forest has managed to survive, quite unlike the political entities that have made it their playground at one time or another down through the centuries.

The way it used to be - Biełaviežskaja Pušča

The way it used to be – Biełaviežskaja Pušča (Credit: Ralf Lotys)

Death Brings Renewal – The Paradox of the Primeval
The history of protection of the Bielaviezskaja Pusca goes back all the way to Lithuanian and Polish Kings in the 14th and 15th centuries that first set it aside as a hunting reserve. They issued decrees to protect its wildlife from poachers. The actions of a 17th century Polish king who displayed progressive foresight in dealing with the region’s peasantry would have been lost on the historically myopic apparatchiks who spent their holidays pleasuring in Viskuli during the Cold War. In 1639, King Wladyslaw IV freed all peasants in the forest from serfdom and taxation on the condition that they become royal foresters. For the next century and a half this arrangement worked rather well. Such a radical act of progressivism towards the dispossessed puts the Soviets social achievements to shame. It was only when the forest came under the control of the Russian Tsars in the late 18th century that these royal forester’s rights were abolished. It was not long though before the Tsars realized the reserve’s value as a refuge for wildlife. In was once again given protected status.

The warfare and ensuing political upheaval that scarred Europe so badly in the first half of the 20th century also detrimentally affected the reserve. By the end of World War I, German occupation had resulted in the extermination of all European bison in the forest.  Railroads and lumber mills built to support the occupiers brought unwelcome development. Poland did designate it as a national park in the years between the World Wars, slowly reintroducing the bison, but Polish oversight of this area was soon swept away by another World War. The 240 inch thick oaks and luminous undergrowth became breeding grounds for partisan warfare.

Modern industrial armaments brought death and destruction, but the bodies of soldiers and partisans would not find renewal in the decay of these dark woods. A different kind of death had long been integral to rejuvenating the forest. Approximately 6,000 species in the Bielaviezskaja Pusca subsist on decaying logs. Over half the forest at any one time is dead. And it is this death that leads to life. In an odd sense the same thing happened with human influence on the forest at the end of the war. The Soviet takeover led to decrees that protected the forest. This slowed to a halt the forest’s degradation by human indicatives. At least this time, the communists proved that they were much like those they were against. The forest was preserved just as it had been by kings so long ago. Of course this was as much by indifference as it was reverence.

The end of an empire - The signing of the Belavezha Accords

The end of an empire – The signing of the Belavezha Accords (Credit: RIA Novosti archive, image 848095 U Ivanov)

Eternity In The Woods – Survival Beyond The Soviets
A new period in the history of the peoples of what would become known as the former Soviet Union began on December 8, 1991 when the Belavezha Accords was signed at Viskuli. This dissolution also meant a new overlord for much of the forest, the nation of Belarus (Poland oversees a smaller portion of the forest.) Those who signed the accords on that frosty December day were thinking of politics not nature, but they would have done well to contemplate the forest that surrounded Viskuli. It had survived kings and dictators, empires and ideologies as well as several millennia of climatic change. On the other hand, the Soviet Union could not even survive the same century it had been born into. Eternity was still standing amid the woods of the Bielaviezskaja Pusca, while mortality was inherent to the systems of man.

 

Dancing In The Shadow of Death – Acts Of Reckless Defiance: The Bombing Of Novi Sad (Travels In Eastern Europe #31)

For Americans the 1990’s were largely a decade of prosperity and carefree optimism. The dotcom boom sent the economy soaring, unemployment was low and incomes were rising. Terrorism was still on the periphery and the national mood was optimistic. The country was consumed by the internet, various Clinton administration scandals and the OJ Simpson murder trial saga. By and large the United States was at peace, except for involvement in a handful of military engagements, the most prominent of which was in the former Yugoslavia. As the decade wound down Serbian forces, at the behest of Slobodan Milosevic, interjected themselves into the conflict in Kosovo to ostensibly protect the province’s Serbian population against ethnic Albanian forces. This threatened another round of genocide such as had already occurred earlier in the Yugoslav wars. When Serb forces refused to obey a NATO order to leave Kosovo, the alliance led by the considerable firepower of the United States, conducted a series of military strikes against targets in Serbia. Many of these strikes hit the city of Novi Sad, which I was passing through on the train to Belgrade.

Liberty Bridge in Novi Sad destroyed during NATO air strikes in 1999

Liberty Bridge in Novi Sad destroyed during NATO air strikes in 1999 (Credit: Darko Dozet)

Prime Target – A City In The Crosshairs Of Conflict
My fear of traveling to Serbia had largely subsided after a couple of hours gliding across the Vojvodina region by train. The countryside looked much like that of the Great Hungarian Plain, endless fields of prime agricultural land. It was hard to imagine that an alliance led by my own country had ever dropped bombs on this land, which looked like a snapshot of serenity from the window of a train car. The hard truth was that this had indeed occurred and not that long ago. As the train arrived on the outskirts of Serbia’s second largest city, I was about to pass through what had been a prime target of the bombing.

If there was anywhere in Serbia that I should have worried about negative attitudes towards Americans than Novi Sad would have been that place. The city had suffered grave damage during the NATO bombings of 1999. This was sadly ironic since politically, Novi Sad did not support Milosevic, but instead was ruled at that time by the Democratic Opposition. Nonetheless, its role as the second largest city in the country, situated astride the Danube made it a prime target. Novi Sad was home to three bridges over the Danube, as well as various industrial facilities.

Bombing began on March 24th and would continue for the next two and a half months. In less than four weeks NATO’s missiles and cluster bombs managed to destroy all three of the city’s bridges that crossed the Danube. This would effectively blockade the river for the next four years, causing economic hardship both for Serbia as well as for NATO members upstream. One of the enduring images of the bombing was black smoke pouring into the sky. This resulted from multiple strikes against oil refineries located in the city. The pollutants that were released could be just as dangerous to civilians as any bomb. Breathing in such a large amount of carcinogens in so short a time, led to respiratory problems or worse. It was estimated that over 50,000 tons of refined oil went up in thick, toxic clouds of smoke.  The city’s electrical and water supplies were also knocked out. Novi Sad was on its knees by May.

Black smoke billows up from a refinery struck by the NATO bombing of Novi Sad in 1999

Black smoke billows up from a refinery struck by the NATO bombing of Novi Sad in 1999 (Credit: Darko Dozet)

The Dark Side Of Irony – A Twisted War
This being modern warfare, the strikes were also tinged with a dark irony, both during and after the bombing. By one estimate, the destruction of the oil refineries and other industrial targets actually led to less pollution. The old communist era refineries were so archaic that their destruction actually improved air quality. Another darkly ironic twist took place on the final day of bombing in June. More lives were lost on this day than any other. This was a bizarre coda to the seemingly endless Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s. It then took several years to replace two of the bridges over the Danube, the funding to reconstruct these bridges came from the European Union. Many of these same EU members were also part of NATO, effectively helping pay for the reconstruction of what they had previously destroyed. The bridge, which my train crossed the Danube on, was only temporary. A permanent replacement is still in the planning stages.

The scars of the bombing can be quantified in terms of physical damage, but the human toll is quite another matter. Precision strikes can limit collateral damage, but not entirely avoid it. Innocents were killed and wounded, some unwittingly used as human shields by the government. Others lived through a trauma they would never forget.  The sky looked very different after death and destruction had rained down from above. The NATO airstrikes brought the Milosevic regime to the point of collapse while saving the lives of countless Kosvars, both Albanian and Serb. Meanwhile, Novi Sad paid a heavy price since much of its population opposed the regime. It was unfair, but war is not about fairness. There was no escape for civilians. A sad reminder that one thing remains certain in war, that there will always be losers.

Crater from NATO missile strike between two apartment buildings and elementary school

Crater from NATO missile strike between two apartment buildings and elementary school (Credit: Darko Dozet)

Getting Bombed – Shaking Fists At An Empty Sky
And there will always be madmen and women who take on a different persona, transformed by war. One of the less reported aspects of the bombing concerned teenage Serbs. Rather than huddling in shelters, they spent the days drinking and partying. They hung out close to the Danube. When it was time for another round of bombing the police would usher them away.  It was an act of reckless defiance. Mortal threats did little to dissuade their behavior. There was something both insane and admirable about such conduct. These young Serbs had few defenses other than liquid courage. It was one way to fight back against the injustice of war. This confirmed what I had heard about Serbs, that they are a very tough people, who love to enjoy life. Here was the youth of a nation dancing in the shadow of death while shaking their fists at an empty sky. While black smoke billowed up and hundred foot flames licked the air, many of Novi Sad’s younger citizens threw caution to the infernal wind.  This was perhaps the most appropriate, rather than the safest, response to the grave injustice that fell upon that city by the Danube.

A Momentary Rapture – Subotica, Serbia:  Dreaming Of A Dreadful Curiosity (Travels In Eastern Europe #30)

If the train would have sat at the border crossing in Kelebija for another day, it would have hardly matter to me. I was in a state of euphoria. Just a few minutes earlier my passport had been stamped, I was now free to explore Serbia. I had crossed from suspect terrain, the netherworld of border crossing officialdom, to the land of possibility. For the next couple of hours I would feel as though the entire nation had opened before me. I was suddenly engaged in a wild thought experiment, imagining adventures and discoveries to come. My immediate goal was to arrive in Belgrade before nightfall, but that hardly mattered at the moment. My real point of arrival in Serbia came with clearing the border, now places such as Novi Sad and Nis – cities I was not planning to visit – were well within the realm of possibility. I did not really have the time to visit these places, but that hardly stopped me from dreaming of all the places I was capable of going in my momentary rapture.

Subotica Train Station

Subotica Train Station

Something In The Soil – Hidden Depths
The train made its first stop after border control at Subotica. I loved the town from the moment I first heard its name, which sounded eclectic to my ears. My visit lasted all of five minutes, just enough for the train to pick up passengers heading south to Novi Sad and Belgrade. The shortness of the stop made me long for more. Subotica has a long and very mixed up history, one of those places that is on the perpetual fringes of whatever empire or nation lays claim to it at the time. In the 20th century it was part of Austria-Hungary, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which became Yugoslavia, then Hungary, followed once again by Yugoslavia and finally Serbia. For much of that time it was given a high degree of autonomy. It must be especially frustrating for its citizens to know that the city lies just outside the European Union, the Hungarian border a mere ten kilometers away. Subotica is a microcosm of the Vojvodina region of Serbia, which is home to 26 distinct ethnic groups.

One of the city’s most famous sons, the writer Danilo Kis, symbolizes its ethnic diversity. His father was Jewish, but magyarized the family’s last name in an attempt to avoid anti-Semitism. His mother hailed from Montenegro. Danilo was baptized as a Serbian Orthodox Christian. This helped him escape the deadly clutches of the Holocaust which consumed his father. He is now revered as one of Serbia’s 20th century literary titans, but his lineage shows that he was a little bit of many things, just like the region he first called home. The city has more Hungarians than Serbs and almost as many Bunjevci as Croats, though the latter two are often considered synonymous with one another. More of its citizens speak Serbian than Hungarian, but Catholics outnumber adherents of the Orthodox faith two to one. Subotica still looks as much to Hungary as it does to Serbia. Its history and culture are defined by the crazy, mixed up mélange of peoples that have called it home for centuries.

Map of Serbia -showing location of Vojvodina region

Map of Serbia -showing location of Vojvodina region

Land Of Deception –  A Multiplicity Of Diversity
Much of Eastern Europe was once like Subotica, with no ethnic group enjoying an outright majority. Two World Wars led the way for ethnic cleansing. Subotica was one of the few places left in Eastern Europe with such rich diversity. Prominent ethnic groups in the region, for instance the Bunjevci, were obscure to outsiders. The Bunjevci had roots in western Herzegovina then moved to Dalmatia and the Lika region of Croatia before arriving in the Vojvodina. Even the most educated and well-traveled Europeans know little about them. To call the Bunjevci obscure might have been an overstatement. Just trying to figure out their path to Vojvodina could make a scholars head spin. And yet they are only one of a multiplicity of groups found scattered across northern Serbia.

It was a pity I did not have time to explore Subotica and the surrounding region, it left me wanting more. Train travel has that effect on me. The pace of this train and multi-minute stops close to city and town centers offered tantalizing glimpses into places that I would otherwise never have known existed. Subotica is part of a long list of provincial cities that I have been allowed to catch fleeting glimpses of. They are soon gone, but never quite forgotten, places worth at least a memory and sometimes much more. The landscape of the Vojvodina, flat and pastoral, radiated outward in all directions as the train sped southward after leaving Subotica. Here was a land of deception. Many kilometers away to the east and west of where the train now traveled, this flatland was draining two of Europe’s great rivers, the Danube and Tisza, which converged in the region. Peering out the train window it was hard to imagine anything other than a mind numbing sameness of land and sky, the complete opposite of the Vojvodina’s diversity.

Vojvodina landscape

The rural landscape of Vojvodina

A Lack Of Courage & Commitment– On The Edge of the Unknown
My Lonely Planet Guide to the Western Balkans had nothing to say about this area outside of its cities. Thus when the train stopped in Vrbas, I had no foreknowledge to frame an understanding of this rather modest sized town (population 23,000). Such places suddenly appear in my travel journeys and fill me with a dreadful curiosity. I find myself asking what would happen if I were to get off the train at these provincial places. Where would I go in a town I knew nothing about? Would I find anyone who could speak English? What would happen to me? I was not likely to ever find out, but the idea was both intriguing and frightening. The same reservations would have informed 99% of Serbia for me, a land I knew little about. I had been elated upon arrival in the country, but now that I was free to travel almost anywhere in the country, a mental barrier kept me on the journey to Belgrade. Every place I passed through was worth a dream, a dream of all the things I could have done, but deep down I lacked the courage to commit myself to the unknown.

Fear Of Serbia – A Journey To The Other Side: Crossing Irrational Borders (Travels In Eastern Europe #29)

I was afraid of Serbia and that made me want to go there. A sense of danger has always held a strange attraction for me. The idea that something awful could happen can actually draw me to certain places. Serbia happened to be one of them. My fear was not really based upon experience, only imagination.  I only ever met a handful of Serbians in my entire life, they were all friendly. My fear stemmed from how I would be received upon entering the country. Though it had been a decade and a half since the United States military dropped bombs on Belgrade, I wondered if there was still some residual anger over American intervention into Balkan affairs.

I left Budapest on a morning train heading south to Serbia with a certain feeling of trepidation. I really did not fear for my personal safety. It was more a fear that I might run into difficulties at the border because I was an American. Of course, I was being irrational. I had already met an American on this trip who had been to Serbia and survived the experience.  He told me there was no problem crossing the border, but did mention the fact that he been detained on the Bosnian border. He was forced to spend the night in a holding cell at a border post after the guards had noticed his prescription bottle of Xanax. It was totally legal, but he thought they were looking for a bribe of some sort. He advised me that if I ever got detained to just keep saying call the American consulate. I kept that in mind as the train slowly made its way along the flat lands of southern Hungary.

Into the unknown - Hungary from the rails

Into the unknown – Hungary from the rails

The Familiar & The Foreign – Pass Through Places
I was nervous, but the tension heightened my awareness on what should have been an otherwise sleepy trip through a provincial hinterland. The train car was only about half full. I found myself studying passengers that were sitting nearby. A Roma couple sat in the aisle opposite me. The woman was young and not unattractive, she was also several months pregnant, judging by her bulging belly. Her male companion, a skinny man with a slender face, looked to be in his early 20’s. He opened up a paper bag, pulled out a huge loaf of bread along with a giant sausage. He then proceeded to devour it within a matter of minutes. This was an impressive feat, to the point that the woman burst out laughing while watching him ravenously finish off this impromptu meal.  After this I spent an inordinate amount of time studying them. They eyed me suspiciously, making comments to one another when looking my way.

I spent much of the trip aimlessly thumbing through my guidebook as the train slowly rattled along through a pastoral landscape. We rolled past towns and villages with the usual range of bizarre Hungarian place names such as Fulopszallas, Kiskoros and Kiskunhalas. The kind of places that are only known to travelers during the time it takes to pass through them. Even by the standards of Eastern European travel these places were remote. And yet in the most remote places something always seems familiar, whether it is people riding bicycles, villagers tending a backyard garden or children playing in the street. At the same time, there are constant reminders of the foreign such as sounds of a foreign tongue being spoken and unintelligible words on signage. This incongruity of the familiar with the foreign was disconcerting, adding to my apprehension.

Crossing Borders – The Way It Used To Be
It was an excruciatingly slow ride to the border. For no apparent reason, the train would halt amid a landscape of pancake flat fields, where black soil stretched in all directions. Nothing would happen for a few minutes then the train would start to slowly move once again. As we neared the border my pulse quickened. The closer we got, the more my heart pounded. I kept thinking that any minute we would be at the border. Anyone who does not think the European Union has transformed border crossings should measure the amount of time it takes to cross the border from one EU member to another as compared with crossing from an EU to a non-EU member. In the latter case, there is no welcome sign that you glide by at eighty kilometers per hour, instead there is a first stop for the exit process, in this case with Hungarian officials. This is usually quick and painless.

Then there is a crossing to the other side, where the way things used to be in Europe still holds true. In the case of Serbia, it meant we halted at border control and waited for officers to enter the train for passport checks. It is ironic that while I waited to enter Serbia, I was already in Serbia. If I was detained and not allowed to enter Serbia, I would be held in Serbia. Understand that? Some would say that border control lies in a geo-political netherworld, a land of ambiguity. That is true enough, but no matter what officialdom says when you arrive at a nation’s point of entry, you are in that nation, subject to its laws whether or not you agree with them.

Stamp of approval

Stamp of approval (Credit: Jon Rawlinson)

Welcome Without A Smile – Crossing Over
Sitting on that train at the extreme northern tip of Serbia, I knew that my immediate future lay in the hands of people I had never met, who spoke a language I could not possibly comprehend, whose culture was foreign to my own. And something told me that there was no place I would rather be. The moment when the compartment door opened and an accented cry of “passport control” echoed forth I felt a rush of adrenaline. The dull thud of boots foretold the border official to come. He was stocky with a hard look on his face, serious and proper. He took my passport, turned it to the page with my photo and essential information. He eyed me for just a moment then flipped through the passport until he found a blank page. He took his stamp and punched it methodically, handed the passport back to me and said, “Welcome To Serbia.” He did it all without the hint of a smile.

A Present Less Perilous – The Danube Defeated: Walking Over Water On The Chain Bridge (Travels In Eastern Europe #28)

An astonishing example of how much the development of European civilization was setback by the fall of the Roman Empire occurred to me while researching the bridging of the Danube River in Budapest. The Romans built wooden bridges to cross the Danube. These would have been located at or near the city of Aquincum which was located where the district of Obuda is today, but from the time when barbarian tribes took Aquincum up until the mid-19th century, the Danube in this area was without a permanent bridge, a span of some 1,400 years.  Then in the 1840’s construction of the Chain Bridge (Szechenyi Lanchid) took place. The importance of its construction can hardly be overstated. The bridge connected Buda and Pest bringing these two small cities that much closer to what was soon to become one of Europe’s great metropolises. It also signaled the onset of the industrial age in Hungary. In the half century after the bridge was completed in 1849, the city’s population exploded. Today the bridge is a symbol of both the city and of the Hungarian nation. As I discovered on my first trip to Budapest a walk across the bridge is deceptively easy, so much so that it made me overlook just what an accomplishment it was to finally bridge the Danube at Budapest.

The Chain Bridge across the Danube in Budapest

The Chain Bridge across the Danube in Budapest (Credit: Milan Nykodym)

Troublesome Passage – Faint Of Heart
The Chain Bridge stretches for exactly 369 meters (1,211 feet). It took me less than five minutes to walk across it. That includes time for stopping to take pictures. The Danube flowed smooth and quiet below the wrought iron and stone structure on that early spring day. That walk across the bridge was nothing more than a leisurely stroll, unlike the way it was before its completion in 1849. Back then getting across the Danube was much more difficult and dangerous. The man that the bridge is named for, Istvan Szechenyi, knew this better than anyone. In 1820, Szechenyi was trying to cross the Danube by ferry while traveling to his father’s funeral. The weather was terrible, causing the river to be so rough that it could not be crossed. For over a week Szechenyi waited, finally on the eighth day he was able to cross. The memory of this troublesome passage stayed with Szechenyi. He would be the major force that would eventually push for the bridge to be constructed.

Prior to the construction of the Chain Bridge, crossing the Danube was a perilous experience. There were three main options depending on the time of year, ferries, a boat/plank bridge or walking across the frozen river in winter. I have tried to imagine what it would have been like if I had to cross from Pest to Buda in the early 19th century. Ferries sound like the most promising option, but I could not imagine placing myself at the mercy of an unlicensed ferry operator to get me across the 500 meter (1,640 feet) wide roiling waters of the untamed Danube. Add in the fact that I likely would not have been able to swim. Even if I could swim, would I really stand the chance of swimming to safety in the event of an accident? Just the thought of this made me shutter with fear. The boat/plank bridge would have been another option. This was a sort of archaic pontoon bridge that consisted of small boats tied together with planks laid over the top of them. This might have been an appealing alternative, but in rough weather it would have been a nightmare both to cross and keep functional. Incredibly, horse drawn carriages were known to have used this to cross. I tried to imagine myself inside a carriage trying to stay upright as it ambled over the bridge, not for the faint of heart.

Connectivity - aerial photograph of Budapest with the Chain Bridge in the lower portion of photo

Connectivity – aerial photograph of Budapest with the Chain Bridge in the lower portion of photo (Credit: Civertan)

On Thin Ice – The Weight Of History
In the winter there was always the option of walking across the ice covered river. This could only take place in the coldest months, meaning December, January and February. I would not have wanted to try this any other time of year, for that matter I found the idea of this option pretty dubious no matter how cold the weather. The slightest thaw would have meant the possibility of crashing through the ice to an almost certain death. I imagined mustering the courage to cross only after watching others do so first. Then again the ice might have become much less stable from the constant foot traffic. In truth, prior to the Chain Bridge there were hardly any good options for getting across the Danube. The river which is now seen as so enchantingly beautiful was for many centuries a menacing obstacle to commerce and connectivity. This is lost on almost everyone who walks across the bridge today. It certainly was lost on me until I stopped to really think about it.

The problem with stopping on the Chain Bridge is that there are so many people walking across it at any one time. It is the main funnel for tourists walking back and forth between the two sides of Budapest. The bridge’s carrying capacity cannot be measured by tonnage, because it also carries the weight of history. Budapest would not have become the city it is today without the vision of Istvan Szechenyi. He was a tireless reformer, who was the main figure in the taming of the Danube to develop river commerce. This was one of many economic development projects that he led. Much of his vision had been informed by visits to Great Britain where he witnessed the benefits of the industrial revolution. He brought back ideas that would help bring Hungary and Budapest into the age of industry.  Along those same lines he commissioned an Englishman, William Tierney Clark, to design the Chain Bridge while Scotsman Adam Clark would oversee the project. It took nearly a decade from inception to completion for the bridge to be built. The bridge narrowly avoided destruction at the hands of the Austrians during the Hungarian revolution in 1849.

Bridging the divide - The Chain Bridge looking towards Buda

Bridging the divide – The Chain Bridge looking towards Buda (Credit: János Ecsedy)

A Beautiful Marriage – Buda & Pest
When the Chain Bridge was finished Buda and Pest was physically and symbolically connected. The opening of the bridge can be marked as the true beginning of their convergence. It was the beginning of a beautiful marriage that continues up to this day. Beautiful and elegant like the bridge that brought the two sides together. So elegant in fact, that when I first walked across the bridge I barely noticed the river flowing beneath it and forgot just how dangerous the Danube used to be.

The Personal Record Keeper Of Marton Fucsovics – Confessions Of Fanaticism: A Discovery Of Glory

Many years ago, I recall reading an article in Tennis Magazine that mentioned a hopelessly eccentric tennis fanatic who claimed to be the personal record keeper of Marian Vajda. Vajda was a good, but not great professional tennis player from Czechoslovakia who won a couple of second tier clay court tournaments on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour. The fact that any person saw fit to call themselves Vajda’s “personal record keeper” was bizarre in the extreme.  I often wondered just what kind of person would give themselves such a title. I imagined some lost soul who had latched onto Vajda’s tennis career as something they could use to channel a tendency toward obsessiveness. There was something endearing about such a person, the kind of true believer who lives and dies by Vajda’s results in obscure tournaments such as the Bari Open. The article began a secret ambition for me that I too might one day find refuge in an obscure tennis obsession. When I decided to follow Hungarian men’s tennis players that dream began to materialize, albeit a rather harsh one filled with many more losses than wins. Then quite suddenly, over the past few months I finally found glory in the play of Marton Fucsovics.

Marton Fucsovics reigned supreme at the Ilkley Challenger - earning him direct entry to Wimbledon

Marton Fucsovics reigned supreme at the Ilkley Challenger – earning him direct entry to Wimbledon

A Fickle Disorder –The Perils Of Promise
I must confess that my support of Marton Fucsovics and his climb in the ATP rankings has been somewhat of a fickle disorder this year. Fucsovics, the top ranked Hungarian men’s professional tennis player, is the great hope of long suffering fans of Hungarian tennis. In early February, Fucsovics sported flashes of the promise he had shown long ago when he won the 2010 Wimbledon Junior Championships. After turning pro, Fucsovics’ highest ranking had been #135, which he reached during the fall of 2014. Since that time he has been stuck in neutral, good enough to play consistently at the challenger level, but from from becoming an Tp World Tour stalwart. Then in February, Fucsovics caught fire by first leading Hungary to a road upset over a heavily favored Slovakia in Bratislava, then charging all the way to the final of a challenger in Budapest. Hope sprang anew. I was almost ready to anoint Fucsovics heir to the legacy of Balacs Taroczy.

That was until Fucsovics proved himself to be more worthy of comparisons to Attila Savolt, in other words someone with a strange name and a not so top 100 game. He tried and failed to qualify for several ATP world tour events. He mixed in acceptable losses to tour regulars such as Fernando Verdasco and Benoit Paire with more depressing defeats against the likes of Alexander Bublik, Filip Krajinovic and Stefano Napolitano. Fucsovics was well on his way once again to tennis oblivion. When he showed up to play at a challenger in Vicenza, Italy at the end of May Fucsovics had lost 11 of his past 19 matches. That was when a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity, Fucsovics suddenly began playing the best tennis of his career. He won two challengers – matching his career total – in the space of just three weeks. It was an amazing transformation, the unexpected nature of which made it all the more surprising.

Taking Advantage – Rising To The Challenger
Fucsovics had only played a single match at Vicenza prior to the 2017 tournament.  In that lone appearance he had lost in the first round. This time he took advantage of a fortuitous draw where he faced two qualifiers and a wild card entry in his first three matches. He did not face anyone ranked above him until the final. His opponent in that match was also an ethnic Hungarian who is a Serbian national, the up and coming Laslo Djere. The match was a close run affair with Djere taking the first set in a tiebreak. In the second set, Fucsovics barely held on to force another tiebreak. He then saved two match points before finally winning the set. This effectively broke Djere’s will. Fucsovics was then able to run away with the third set. He was a champion on the challenger circuit for the first time since 2013.

The next week Fucsovics was forced to abruptly change his strategy as he transitioned to grass courts. At the ATP World Tour level Stuttgart event he qualified for the main draw, where he lost in the first round. He then traveled to Ilkley in Great Britain. Fusovics had never played a challenger tournament on grass before this event. The first time turned out to be a charm for Fucsovics. In his first round match he defeated the tournament’s number one seed, Victor Estrella. This meant he took over Estrella’s draw. Fucsovics soon hit his stride, winning his final three matches of the tournament without the loss of a set. It was his second challenger title in a span of just fourteen days. His ranking soared to an all-time high of #107. Better yet, his victory at Ilkley earned him a spot in the main draw of Wimbledon.

Fucsovics won the 2010 Wimbledon Junior Singles Title - a harbinger of greater things to come

Fucsovics won the 2010 Wimbledon Junior Singles Title – a harbinger of greater things to come

The Journey To Become A Journeyman – Leaping From The Fringes
Fucsovics’ sudden success seemingly came out of nowhere. He is 25 years old and has been toiling away in the minor leagues of the tour for seven years now. His rise was unforeseen, but with the two challenger titles he has given his followers new hope. How far can he go? A few wins at Wimbledon or another good result at a challenger event would put Fucsovics into the top 100, making him the first Hungarian since what seems like time immemorial to achieve that benchmark.  His leap from the fringes of challenger level events to rising journeyman has been sudden and improbable, the fall as Fucsovics well knows can happen just as fast. No one has been more surprised by his recent results than the handful of fanatics who closely follow Fucsovics results. Outside of his family, friends and coach, I just might be the lone Fucsovics acolyte on earth. If this Hungarian hero of mine keeps up his winning ways I just might have to anoint myself as the personal record keeper of Marton Fucsovics. If someone could do it for Marian Vajda, then I can certainly do it for Marton Fucsovics.

The Ultimate Hungarian Love Affair – Empress Elisabeth: Falling At Her Feet

The more times I visited Hungary, the more I began to notice that very few women are commemorated by statues, monuments or memorials. Statues of such national denizens as Lajos Kossuth and Istvan Szechenyi can be found in every sizeable town. Monuments and memorials to those who fought and died in both World Wars grace the squares of even the smallest villages, but try to find one dedicated to the memory of a woman and your search will largely be in vain. Why is this? Many experts in culture have noted “Hungarian Chauvinism”, a tendency towards what might best be described as “bigheadedness”. In effect this means that Hungarians tend to put themselves above all others, this tendency manifests itself in a will to dominate. I remember having dinner with a Hungarian acquaintance several years ago, who leaned over and said in a particularly expressive manner “we love to dominate things.”

Hungarian chauvinism is usually noted in reference to the treatment of ethnic groups that once fell inside the borders of the Kingdom of Hungary, such as Slovaks, Romanians and Serbians. Since this chauvinism was political and Hungarian politics has always been dominated by men, this chauvinism may primarily be a male thing. Perhaps this goes some way in explaining the lack of women commemorated throughout the country. Whatever the case, finding a Hungarian female memorialized is a rare occurrence. This is ironic because Hungarian women are known for their remarkable beauty and style. Maybe it is because of an emphasis on the superficial that their accomplishments have been overlooked. Whatever the case there is at least one woman whose presence is front and center in the hearts of Hungarians. And this woman was not even a Hungarian.

Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary

Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary (Credit: Emil Rabending)

“Friend of the Hungarian People” – The Eternal Queen
In the center of Budapest, laid across the Danube River, stands the Elisabeth Bridge named after Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary or as she is most famously known, Sisi. There is no more beloved woman in all of Hungary. Elisabeth was the wife of Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef, a man who was reviled in the wake of Austria’s victory over Hungary in the revolutionary uprising of 1848. The harsh reprisals carried out on the order of Franz Josef did little to endear him to the Hungarian nation. Less than two decades later, times had changed and Austria’s position as one of the great powers in Europe was threatened. Its power was waning due to the rise of Prussia. Austria needed a new partner to avoid being subsumed in what was soon to be the German Empire. Many historians and almost all Hungarians believe Elisabeth used her influence to persuade Franz Josef to compromise with Hungary. This led to the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867, setting off a golden age in Hungary which saw the country’s rapid economic and cultural transformation.

Coronation of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth as Apostolic King and Queen of Hungary

Coronation of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth as Apostolic King and Queen of Hungary (Credit: Edmund Tull)

Elisabeth’s love for Hungary was a reflection of her extraordinary relationship with Count Gyula Andrassy. She admired Andrassy as the essence of rugged, exotic manhood. Their platonic romance (some believe it may have been more than that) helped unite the two nations. For her role, Elisabeth forever became known as a “friend of the Hungarian people.” And she was certainly fond of them, going so far as learning to speak the exceedingly difficult Hungarian language. Elisabeth was most at home in Hungary, far away from the stifling court protocol of Vienna. Her home away from home was the palace of Godollo, just 20 miles northeast of Budapest. It was a gift to her and her husband from the Hungarian people following their coronation in 1867. Godollo was a place where Elisabeth was free to be herself. She remarked that “Here no one disturbs me, as if I were living in a village where I can come and go as I please.” The Hungarian people reciprocated the love shown to them by Elisabeth. It is not a stretch to say that she was the most popular woman in Hungary at the time and probably still is today.

Thus it is no surprise that the most prominent statue of a female in Hungary is the one of Queen Elisabeth which now stands on the Buda side of the Danube, adjacent to the bridge that is also named for her. The fact that this statue still stands illustrates the reverence and respect Elisabeth has been given by Hungarians. Getting the statue up in the first place was a long and drawn out process. Following Elisabeth’s death a million crowns was quickly raised to erect a statue dedicated to the memory of her. Raising money was the easy part, selecting a winning design proved much more difficult. It took five competitions over a twenty year period yielding over one hundred and thirty designs before a winning design was selected. Then there was another interminable delay caused by confusion over where the statue would be located. Among the choices were multiple spots on Castle Hill in Buda and the City Park in Pest. It was eventually decided to place it on the Pest side of the Danube adjacent to the bridge also named after Elisabeth.

Queen Elisabeth statue in Budapest

Queen Elisabeth statue in Budapest

An Undying Love – Elisabeth By The Danube
In 1932, over three decades after it was first conceived, the statue was dedicated, but it would not stay at its original location. Oddly, it was not until the end of Hungary’s hard line Stalinst era in 1953 that the statue was removed.  Elisabeth’s statue may have been mothballed, but the communists could not bring themselves to destroy it. Despite the fact that she was a royal princess, everything the communists professed to loathe, the statue was kept in what turned out to be long term storage. It finally reappeared, oddly enough not after, but before the Iron Curtain fell. In 1986 the statue took another prominent position beside the Danube. Thirty-three years after its removal the statue rematerialized, on the opposite side of the Danube at Dobrentei ter where it can still be found today. The statue of Elisabeth sculpted in stone looks positively radiant, just as she did when all of Hungary fell for her 150 years ago. On the banks of the Danube that love affair continues.

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

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

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

Miloslav Mecir - celebrates one of his 11 career titles

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

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

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

Miloslav Mecir with his wooden racket in 2016

Miloslav Mecir with his wooden racket in 2016

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

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

Miloslav Mecir - tennis magician

Miloslav Mecir – tennis magician

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

Cheated By Fate – Pavel Hutka vs. Adriano Panatta: Almost Was Not Good Enough

Very few people know the name of Pavel Hutka. Who he was and what he nearly did are buried in the deepest recesses of tennis history. His moment of glory never quite arrived. He was good enough to be a professional tennis player, but only on the very fringes of the Grand Prix circuit from 1974- 1981. He never won more than two consecutive matches at the highest level of the tour during those years. With a record marked by more losses than wins it is hard to discern any kind of career trajectory other than downward. He seemed to go from one bad loss to another, with a few scattered victories thrown in for good measure.

There have been hundreds of professional tennis players like Hutka over the past fifty years who have records just as forgettable. The only reason anyone remembers Hutka at all is for what he could not do. Over the course of a few hours at the 1976 French Open Hutka looked like a world beater. He was on the cusp of pulling off a major upset. No one could have known at the time, but if he would have defeated the Italian Adriano Panatta, it would have changed the course of tennis history. This would only become clear in retrospect, after the tournament ended with Panatta as the champion and Hutka as an afterthought.

Pavel Hutka

Pavel Hutka – almost was not good enough at the 1976 French Open

The Survivors – Rising From Obscurity
Pavel Hutka came into the 1976 French Open with a poor record on the regular tour. Since his debut at the Grand Prix level in 1974 he had won four matches and lost nine. His best victory had come the year before when he defeated 30th ranked Andrew Pattison of Great Britain on red clay in Hamburg. Other than that victory Hutka had no other memorable victories. He played a few close matches against such clay court stalwarts as Juan Gisbert and Francois Jauffret, but ended up losing in the final set. His play during the spring of 1976 did not raise hopes. He lost three of four matches with his lone victory coming over Bernard Minquot, a Belgian lucky loser (someone who loses in qualifying, but gets into the main draw of a tournament because of another player’s withdrawal) at a tournament in Dusseldorf. The French Open would be his first Grand Slam tournament ever. He entered the event ranked #162 in the world. Hutka was fortunate to avoid qualifying, but the main draw was not kind to him.

Hutka’s first match would be against the mercurial Panatta who was seeded eighth. The Italian had been playing some of the best tennis of his life. He was coming off a magical, much lauded victory at the Italian Open. During that tournament he had cheated fate, somehow managing to survive eleven match points in the first round against Australia’s Kim Warwick. After that great escape, he rode a wave of confidence to the title. Little did Panatta or anyone else realize that he was about to undergo the exact same experience in Paris that he did in Rome. Instead of the highly regarded Warwick in the first round, he would face the barely known Hutka. The two would play one of the most memorable matches of the tournament.

Adriano Panatta

Adriano Panatta – cheating fate at the 1976 French Open

Framed – Panatta Lucks Out
Hutka started the match in strong form, helped by an unorthodox style that gave Panatta fits. Officially the Czechoslovak played right handed, but he served and hit overheads as a lefty. This ambidextrous style was something Panatta had rarely experienced. Before he knew it, the speedy Hutka had run away with the first set, 6-2. Panatta then settled down. He seemed to hit his stride, easily winning the next two sets. It was in the fourth set that the match took an odd turn. Panatta lost his form, while Hutka soared. The Czechoslovak blanked the Italian 6-0. Hutka’s high level of play continued in the fifth set. He forced Panatta to hold serve on four separate occasions just to stay in the match. At 4-3 Hutka gave himself two break points on Panatta’s serve, but squandered them both. Five different times he was two points from winning the match. Then while leading 10-9, Hutka finally made it to match point. What happened next was incredible.

Panatta’s first serve was out. Hutka returned his second delivery with a shot that hit the net cord. Panatta came in behind a deep, penetrating shot. This forced Hutka to hit a lob that he struck with near perfect precision. Panatta was only barely able to reach the ball. His attempted smash struck the frame. Hutka nailed a cross-court backhand. Panatta lunged for the volley which hit his frame once again, but this time for a winner. Panatta pulled himself up off the court. He had somehow saved match point with two shots off the frame. It was an incredible turn of events. This boosted his self-confidence.  Hutka must have been asking himself what else he could do to defeat the Italian. Panatta would go on win the final three games and the match 12-10 in the fifth. The match point save made him invincible. Panatta would go on to win six more matches, including a defeat of Bjorn Borg in the semifinals, to take the championship. As for Hutka, he became nothing more than an almost famous footnote in tennis history.

The Hard Truth – Going On To Lesser Things
Pavel Hutka would never come close to another upset like his near defeat of Panatta at the 1976 French Open. His career was that of a classic tennis journeyman. He attained a career best ranking of #103 in 1979. By 1981 he had played his final tour level match. One has to wonder what would have happened if Hutka had defeated Panatta at Roland Garros in that memorable match. Would he have gone on to greater things? It is more likely that he would have lost in the next round. Hutka’s game was such that he was unable to consistently compete at the highest level as his later results so often showed. He had enough talent to play one exceptional match that almost altered the course of tennis history, but in Hutka’s case almost was not good enough.

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.