A Load Of Crap – Incidental Conflicts: Calamity & Chaos On Bus #68 In Kispest (Part Two)

Public transport at night in a major city is normally something I try to avoid. Growing up in America I learned pretty quickly that public transportation in urban areas can be a haven for criminals especially as night closes in. There are a few notable exceptions such as New York City, parts of Chicago and Washington D.C., but by and large buses and subways are best avoided, especially if you do not know your way around. Thus I was quite shocked to discover on my first visit to Eastern Europe that inner cities are among the safest areas. I still recall walking down Unter den Linden in Berlin late one night marveling at happy, blissful people strolling down the street in perfect safety. Such a scene is the rule rather than the exception for almost all major cities in Eastern Europe.

The worst thing I saw in Riga and Prague were the entrances to strip clubs, in Warsaw it was a few drunks stumbling through a city park, while in Kiev and Lviv a bit of loud laughter and yelling. In Budapest – the city I have spent the most time visiting in the region – I can scarcely conjure an area I would not feel safe in late at night. Beggars and random drunks are a menace mostly to themselves. One would have to seek out violent criminal activity in the city to actually find it. Sure there are scams, pick pockets and small scale theft, but nothing to cause major worries. That certainly does not mean Budapest is free of depravity or bizarre behavior. I experienced such on a foggy, winter night while riding a city bus in Kispest, the city’s 19th district.

Bus 68 in Kispest - anything can happen

Bus 68 in Kispest – anything can happen (Credit Aron_son)

In The Mood – Breaking The Impenetrable Silence
On a particular gloomy, December evening I got on Bus #68 with my wife at the Koki terminal, the Kobanya-Kispest shopping mall. We were going home on the final portion of the bus route that ends at Vas Gereben utca. The ride would take about 15 minutes. We had covered this route many times before with nary a problem. Kispest is a working class area of the city. The inhabitants are best characterized by their reserve. Most bus rides are done in impenetrable silence. The passengers practice stoicism with frozen, unsmiling faces. They do not look happy nor sad, just alive, well sort of. The drivers usually offer the most excitement. Driving styles can vary widely or should I say wildly. Sometimes the trip turns into an amusement park ride, with the passenger’s swaying to and fro. A bad driver will slam on the brakes constantly, floor the gas pedal and cut corners at every opportunity. While few ever have an accident, they do plenty of damage to their passengers who are jerked in all manner of unnatural positions. The ability to stay upright is a necessary skill. Perhaps stoicism is the only way to deal with such a calamitous situation.

While boarding bus #68 that night we saw that it was only about a quarter full. We sat towards the back where few seats were taken. As the journey got underway we noticed only two other pairs of passengers in this part of the bus. The first was a father and son sitting in the very back row together. They were clean cut and dressed quite nicely. There was also a man and woman slumped in their seats. We were a couple of rows up from them. It took less than a minute to figure out they were going to be a problem. The man mumbled endlessly, while the woman was not even capable of that much. She would let out a whimpering moan from time to time. Their most notable trait was a body odor that soon overtook the entire back of the bus.The smell actually had a physical aspect, as it did not so much penetrate the nostrils as fill them. It was a force that literally pushed us from our seats and to the front of the bus. Soon, everyone on the bus was complaining about the foul smelling couple. The offending man decided to yell at no one in particular. The passengers were so repulsed that many began to openly voice their disgust.

“Who The Fuck Do You Think You Are? – From Raging To Revolting
The situation worsened when an even fouler odor came wafting through the bus. A noxious smell of human feces soon penetrated the entire bus. This sent the passengers from irritation to near rage. I have never witnessed a riot before, but the passengers suddenly seemed to be in the mood for one. I could feel anger rising. Passengers, both men and women, started yelling at the couple. When this did little good, their anger turned toward the bus driver. My wife translated the cacophony for me. The bus driver pleaded helplessness. He said that the people were homeless and mentally ill, there was nothing he could do except to call the police. They could meet the bus at the end of the route. This did little to assuage the passenger’s anger. They demanded something more be done immediately.

A man had been talking to the driver during the journey, they seemed to be acquaintances. He took it upon himself to go tell the offending couple to get off the bus. This began an argument that went nowhere. The man went back up to the front of the bus where he started talking with the driver again. About this time another man, who looked to be in his mid-20’s, began arguing with the man who had tried to tell the couple to leave the bus. The argument grew fiercer. My wife translated. It seemed that the younger man was upset that this guy had tried to throw the couple off the bus. He said to him, “who the fuck do you think you are?” He berated the man until the bus came to the next stop. Just then he turned to get out, but before exiting turned around and punched the guy just below the shoulder, knocking him backward.  That ended one sideshow. Meanwhile, the main drama continued in the back of the bus.

City Buses & Any Buses – Arriving At A Conclusion
Soon almost all the passengers had exited, but not before telling the driver a few choice words. Looking back, I noticed that the father and son who had boarded with us were still sitting in the same place as earlier. They were the only ones to somehow weather this storm. They sat expressionless, looking forward without a hint of emotion. The bus made it to the final stop. We got off as fast as we could. The police were just pulling up. The couple was still on the bus. That was the last we ever saw of them. Later that evening I began to ask myself if it had really happened. Of course it had. It was not dangerous or violent, just bizarre, depraved and sad, not so much frightening as it was disturbing. It definitely had an effect. Every time we rode bus #68 after that, we took a seat right at the front and tried never to look back. That memorable journey did not change my opinion of Budapest, but it did of city buses and for that matter, any buses.

Taken For A Ride – Incidental Conflicts: Experiences In Eastern European Bus Travel (Part One)

Of all the different modes of travel that can be used to get across Eastern Europe I have found that the bus is by far the most exhausting. On multiple occasions I have stumbled off a bus, half-crazed, vowing never to take another one again. Then a year later, I find myself wanting to visit some remote village or historic site with no train station anywhere nearby. I do not have access to a car. Thus, the bus is the only reasonable alternative. Within ten minutes of departure I am filled with regret and silently declare that this will be my last bus ride. Despite such misgivings, I must admit that a bus can give the traveler a unique perspective on a nation, its people and what life is like for those who rely on public transport. I am still not sure if that perspective is worth the pain and bother of riding the bus.

Looks can deceive - especially when traveling from Riga to Vilnius

Looks can deceive – especially when traveling from Riga to Vilnius (Credit: Bronislava69)

Ready For Rage – The Road To Vilnius
My problems with bus travel began on a trip between Riga, Latvia and Vilnius, Lithuania. The bus was run by the Eurolines Company that covers the continent. The bus was clean, relatively new and professionally operated. Unfortunately, the seats were small, leaving very limited space for passengers to maneuver. Dealing with an extremely tight space for three hours was difficult enough, but when I got up to use the bathroom I found out just how bad it could get. I had troubled keeping my balance as I lurched to the back of the bus while bumping into one passenger after another. The tiny bathroom provided an even worse dilemma. Urinating took an incredible amount of dexterity. I was wedged inside what could have passed for an oddly shaped crawl space. When I got back to my seat, the situation worsened, two “gentleman” (I use that term loosely) a couple of rows behind me decided they would converse in something akin to a loud roar. It was impossible to concentrate on reading or sleeping, this bus ride became a test of tolerance.

At least we were on a main highway that was in optimal condition. Even so, the nature of bus travel means that every crack or crevice in the road can be felt. Because there were no seatbelts I was constantly trying to steady myself. Otherwise I would have bounced right into the lap of the woman sitting beside me.  By the time the bus pulled into the main station at Vilnius I was in a near rage. My mood was worsened by the free for all that ensued when the luggage compartment was opened. I was nearly knocked over by aggressive passengers lunging for their suitcases. I only procured my own after a nasty struggle that ended with me in a fit of temper. With pleasurable disdain I knocked another man’s suitcase, to which he was attached, out of the way. To my surprise he did not seem fazed, must happen to him all the time. I was exhausted, enraged and ready to trade blows as I stomped off to my hostel. Welcome to Vilnius!

Here comes trouble - Marshrutka in Lviv

Here comes trouble – Marshrutka in Lviv (Credit: Buka)

Special Services – Roadside Pullouts & Ukrainian Frights
One thing bus travel is certainly good for is creating memorable experiences. A sterling example of this occurred on a trip I took through Transylvania. The bus from Brasov to Sibiu was down at the heel, with an overwhelming smell of smoke permeating the interior though there was no smoking. Of course everyone chain smoked before they got onboard. A flame orange interior and half dirty seat cushions only added to the charm. The driver made up for the aesthetics by providing a special service. When an old man tapped on his shoulder, the driver immediately pulled over to the side of the road. The old man climbed out of the bus and proceeded to urinate in a meadow as cars roared past on the highway. He then re-entered the bus, thanked the driver and we set off again. I sure was glad he did not need to do more than that.

The further east one goes the crazier bus travel seems to get. Everyone should experience a marshrutka once in their life. Marshrutkas are a famous type of minibus found throughout Ukraine and the former Soviet Union. A cross between a minivan and a bus, they can take the traveler almost anywhere, but only if the traveler survives the experience. I will never forget my first sighting of a marshrutka. I was walking down Svobody Prospekt in Lviv. Suddenly a yellow marshrutka, jam packed with people, their faces pressed up against the windows, rolled slowly by. They looked incredibly uncomfortable. Out of necessity I was unlucky enough to experience a marshutka on my second trip to western Ukraine

I had the distinct displeasure of being on an overcrowded marshrutka returning from the Polish border to Lviv on St. Nicholas’ Day when Ukrainians exchange Christmas gifts with one another. The bus was packed with passengers, their arms filled to bursting with purchases. They were standing against one another in the main aisle. A man leaned on me to the point where at times he was sitting on my shoulder. There was only one seat that did not have a person in it. This was because a woman had paid for two seats, one for herself and the other for two comforters she had purchased. The offending items, as well as the woman were eyed angrily, by those standing in the aisle.

Bus 68 in Kispest - anything can happen

Bus 68 in Kispest – anything can happen (Credit: Aron_son)

Memories That Last Forever – Bringing It All Back Home
The bus is bad enough, but sometimes the people on board lower expectations even further. In southern Hungary a bus ride from Pecs to the wine village of Villany turned into a one man show, when an inebriated Gypsy got on board and proceeded to serenade the passengers. Half laughed nervously, the other half ignored him. The bus driver finally grew so fed up with his behavior that he let him off between villages in the middle of nowhere. The last I saw of him, he was tottering beside an empty field. That incident pales in comparison to a ride I took one gloomy December night on bus #68 in Kispest, the 19th district in Budapest. A traumatic experience that was so utterly unforgettable that still today I shudder at the mere thought of it.

Coming soon: A Load Of Crap – Incidental Conflicts: Calamity & Chaos On Bus #68 In Kispest (Part Two)


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)

Weird, But Not Menacing – Against Fear: Crime & Safety in Eastern Europe

It has happened so many times that by now I should be used to it. Someone finds out I have traveled to Europe and asks me where I went. When I mention Hungary or Slovakia or Ukraine or some other country in Eastern Europe they look at me surprised, then follows an awkward silence. They wait for me to say something, it becomes obvious that they know next to nothing about the nation I have mentioned, except that it used to be communist and therefore must be dangerous. An example of this occurred not long ago when I was discussing a European trip with someone whose only overseas travel had been to England and France. They would soon be headed to Greece and eventually hoped to visit Croatia. They asked me places that I might recommend. I said if you get to Croatia, check out Bosnia because it is beautiful, highly affordable and a place where east and west collide sometimes right before your eyes. A third person listening to this conversation turned a bit pale and said, “Bosnia sounds dangerous.” I tried to set their mind at ease, saying “it is fine, one of the safest places I have been.” Their expression belied a willful disbelief. Our conversation ended not long after that, but it reminded me of so many I have had since I first traveled to Eastern Europe.

Beliefs About Bosnia – Safety In Sarajevo
The long shadow cast by four and half decades of the Cold War and communism, the Iron Curtain and Soviet occupation, has left an impression in American minds that Eastern Europe is a land of totalitarian backwardness. The post-Cold War era has transformed that image for westerners into a region that is at best incomprehensible, at worst beset by lawlessness, with governments captured by Mafioso and business riven with bandit capitalism. Like any stereotype, such a reputation contains elements of the truth. For instance, Bosnia is not dangerous today, but was deadly during the 1990’s Yugoslav Wars. Ukraine has an ongoing war in its southeastern part, but the rest of the country – a land mass larger than France – is largely peaceful. Such facts do little to dissuade prejudice and keep many Americans away from the region.

Street sign in Sarajevo - note the bullet holes below the sign

Street sign in Sarajevo – note the bullet holes below the sign

I often get the sense that people believe that as soon as someone arrives in Belgrade or Bratislava they will be set upon by armed thugs, scam artists and corrupt police demanding bribes. The reality is much different. They are much more likely to be left to their own devices. Let’s be honest, a sense of helplessness is likely to cause more travelers to avoid the region than local crime. A city such as Sarajevo stands out for the difference between expectations and reality when it comes to safety. It was ground zero for urban warfare during the Yugoslav Wars. The city was besieged for 1,425 days, as Serbian forces attempted to shell the city into submission. Fifteen years later I visited Sarajevo and have rarely felt safer in a city. Nothing about it felt threatening. Underneath sunny skies, looking up at the hills surrounding the city, it was difficult for me to imagine the horrors that Sarajevo had suffered in the not so distant past. The scenes of Bosnians running for their lives as they struggled to so much as cross a street had been beamed into homes around the world on nightly newscasts during the mid-1990s.

Sarajevo - a city now at peace

Sarajevo – a city now at peace (Credit: Julian Nitzsche)

Now there were young people sitting in outdoor cafes socializing and sipping coffee.  All the main tourist areas were in excellent condition, war could not have been any further from this scene. It was only when I started going down side streets and back alleys that damage from the war became highly visible. Building after building was pockmarked with bullet holes. This had once been a war zone, now it was benign. Since my visit, Sarajevo has continued to exist in a relatively docile state. According to one major crime index Sarajevo is safer than Paris, Brussels, Rome and Dublin. Think about that for a moment, a city that was at the heart of the deadliest conflict in post-World War II Europe a decade and a half ago is now safer for both its citizens and tourists than many wealthy Western European capital cities. When I asked the proprietor at my hotel if the city was safe, he replied “Sarajevo is perfectly safe for tourists.” From what I experienced, he could not have been more correct.

Street in the 8th District (Joszefvaros) of Budapest

Looks safe to me – street in the 8th District (Joszefvaros) of Budapest
(Credit: Czimmy)

Perception & Reality – The Safety Of City Centers
In the 2016 Crime Index, Kharkiv in the far eastern portion of Ukraine was the most unsafe city in Eastern Europe. There were still twelve cities above it though. All of these were in Western Europe or Great Britain. I have never been in Kharkiv, but I have been to Kiev. The most worrisome thing in the capital of Ukraine was a corrupt police force looking to check documents and possibly extract bribes. Even a relatively unsafe Eastern European city has to be put in perspective. Tourists are unlikely to ever go into the most dangerous areas of these cities. The majority of Eastern European cities have very safe city centers. The crime is usually concentrated in outer districts. This is the complete opposite of the United States where inner cities are usually outposts of crime that can sometimes turn deadly, especially after the sun goes down. It is a strange sensation for an American to be wandering around the center of a city such as Budapest late at night not giving much of a thought to personal safety.

One of the supposedly more “unsafe” areas in Budapest is the 8th District, Joszefvaros. In some areas it does look rougher around the edges than other parts of the city, but I have been in the district more than twenty times and have never had a problem there. Rougher in this area of Budapest means the streets are grimier, there are more odd characters begging for cigarettes and sleeping on the streets. It feels weird, but not menacing. The phrase “weird, but not menacing” perhaps sums up the real fear for those Americans who do not visit Eastern Europe. The region is weird for many people because they know next to nothing about it. It is also filled with nationalities speaking strange languages and who have a much different history from the west. Eastern Europe may not have a reputation for refinement and wealth, but it should also not have a reputation for crime. Western Europe is where that problem largely resides.



“Just Go” – Journey To Herkulesfurdo (Baile Herculane): A Picture Is Worth Thousands Of Miles

Whenever the subject of my travels to Eastern Europe comes up in conversation, the person I am talking with almost always asks me “How did you ever get there?” My answer usually involves explaining my lifelong interest in the region. Every once in a while, I will add by saying, “It is real easy. All you have to do is book everything online and just go.” While they knowingly nod at the first part, I can see fear in their eyes when I say “just go.” In that moment, I am pretty sure that they will never “just go.” Perhaps they do not trust my judgment, though I have survived all of my trips. Sometimes they look at me like I am crazy. I will admit to making the trip sound way too easy. Yet the truth of the matter: it is that easy.

In front of the train station in Herkulesfurdo, 1911

In front of the train station in Herkulesfurdo, 1911

Magic Act – A Woman In Peasant Dress With A Smile On Her Face
I thought of this the other night while sitting in front of my laptop looking through old photos on the website, Fortepan.hu. Fortepan.hu contains almost 80,000 photographs from Hungary between 1900 -1990 that have been uploaded by anyone who would like to share their photos for the sake of posterity. It is a treasure trove of daily life during a time of great change in the country. One of the photos that captured my imagination was taken in the Banat region (Bansag in Hungarian). It shows a woman in peasant dress with a smile on her face. She is leaning on an umbrella while standing outside a train station in the town of Herkulesfurdo. Both the photo and the town’s name lodged in my consciousness. I suddenly wanted to go there. Go to the exact same place 106 years later and snap a photo in the exact same spot. I was seized by a thought, what if someone looking at this photo felt the same inspiration that I did. And what if that person had never been to Eastern Europe before, but now felt an irresistible urge to travel to a place they would otherwise never visit. What if they decided to “just go.” All it would take is some money, a sense of adventure and force of will.

Let us say that our hypothetical traveler has a passport, money and the inclination to make this trip as soon as possible. They would first book a flight out of Denver, switch planes in Washington and Istanbul before landing in Bucharest. Leaving at 3:45 p.m. (15:45) on March 8th they would arrive in the Romanian capital at 8:45 p.m. (20:45) on March 9th, after nineteen and a half hours in transit. Deprived of sleep, weary from watching one too many melodramatic movies and with their stomach rumbling after consuming a pasta dish swimming in an unknown sauce, our traveler would overnight in Bucharest. A taxi would take them at a considerable markup to an accommodation close to the main train station. They would spend the night with the odd sensation that they were still airborne, as their bed seems to be moving.

Bucharest North Railway Station - the largest in Romania

Bucharest North Railway Station – the largest in Romania (Credit: Daniel Caluian)

Points Of No Return – Urchin Urgings
The next morning our traveler makes their way to the train station. They would be shocked by what they saw. Once a stop on the fabled Orient Express line, the Bucharest North Railway Station (Bucuresti Gara de Nord) has now substituted seediness for grandeur. It is filled with strange characters, illegal cab drivers, petty thieves, corrupt and rather harmless hangers on.  What would an adventure be without a bit of mystery, intrigue and danger from these station urchins? Our traveler finds the ticket window and discovers that no one speaks a word of English. Herkulesfurdo elicits puzzled looks from the female ticket seller. That is the Hungarian name for the town. Using it, rather than the town’s Romanian name could result in dirty looks.

In desperation the magical words “Baile Herculane” are uttered. A ticket is forthcoming. The train leaves at 10:45 a.m. It is a rather uneventful and rickety six hour ride across the Wallachian Plain. Fallow fields stretch out in every direction, waiting for spring to begin in earnest. Plumes of dust fill the air, clouding the horizon. Periodically this scene is broken by oil derricks, hinting at the black gold just beneath the fertile soil. The most notable city along the route is Craiova, one of those places that evoke Ceaucescu era Romania. A place that is famous for making cars, corruption and little else.

There is always a point on any impulsive trip when a traveler wonders if they made the right decision, when the self-doubt begins to feel overwhelming. The unfamiliar magnifies loneliness, fear succumbs to depression. Ignorance of language, customs and culture seems all consuming. This is the moment that proves decisive. Our traveler is too far gone, there is no turning back. At this point what else can they do? And as the afternoon goes on they become more comfortable with the thought. Perhaps this has to do with the striking scenery that comes into view. The train snakes its way into the Cerna valley. Lush forests run up the hillsides. Tucked into this inviting landscape is the final destination, Baile Herculane or Herkulesfurdo. The name hardly matters at this point. Our traveler disembarks at a station that makes them believe it is forever 1900 there.

Point of arrival - Băile Herculane (Herkulefurdo) Train Station

Point of arrival – Băile Herculane (Herkulefurdo) Train Station (Credit: stancosty)

The Search That Never Ends
Our traveler makes their way through the station. Just outside the entrance they look at a printed copy of the photo which brought them this far. They try to reimagine that moment. What was that lady smiling at, a comment, a friend or something else? Why was she holding an umbrella? Where was she going? Where had she been? These were among the many mysteries that would never be answered. Perhaps the more interesting question was why did our traveler care so much? Why had they followed this photo thousands of miles to a remote corner of southwestern Romania? They will probably never know any of the answers to those questions. And that is quite wonderful. Because it will keep them searching and keep them traveling to places like Herkulesfurdo. Places they could have scarcely imagined before they decided to “just go.”


Villages Peopled By The Imagination – A Train Ride Between Gyor & Sarvar

I have always had a fondness for the obscure. The first time I became aware of this was while reading a twenty-four hundred page history (do not ask why) of the American Civil War. I enjoyed learning about each of the major campaigns, but I became fixated on the battles and skirmishes of the New Mexico campaign, an obscure theater of the war that I had never known about before. Perhaps this fondness for the obscure is what led to my interest in Eastern Europe. I am bored to death by Paris, London or Tuscany, but the idea of Budapest, Krakow and Kiev thrills me to no end. Now that I have been able to make many trips to the region, I find myself gravitating more and more towards the obscure. Mention Hungary to me and I am dreaming of the Nyirseg in the nation’s eastern extremity. Transylvania stimulates thoughts of Szekelyland. For some mysterious reason the next time I visit Ukraine, Volyhnia is at the top of my list, not for any compelling reason other than the fact that few go into this forested northwestern corner of the country. And so it goes on, give me Szekszard instead of Szeged, Kaunas over Vilnius and Novi Sad over Nis.

Rolling into obscurity

Rolling into obscurity

An Unknown Force – A Passion For Obscurity
One of the best ways I have found to fulfill my fetish for the obscure is to take a regional train through the countryside. These trains tend to stop at smaller sidings, offering a window into crumbling towns and tiny villages that dot the landscape. Places that the upwardly mobile escaped from long ago, but are still somehow hanging on despite the effects of urbanization causing long term demographic decline. In Eastern Europe such places are sometimes foreshadowed by an abandoned collective farm that looks like it lost its raison d’etre long before the Iron Curtain fell. It is in Hungary where I have been able to experience these rural settings most evocatively. These are the kind of places that no one other than their inhabitants will ever remember, but for some strange reason I am the only foreigner unlikely to ever forget them either. These proverbial wide spots in the road drift into the consciousness, hide there and then resurface, triggered by an unknown force.

On an uneventful train trip in Hungary during the early spring I was able to spy several of these small villages from a window seat. I was traveling on a rattle trap of a local train from the city of Gyor in western Hungary to Sarvar. The excursion was for one reason only, to visit Sarvar Castle. The castle had been one of the main homes for the dreaded “Blood Countess”, Elizabeth Bathory. The horror which had occurred in the castle during the late 16th and early 17th centuries had kept me reading wide-eyed for many evenings prior to my trip. It occupied my imagination to the point that on the morning I boarded the train in Gyor, I had an ominous sense of dread, a nervous anticipation of what I might discover later that day in Sarvar. This was the product of an overactive imagination searching for drama.

Mihalyhaza Train Station

Mihalyhaza Train Station

The Land Of Just Getting By – A World That Lies Fallow
As the train rolled out of Gyor and into the countryside, the morning fog was slowly burning off. The train was nowhere near even half full. Being an American, I immediately thought of how nice it would be to have trains such as this rolling through obscure regions in the Midwest or Great Plains. The United States once had such trains, seventy years ago. Hungary was not seventy years behind the United States, but this train felt like a throwback to the days of communism. It was a purely mediocre mode of transport replete with cracked leather seats, a bare bones bathroom with a hand soap dispenser parceling out a grainy substance that looked like half bleached sand. Running water was little more than a leaky faucet. The windows on the train looked like they had ossified themselves shut. Other than that, it was a pleasant ride through a Europe few tourists would ever see. The trees were not quite in bloom, the fields still lay fallow, but greenery was starting to show. This was a land on the verge of rebirth, unlike the towns which inhabited it.

The train slowed and made intermittent stops. The first few towns were relatively prosperous due to their proximity to Gyor. The further out from Gyor, the more a village could best be defined as a place “where people live.” There was Szerecseny, Gecse-Gyormat, Vasvar, Mezolak and Mihalyhaza. There were places with unusual, typically incomprehensible Hungarian names such as Kemenesmihalyfa and Ostffyasszonyfa. Here was a world few would ever see except for the local inhabitants. There was no breathtaking beauty, only pleasant pastoralism. Small sized, frayed houses in many of the villages were a reminder that the economy had long since moved elsewhere. A question which I had no way to answer kept coming to mind, “What do people do here?” From the looks of it, they either had the career choice of staying inside or farming, but there were no farmers in the fields. There was land everywhere, but where were the people who worked it. Hidden behind walls, windows and curtains was the answer to that mystery. This was the land of just getting by. There was no dire poverty, only a slow steady decline into obsolescence.

Rural Hungary - a window into rural decline

Rural Hungary – a window into rural decline (Credit: Marcel Bauer)

Western Hungary In My Heart – A Place For Imagination
These villages for me were the height of obscurity. Places no one really cared about or was even conscious of. Because of that I wanted to know everything about them. I could only imagine what history was hidden inside all those houses, personal rather than national, love affairs and loneliness, homemade feasts of food and alcohol, a slow life and an even slower death. These were places with too much past and hardly any future. At least that is what I wanted to imagine. To know the truth would have been illuminating and enthralling, but then these villages, this train line and that forgotten land would have no longer been obscure to me. I would then almost certainly lose interest, move on to another place down the line. It was best just to know them for a few fleeting minutes. That way they could stay forever obscure and I could keep a small slice of Western Hungary in my heart.

Pleasure Palaces Of Empire – Taking A Bath: Roman, Ottoman & Austro-Hungarian Baths In Budapest

The Roman, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were very different entities. On the surface they seem to have little in common, besides the fact that all three eventually collapsed. It is difficult to find clear connections among the three. They were separated by time, hundreds and even thousands of years apart. They were also largely separated by space. The Roman world was centered largely on the Mediterranean Sea, the Ottomans around the near east, the Austro-Hungarians in east-central Europe.

Each of these empires also radiated outward and at certain points managed to overlap, if not in the same historical time period, than in the same geographic location centuries apart. One of the best places to see this is in Budapest. It was here that the Romans built a city on the western side of the Danube called Aquincum – in today’s Obuda area – to guard their northern frontier. A millennium and a half later the Ottoman Turks occupied and then recreated Buda in their image. Still later, Austria-Hungary oversaw the expansion of the city into a political, industrial and cultural powerhouse. Quite miraculously, there is still one commonality among all these empires to be found in the city today, baths.

The Great Public Bath at Aquincum

The Great Public Bath at Aquincum (Credit : Bjoertvedt)

From Romans To Ottomans – Bathing In Buda
The Romans were great lovers of baths. Much of their social life took place at imperial bath complexes known as thermae. These were constructed in cities throughout the empire. A thermae in Aquincum can still be seen today as part of the excavated ruins. In addition to thermaes there were private bathing facilities called balneum. Aquincum also has one of these, which was part of a villa that belonged to a wealthy citizen. Such ruins offer the first window into baths and bathing culture in the land which would one day become Hungary. The warm springs that simmer beneath the surface of Budapest have been exploited by each empire that occupied the area since antiquity. They are the city’s greatest natural resource, numbering over 120 in Buda alone. Though the Roman baths lost their purpose not long after the empire fell, the ones built by the Ottoman Turks many centuries later have had a much different destiny.

One of the very few sites left over from the Ottoman occupation are the baths which were constructed in the 1560’s and 1570’s. Though bathing culture had come down to them through the Byzantines (Eastern Roman Empire), the Ottoman Turkish bath facilities were unique in that they were also part of religious customs, specifically ablutions. Thus their baths were built adjacent to mosques. The mosques in Buda have long since disappeared, but the baths have managed to survive. On the west side of the Danube, close to Elizabeth Bridge, stands the unique domed structure of the Rudas Baths. It looks like something that might be found tucked away in a quiet corner of Constantinople. Yet these baths were fundamentally different from the ones in the Ottoman capital city. Whereas a traditional Turkish bath, known as a Hamam, consisted of three rooms, one each for hot and cold soaking, plus a large central room that was filled with steam.

Inside the Kiraly Thermal Bath

Inside the Kiraly Thermal Bath (Credit: Báthory Gábor)

In Ottoman Buda, the bath’s central space consisted of several pools. Rather than being filled with steam it was used as a bath. What is today the Kiraly Thermal Bath was completed under the administration of Pasha Sokoli Mustapha, the Ottoman governor who oversaw the construction of several Turkish baths in Buda. Over four hundred years later the architecture is pretty much unchanged. The outer walls of the bath are square, in the large room they enclose an octagonal chamber topped with a dome which allows in shafts of light. The light projects through the glass, adding an exotic element to the splashing and soaking that goes on inside. Modern bathers relax in the same setting that Ottoman officials once did. The Ottomans and almost all of their architecture have disappeared from Hungary, but their presence can be felt inside Kiraly Thermal Bath. Other Ottoman Turkish baths in Budapest include the Rac and Rudas Baths. These marvels of architecture are also places where Hungarians and tourists rub shoulders while soaking in the history.

Drilling Deep – Szechenyi Surfaces
Modern Budapest bathing culture began in the 19th century as scientific innovation brought thermal waters to the surface in places the Romans and Ottomans could only have dreamed about. With the industrial revolution, drilling technology improved at an incredible rate. Drillers were able to plume formerly unfathomable depths beneath the city. One of the first was a Hungarian engineer by the name of Vilmos Zsigmondy who spent ten years drilling a well that was nearly a thousand meters deep in the area that is now a pond in the City Park (Varosliget). This well provided thermal waters to the Artesian Bath or “old Szechenyi Bath” as it is sometimes called. The Artesian Bath has long since disappeared, but its famous replacement is nearby.

From a touristic point of view, bath and spa culture in Budapest is dominated by the splendid neo-Baroque Szechenyi furdo (Szechenyi thermal bath). Completed in 1913, the Szechenyi takes bathing to a whole new level. It is a world away from the quasi-Oriental aesthetic and sultry exoticism of the Ottoman baths. The Szechenyi has a fin de siècle refinement infused with a tasteful modernization that includes state of the art deck pools, whirlpools and even wave pools. As one of the largest bath complexes in Europe its hosts tens of thousands of visitors each year, many of whom snap photos of elderly men enjoying a soak while playing a game of chess. The magnificence that was Austria-Hungary and the golden age of Budapest permeate Szechenyi still today.

The splendor of Szechenyi Thermal Bath in Budapest

The splendor of Szechenyi Thermal Bath in Budapest

Impossible To Resist – Three Empires That Took The Waters
For all the physical architecture that the Romans, Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians imposed on the cityscapes of Aquincum, Buda and Budapest it is doubtful that any of these empires suspected that baths would be among their most lasting contributions. As different as each empire was, they all found the thermal waters of the area impossible to resist. These waters were harnessed to great effect in baths that can still be visited today. Whether in ruins or modernized, they evoke the grandeur and charm of an imperial golden age’s true pleasure palaces of empire.



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.