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)