Long before the Open era, long before technology made it possible to copy strokes from all over the world, long before fitness training sharpened bodies, tennis players were very much products and prisoners of their geography and physique.
The year was 1953. In the third round of Wimbledon, Jaroslav Drobny, originally from Czechoslovakia, took on an American who spent most of his time in Europe, Budge Patty. Though Drobny was the fourth seed, the unseeded Patty was the one with the Wimbledon title on his resume, taking it back in 1950.
Drobny at this point had fled his homeland’s oppressive politics and played under the flag of Egypt. Once a hockey player, Drobny had a stocky build and a forceful left-handed game.
“In contrast,” wrote one story about this match, “Patty is a pure student of the game. To him the court is a geometric pattern and he the drawer of diagrams, exploring every inch of space with his mastery of the volley.”
A match that began late in the afternoon went on for more than hours. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, future Hall of Famer Lance Tingay would describe the tennis as having a “champagne nature.” Drobny won the first set, a mild overtime effort, 8-6. That was but an appetizer. He’d lose the second 18-16, go down two sets to one and then take the last two, 8-6, 12-10 – along the way fighting off six match points.
Drobny had first played Wimbledon in 1938 and had by this stage twice lost in the finals. By 1953, he was 31 years old. Surely, in the wake of his comeback versus Patty, his time had come.
Not quite. Drobny that year would lose in the semis. But good things come to those who wait. Nineteen fifty-four would be his year of deliverance, Drobny at last taking the title.