Class of 1983
World No. 1 (1954)
Grand Slam Results
5-time major champion, 8-time finalist
Member of the Czechoslovakian Davis Cup Team 1946-1949
Overall Record 37-6
Singles Record 24-4
Doubles Record 13-2
By sporting standards, Jaroslav Drobný was a late bloomer. He played in four major finals before winning his first as a 30-year-old at the 1951 French Championships. Drobný, a native of Prague, Czechoslovakia, defected from his native country in 1949 and became an Egyptian citizen. He ultimately settled in Great Britain, becoming a citizen in 1959. His travels are as numerous and intriguing as are his 13 trips to major finals in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles.
In his first four major singles final losses the big serving left-handed Czech, who always wore tinted prescription glasses due to an old hockey injury that affected his eye-sight, did not go quietly into the night. Three of the four finals went the distance. In the 1946 French Championships he led Frenchman Marcel Bernard 2-0 in sets, but dropped the last three (3-6, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-3). The 1949 Wimbledon Gentlemen Singles final against American Ted Schroeder was a tense struggle, but ended in a 3-6, 6-0, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 loss. The 1950 French Championships against American Budge Patty saw Drobný roar back after dropping the first two sets, but fell again in five sets, 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5. By comparison then, the 1948 French Championships defeat against American Frank Parker (6-4, 7-5, 5-7, 8-6) might have been easier to absorb.
When Drobný finally smacked the proverbial monkey off his back in the 1951 French Championships against South African Eric Sturgess, it was sweet redemption for past losses. Drobný, who could mix his power serve with the finesse and touch of a player yielding a feather to hit the ball, won in a rout, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. He was suitably able and capable to defend his title the next year in a four-set victory over Aussie Frank Sedgman, 6-2, 6-0, 3-6, 6-4. As fate would dictate, Sedgman was Drobný’s opponent in the 1952 Wimbledon finals, and the Aussie exacted revenge with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 triumph. If nothing, Drobný was persistent, still playing high-level tennis into his mid-30s. His formidable game was still on display in 1954 and at age 36 when he defeated 19-year-old Ken Rosewall, 13-11, 4-6, 6-2, 9-7, to claim his first Wimbledon title. The 58 games remained the longest final played until the mid-1970s, and he earned the distinction of being the first left-handed singles champion since 1914 (Norman Brookes), and the first to win wearing eyeglasses. As a historical footnote, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova are the only female Wimbledon champions to wear glasses.
“Jaroslav Drobný at Wimbledon in 1946 was my toughest opponent,” recalls Jack Kramer. “It was a five set match that took about three hours. One set went 17-15. I had blisters on my hands and had to wear a golf glove. It did me a lot of good, even getting beat.”
Drobný played in four major doubles championship matches, but unlike his singles forays, he didn’t wait long to snatch a title. He teamed with Sweden’s Lennart Bergelin to beat the Aussie combo of Harry Hopman and Sedgman to win the 1948 French Championships, 8-6, 6-1, 12-10. He didn’t fare as well in three other finals, losing at the 1950 French and Australian and 1951 Wimbledon Championships. He won a fourth French major title, teaming with American Patricia Canning Todd to defeat Doris Hart and Sedgman, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, for the 1948 Mixed Doubles crown.
Drobný’s most acclaimed match never involved reaching the final of a major. At the 1953 Wimbledon Championships, Drobný and Patty met in a historic third round match. Patty held six match points, but couldn’t put the Czech away, falling in a 93-game, 4 hour, 20 minute classic, 8-6, 16-18, 3-6, 8-6, 12-10. The match started at 5 pm and lasted until 9:20 p.m. Exhausted from that match, he lost his semifinal match to unseeded Kurt Nielsen in straight sets. Some contemporaries call it the greatest match they ever saw.
Drobný reached the U.S. National Championship Singles semifinals in 1947 and 1948, losing to Kramer and Pancho Gonzales. From 1950-54, Drobný won three Italian Championships in 1950, 1951, and 1953, all as an Egyptian since his defection from Czechoslovakia. When he played at Wimbledon in 1938, he represented Bohemia-Moravia, the part of Czechoslovakia that wasn’t under German occupation and played as a British citizen. When it came to the Davis Cup, though, he played for Czechoslovakia (1946-1949) and rarely lost, sporting a 37-6 record, 24-4 in singles.
Drobný was a gifted two-sport athlete, excelling in both tennis and ice hockey. He was a star center in the Czechoslovakian ice hockey league, leading the Czech National Ice Hockey Team to a Gold Medal at the 1947 World Championships and a Silver Medal in the 1948 Olympic Games played at St. Moritz, Switzerland. Drobný showcased his talents by scoring nine goals in eight games during the Olympics.
Drobný won a bundle of amateur singles titles, believed to be 133 according to published reports. He ranked in the World’s Top 10 for ten straight years (1946-56) and rose to the No. 1 position in 1954. Esteemed tennis writer Allison Danzig wrote that with the exception of the long-distance runner Emil Zatopek, “…no Czech athlete has brought greater honor to his country than Drobný.”
After his playing days, Drobný owned a sports shop, Sport Drobný, in South Kensington, until the 1980s. In 1955 he published his autobiography titled, Champion in Exile.
French Championships: W 1951, 1952
Wimbledon: W 1954
U.S. Nationals: SF 1947, 1948
Australian Championships: F 1950
French Championships: W 1948
Wimbledon: F 1951
French Championships: W 1948
Wimbledon: SF 1948