By Jan Kodes
The following is a book excerpt from A JOURNEY TO GLORY FROM BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN, a one-of-a-kind coffee table book that documents the history of tennis in the Czech Republic. The book features an incredible array of historic and never seen before photos and many anecdotes and stories about Czech players including Martina Navratilova, Ivan Lendl and many others. It is available for 24 percent off here: http://www.amazon.com/Jan-Kodes-Journey-Behind-Curtain/dp/0942257685/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1320242085&sr=1-1 The book was written by Jan Kodes, the 1973 Wimbledon champion, 1970-71 French Open champion and the 1971 and 1973 US Open singles runner-up. He was a member of the only Czech team to win the Davis Cup back in 1980 and the member of the 1975 team that lost to Sweden in the final. Peter Kolar co-wrote the book with Kodes. The Czechs are hosting Spain in the 2012 Davis Cup final in Prague this weekend.
Prague was overwhelmed by tennis euphoria. The famous “Cup” was exhibited in a department store Kotva on Republic Square. There were a hundred thousand applications for tickets. The Sport Hall capacity of fourteen thousand was lowered by two thousand for security purposes. The Italians received two thousand tickets. Many official guests arrived in Prague, including the ITF President Philippe Chatrier. A supreme surface was laid down for the tennis court. As is typical for our Czech character there were many voices for and many against the surface. Jan Kodes soothed the debate: “Many tournaments are played on supreme carpet yet each surface is unique. In some places the balls bounce faster, in others slower. Here the bounce will be a bit lower. However, it remains within the margin of players’ adaptability. If the surface triggers a handicap for the players it will be the same for both teams.”
KODES: At any rate, the surface was quite fast which suited us well. On the contrary, it did not suit the Italians. We all carried in our heads the memory of our defeat in Rome in 1979, when Ivan received a double “bagel” from Panatta. But in Prague, this was a different Lendl! Furthermore, we were going to play inside, on the supreme… and Ivan had prepared well to play his best tennis in the final. Besides his new coach Wojtek Fibak, Ivan also arrived with his manager Jerry Solomon, from the sports agency ProServ.
Tomas Smid’s health failed him the night of Thursday to Friday. He suffered from wicked nasty diarrhea. Tomas’ wife called me up around midnight: “Jan, I have no idea what more I can do for Tomas. He is dreadfully sick!” I called Dr. Kopriva at once. In the morning Tomas headed to Dr. Rybin’s in the Army hospital. They didn’t know what to think of it and thought of pumping out his stomach. Most likely, the source of the food poisoning was a fish fillet that he had eaten.
In the course of the morning they thought of placing me in Tomas’ stead in case that he was incapacitated. It did not frighten me since my record against Panatta was reasonably good. Around eleven Smid arrived at last and without any warm up proclaimed that he was ready to play. I was not aware that anybody knew what exactly had happened to him; he looked unbelievably debilitated. That added to the reason why one had to appreciate his performance that much more. He put everything he had into that match and won 3:6, 3:6, 6:4, 6:4, and 6:4.
I suspect that Adriano Panatta underestimated the development of the match when he was leading two sets to love. Tomas was a “holder.” It was a battle of serves. Tomas played the serve and volley game well, but so did Panatta. Panatta started out very well and did not leave any room for further improvement, whereas Tomas started out so-so and gradually improved his game. Step by step they reversed roles and, at the end, Smid was in charge. He also showed a stronger heart. Tomas was always able to deliver. Considering the variety of shots he possessed he definitely made the best of his arsenal. And since he played serve and volley effectively he chose that as his strategy against Panatta: serve – approach – volley to Panatta’s backhand. A passing shot from the backhand side was Panatta’s weakness. The match was played in a tense atmosphere, mainly due to the Italian contingent in the audience. One of the drunken fans shouted at the officials, and was subsequently removed from the arena. The Italians then removed themselves from the court as well and refused to continue play until the drunken fan was allowed to return! In the end, the fan turned out to be a leader of the Italian Communist party and all charges against him were dropped. Antonin Bubenik, the umpire, tried to calm the unruly mob to no avail. His words “Silenzio prego! Silenzio prego!” drowned in the noise.
The mania reached its climax during the decisive set. Tomas Smid valiantly ran down his opponent’s drop shot but the Italians claimed it took a double bounce. Referee Hardwick awarded the point to the host team but the Italians protested the call and left for the locker rooms. When they returned to the court the “tug-of-war” continued. Tennis fans, who watched the television broadcast of the match, may remember the moment when Adriano Panatta verbally assaulted the chair umpire Bubenik after an objectionable call. From the television screen it was easy to recognize the abusive English language verbal tirade with which Panatta regaled one of our best umpires: “You are a big Czech pig!”
In the second match Lendl lost the first set to Barazzuti 4:6, but the next three sets were an unambiguous winning venture for him: 6:1, 6:1, 6:2. The captain of the Italian team, Vittorio Crotta: “It is very likely that the end result has been decided… There were too many questionable calls and Smid’s foot faults remained unobserved in Panatta’s match. Under no circumstances do I want to presume that the lead of the Czech team was affected by the disputed calls.”
The Italians kept protesting Tomas’ uncalled foot faults. It is true that at home the players test the boundaries because they rely on the home advantage of line calls. We went through the same treatment in Australia, Russia, and Italy. Keeping in mind Ivan Lendl’s excellent performance the Davis Cup team leadership stuck to their principle of “not changing the winning line-up” and put Lendl in Saturday doubles team with Smid. Panatta and Bertolucci were well known to be an excellent team and they displayed their confidence to everybody around them. Particularly Bertolucci was brilliant, his returns were low and precise, and he reigned at the net with outstanding volleys and overheads that he played with exceptional lightness. He also demonstrated incredibly good hands and touch for the ball.
The host team started out in “Smid-like” spirit of his opening singles match – lifeless. They gave an impression of being out of fuel, without energy to give them the necessary spark to ignite a real doubles “concert.” They were unable to put away the decisive shots. Fortunately for us, Panatta did not compliment Bertolucci’s phenomenal effort and with his double fault he gave us the second set. However, our team’s performance did not improve even at that tied score. At moments it seemed like there were two singles players on the court playing a game of doubles. There was little teamwork on the Czech side of the court. After a break at 3:6, 6:3, 3:6 specifically Lendl’s performance improved. Smid then got into the game too and that resulted in the fourth set victory 6:3.
A longstanding dream came true at last for generations of Czech tennis enthusiasts when Ivan Lendl secured the match at 5:4 in the fifth set with his clean effective game! For the first time in history they conquered the Davis Cup!
KODES: The doubles game was a nervous performance of ups and downs. However, the important thing was that, in the end, the guys won in five! The final victory was not secured even when we were 2:0 ahead. Who knows how the matches would have turned out the third day of competition if the score had been only 2:1 after the doubles! Maybe Smid would have lost to Barazzutti and then the match between Lendl and Panatta would have been the decisive one at 2:2… I am sure that would not have been an easy task. Panatta would then have played bang-bang without the pressure and responsibility of having to secure a point; that would make him feel more at ease playing Ivan. So, the doubles was crucial and it was wonderful that the score was 3:0 in our favor at its conclusion. Smid later lost to Barazzutti 6:3, 3:6, 2:6 which only points out that, most likely, he would have lost to him at 2:1 as well.
Nothing will ever take away the advantage of the home turf… The outcome of the match was decided; the third day matches were played only as the best of three. First, Smid lost to Barazzutti when he did not put out much effort in the last two sets. Nobody reproached him because he was very fatigued; he was still celebrated like a hero. Gianni Ocleppo played the last match instead of Panatta; Ivan Lendl beat him convincingly 6:3, 6:3.
The Italians could not withstand the weight of defeat and they left the venue immediately following the last match. After half an hour of waiting for them the closing ceremony proceeded with only a fragment of the Italian team in attendance – the non-playing captain and the substitute player Ocleppo, and our triumphant team. The ITF president, Philippe Chatrier, then handed over the famous “salad bowl” to Antonin Bolardt and said: “On behalf of myself and fifty four participants in this year’s competition I am passing the Davis Cup bowl to the team of Czechoslovakia. It is a grand and well deserved victory that was achieved over such a talented and experienced Italian team that won this most famous trophy in 1976. I congratulate your captain and your team, especially then the formidable players Ivan Lendl and Tomas Smid. Your team with such young outstanding players will be hard to beat in the near future.”
KODES: What more could we have wished for than playing Italy at home after we passed over Argentina playing their best team of Vilas–Clerc on their home turf? And we really won that final. History is not interested in what happened in the background, did Smid have health problems or did he not, did the umpire make the right decisions or did he make bad calls? It is not relevant; we had a chance and we grabbed it; we went for it! The same opportunity opened up in Stockholm in 1975. It was then the Swedes’ historic chance. They played at home, in Stockholm, against Czechoslovakia! We beat the Australians for them and they now had a chance to be the overall winners; they grabbed that opportunity, just like we would a few years later in Prague. When you play the Davis Cup finals on home turf you must not waver. We didn’t hold back and thus we triumphed at least once! I trust we’ll remember Prague in 1980 for a long time because the next victory is not coming any time soon. For me, personally, it was something totally fantastic because I had wished very much to win the Davis Cup and I was with the team for great many years; practically seventeen years – from 1964 to 1980! We did not triumph in Stockholm but we accomplished it in Prague… Even though I did not play, I was a member of the team and it tickles me that I lived to experience it. I always gave my maximum in my efforts to conquer the “salad bowl” and bring it home. That was my dream!
Representing your country in Davis Cup is the utmost privilege. The selected team cooperates and deals with pitfalls and traps. It is a lingering competition and players have to time their performance accordingly. For instance, I was in great shape after the grueling ten day advance and winning the French Open.
In the final match against Italy we had to deal with Smid’s indisposition caused by intestinal problems from food poisoning, in Romania we had to play without him altogether due to his ankle injury. Yet, the team achieved the goal – that is our historic triumph. I knew it was going to be difficult and dramatic… the Italians were upset before it even started and they tried to find excuses. At the tournament in Bologna they were already saying that there was no way they could win in Prague. That weakened them!
I have always admired Bjorn Borg, who won Wimbledon five times and always engaged himself again and again with the same resolve, same desire and vehemence. That I call athletic grandeur! I played Davis Cup for seventeen years and somewhere, deep in my soul, I believed that one day we would succeed in winning the “salad bowl.” The moment it actually happened, all the difficult moments we had along the way flashed in front of me; the chances when everything could have turned against us, the instances when we felt defeat frigidly near. Just recalling the final itself – what if Tomas did not beat Panatta? What if Ivan failed to muster better mental strength in the close of the doubles game than this formidable Italian player? Who knows? It was our willpower and strength to give out everything we had that was our strongest weapon over our opponent; in the end, it gave us with the most fantastic feeling – the Davis Cup triumph