In the great library of tennis oddities, on the impossible shelf, resists the unique case of a match that both protagonists chose to abandon, for it seemed impossible to break the deadlock. It was 60 years ago, on the 20th of February 1955, in the final of the Lyon tournament in France, and the two stars, Budge Patty and Jaroslav Drobny, invented the draw in tennis.
Unlike the players of the Nantes FC and Caen who needed five games to break the deadlock in the Coupe de France 1958, their match wasn't timed. And unlike the protagonists of the semi-final of the football Euro 1968, they couldn’t settle this with a coin toss. They? Budge Patty, the Parisian American, the man who initiated the reign of great attackers on clay in Paris, and Jaroslav Drobny, with a buffalo look and his dark glasses, indispensable tool since his eye accident at ice hockey, a sport in which he was world champion in 1947, four years before his first victory at Roland Garros. Both were in the final of 1955 Lyon tournament. That same year, while James Dean died in a car accident and the first rock hit single "Rock around the clock" was on all the radios, tennis was (yet) amateur, television weren’t showing matches (yet) and the rule of the two games difference was (still) in application. In addition, since the 1st of January, the rule of foot faults had changed. It was now possible to set foot on the line as soon as the ball had left the racquet. What made the joy of serve-and-volley players - including Drobny and Patty - the happiness of long score enthusiasts and enough to draw the context of this endless Sunday on the wooden court of the Lyon tennis club. A slippery floor where the ball was even faster than on grass...
Little break on a linesman’s chair
Not content with being amongst the best servers in the world, Jaroslav Drobny and Budge Patty knew each other by heart. One against the other, they played the biggest games of the decade. Their opposition were pretty much the Nadal/Federer or Nadal/Djokovic of the 1950s. Before Lyon, five of their six matches in Grand Slams were settled in the fifth set, including a masterpiece two years earlier at Wimbledon, where the score alone (16-18 8-6 3-6 8 -6 12-10) was an adventure. But along the Rhone River, in front of 2000 fans gathered on rudimentary wooden seats, none of the gentlemen managed to have the final word. Today when John Isner and Nicolas Mahut camp out for three days on Wimbledon court 18 for a few dollars more (70-68 in the fifth set in 2010), Patty and Drobny, on their part, neither wanted nor could, knock themselves out for honour. It was at one set all, after a break in each of the first two sets that the unthinkable and the most unexpected happened. At 10 all already, taking advantage of the short break needed to turn on the lights in the room, Patty slumped in the chair of a linesman, and Drobny fell flat on the court. At that time, they perhaps had a premonitory dream about the decisive game, invented a few years later, in 1970.
Handshake at 21 all
"On wooden floors, we’ve never been able to adjust our returns,” said the American a few days later. “We used to win most of our services in four balls. This could have lasted forever. It was difficult to end the match but after discussing it twice in the third set, we finally decided to shake hands at 21 all." While the stopwatch ran for 4 hours, the chair umpire was forced to announce two winners, results endorsed by the cheers of a French public both amused and amazed. The standing ovation lasted for 10 minutes.