What his rivals said about him...

He battled with them most of his career in Grand Slams, in Davis Cup, and in many other tournaments. They saw each other just about daily while they practiced together, during matches on opposite sides, and on their travels from one side of the globe to the other. They got to know each other closely. We spoke to and asked some questions of Jan Kodes’ biggest rivals with whom he had fought on the court several times over.

How do you remember Jan Kodes as a player from your many mutual encounters on the world circuit; what was he like as a person? What do you think about his victories at the French Open in the years 1970 and 1971? On which surface was he more of a menace: on clay or on grass? How did you feel about his 1973 Wimbledon victory? Do you remember Jan Kodes as a Davis Cup player?

This is how some of them answered.

Björn Borg with Jan Kodeš, Wimbledon 2010 Björn Borg with Jan Kodeš in Royal Box at Wimbledon 2010

We played each other many times and since it was certainly more than ten times he also beat me several times. We met and competed already as juniors. He was a brilliant opponent, and for me that much more challenging for his unbelievably ambitious fighting spirit. When he was losing he fought with extra ferocity still. We became good friends as we were of the same age and we played the same tournaments. I remember our train ride from Moscow to Tallinn. We then played doubles together. As I think of it all I realize that I have known him for forty years!

We both started playing and learned tennis on clay. But if one wanted to be a top world player then adapting the game to all surfaces was a must. It was not easy for us but we accomplished it. Outcome of Wimbledon 1973 was better for him – he won! It was a great year for him because after Wimbledon he reached semi-finals or even finals at the US Open! I don’t remember the details any more. He proved then that he was able to win on all surfaces.

We played against each other in Davis Cup only once in Romania but by then we were both thirty or thirty one. We met each other more in big tournaments like the French Open, in Italy and in Spain. We fought long grueling matches. Once it was his turn to win, next time mine. At any rate, it was always a great challenge.

Ilie Nastase

Jan was a very difficult opponent who fought for each and every point and whose game had, virtually, no weakness. He always appeared to be a friendly chap, though a bit reserved and distant. That might have been related to the fact that Central Europe was then suffering from the Russian occupation. I remember how all WCT players played in Rome, where Kodes defeated me, Stolle, and Roche to succumb to Laver in the finals. Immediately after that neither I, nor Rosewall, nor Roche, nor Laver were allowed to play at Roland Garros.

Nevertheless, Jan was superb on clay. He grew up on it and I am sure that it was his favorite surface, on which he delivered his best performances. He did not have much experience on grass, yet he surprised everybody in 1971 when he advanced all the way to the US Open finals. I was seeded as number one since I had won Wimbledon in 1970 and 1971 but Jan beat me in four sets in the first round. Two years later 84 players did not enter Wimbledon but he sealed his best career performance when he advanced all the way to the finals of the US Open where all players were present and he only lost to me in a five set final match. Unfortunately, we met in Davis Cup only once in a semifinal match in Melbourne in 1973. Australia then won 4:1...

John Newcombe

Jan is a very well educated man who I have always respected. He was one of the dominant players of his generation and has achieved excellent results in Grand Slam tournaments. In particular his two successive Roland Garros victories were unbelievable accomplishments. He was most successful on clay. The players who boycotted Wimbledon in 1973 wished only one thing and that was for Nastase or Taylor not to advance to the finals and win since they did not join the boycott. Kodes and Metreveli could not participate in the boycott for their own political struggle at home. Kodes’ surprising victory was welcome. Yet, I remember that some critics tried to discredit that victory in Tennis World and did not consider it for its full value. But, there were 128 players as always and they played three out of five sets as had been done before. In Davis Cup one particular match got etched into my memory - the semifinals in Prague in July of 1975. After the first day the Czechs were leading 2:0 and their doubles team was favored in the following day contest. But Dominguez and I won that match after an amazing five-set battle against Kodes – Hrebec. Patrick Dominguez then tied the score 2:2; but we lost 2:3 in the end.

Patrick Proisy

Jan was always a formidable opponent, he fought hard till the end. Overall he was a very good all-court player. I trust he managed his career very well. In his time he belonged to the best clay-court players in the world, and he deserved the two-time French Open title. When he won Wimbledon in 1973 I felt that only Nastase could have defeated him but he had lost sooner than they would meet each other.

We are still good friends with Jan; I always respected him as a player and as a man. In Davis Cup we never came across each other but I know how much he accomplished for the benefit of Czech tennis.

Stan Smith

A fighter and a good friend. A player with a superb backhand and volleys; unyielding competitor like Connors, smart, and an excellent clay-court player. Always proper, on and off the court. He helped me a lot with my tennis. I once asked him to play doubles with me when nobody knew me yet. He met my wish and we won Munich in 1975, Barcelona in 1977, Madrid in 1978, and we even reached the Roland Garros finals in 1977!

Wojtek Fibak

I believe that, in his time, Jan was one of the best players in the world. I am very glad to have had the honor to play him many times. He was a tough adversary and one could defeat him only with great difficulty. Virtually, he had no weakness; he was a complete player with an all-court game. He earned his place in tennis history as a great champion.

The relationship between the Czechs and the Swedes was always sincere and friendly. And the same was true about me and Jan. Our friendship has lasted till today. I have respected him, and the rest of the tennis world has too, whether it has been him as a tennis player on the court or off the court.

He won the French Open and Wimbledon, and he reached the finals in the US Open twice. He accomplished a number of other remarkable achievements as well. He was a player who could perform on any surface and who could become a menace for any player. For that reason it did not surprise me that he won the French Open two times in a row. And Wimbledon? That title came at the peak of his career! Just about any player will tell you that winning the Wimbledon title is special; it is so special expressly for its traditions. To win Wimbledon is grand. To win any other Grand Slam tournament is amazing but a Wimbledon victory carries a special tribute that no other tournament can duplicate. Perhaps, with a bit of luck, Jan and I could have met each other in Wimbledon semifinals. I believe I had a chance to win the quarterfinal match but I lost it in five sets to Roger Taylor. I was too young then and inexperienced, and I lacked confidence. On the contrary, Jan exhibited everything one needed to win Wimbledon. He merited the title. Even if I had surpassed Roger, most likely I would have succumbed to Jan. We later played a number of even-leveled matches, for instance in Boston in 1974. I was up two sets to none. Jan tied the score and led 5:1 in the fifth. But I had a comeback and won the match in a tie-break. Such matches one never forgets! Another similar match took place during the Davis Cup final in Stockholm in 1975. The Czechs were then under more pressure than we were even in spite of us playing on home turf. Jan and I played the first match on the last day, a match that could have been decisive. And it was! Jan played under tremendous pressure and I knew that a defeat meant a great disappointment for him. Surely he thought that it was his last chance to clutch the Davis Cup bowl. Thus I remember that match well too, and I am sure that he does as well

Björn Borg

Jan Kodes’ tennis career developed perfectly well. He was one of my most difficult adversaries, especially on “his” surface, the clay-court. He was unbelievably tenacious, physically well prepared, there was not a point ever lost to him. He was capable to get the most out of himself especially in the most important tournaments. There is no wonder that he reached two Grand Slam victories at Roland Garros – in 1970 and the following year. He also made Wimbledon history and joined the line of champions there in 1973.

I remember all our exhausting and physically grueling matches at Roland Garros. In Davis Cup we met only twice. My best memories take me to Paris in 1966 when I defeated him in five sets only after he had me down 6:3, 6:1 and 3:0. Nine years later he paid me back in Prague in a similar fashion in a very important Davis Cup match when the score was tied at 2:2.

François Jauffret

When I think of Jan the first thing that comes to my mind is his character of a true fighter. Jan Kodes was one of my foremost rivals in important tournaments and championships. On the court he was a full-hearted opponent, talented strategist, and a very well prepared player technically and physically. In spite of the fact that politics played its problematic role in our relationship he was able to forget and forgive. We always found a way to communicate even after a brief pause when our friendship edged away for a period time due to the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Jan was one of the best players on clay and his French Open victories were a natural outcome. I believe he would have accomplished still more had he been able to arrange his own schedule of tournament entries. We had tougher conditions than players in the “free” countries.

He played well on clay as well as on grass but it is my opinion that he was stronger on clay. There are some voices who think that his Wimbledon victory was not persuasive since not all players entered the championship that year. That was not his fault, however, and, incidentally, the draw was very challenging in spite of it. If I take into consideration all previous as well as following tournaments and the five set final with Newcombe at US Open a few weeks later, his Wimbledon title looks well deserved. We met regularly in Davis Cup, once we played in Czechoslovakia, next time in the USSR. Our matches were always highly strung, full of emotions, claiming strong wills and also team spirit. We usually took the matches to five sets. I remember those moments well till today.

Alexandr Metreveli