József Asbóth was born in a family of railway workers in Szombathely, Hungary on September 18, 1917. He is best remembered for being the first Hungarian tennis player and the first player from Eastern Europe to win a Grand Slam singles title at the 1947 French Open (where as fifth seed he beat Yvon Petra, Tom Brown and Eric Sturgess). As of today, he is still the only Hungarian male player who won a Grand Slam title in singles. Asboth was a clay court specialist who was good at keeping the ball in play. Asbóth also reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1948 (beating Sturgess and Brown before injuring his ankle and losing to John Bromwich).
His talent was discovered by Henri Cochet who took him under his coaching wing. Cochet was the captain of the Hungarian Davis Cup team in 1939, he gave Asboth a chance on the Davis Cup team and ‘Josie-boy’ (as Cochet called Asboth) won the two singles against Romania, then against Yugoslavia Asboth beat the No.5 of the world, Franjo Puncec in four sets.
In 1941, he was a member of the Hungarian team that won the Central European Cup.
His rising career was first interrupted by World War II. Between his 2nd and 3rd Grand Slam appearance (1939 – 1947) 8 years (!) had passed, when he had another chance to compete at a Grand Slam!
In 1947, at his 4th Grand Slam appearance he became a champion of Roland Garros!
Asboth was ranked World No. 8 by John Olliff of The Daily Telegraph in 1948 and No. 9 in 1947. In 1947-48, Asboth was arguably the No.1 player in Europe!
In 1948, he won the Monte-Carlo tennis championships (the predecessor Monte-Carlo Masters).
He achieved his greatest success on clay (Roland Garros, Monte-Carlo), however Harry Hopman also noted, his best surface was the grass.
In 1948, Asboth’s goal was to defend his title in Paris. He was seeded as No.2, however 2 days before his scheduled match, he received the mourning news about her mother passing. Next day, Asboth was on the plane back home to Hungary for the funeral. Meanwhile, the Hungarian Communist party did not support the best Hungarian player’s foreign trips, moreover a travel ban was used against him.
In his prime, the Hungarian (then Communist) government did not let him travel to Wimbledon, thus his great admirer, Swedish King Gustaf V gave a personal warrant to the Hungarian Government that Asboth would return to his homeland and was not going to emigrate. With the “majestic” assistance and intervention, Asboth was able to participate at Wimbledon in 1948 where 15,000 people eagerly awaited to see the “Hungarian” play in the quarterfinal against Tom Brown. According to the unanimous opinion of experts, Asboth had the most beautiful playing style of the Championships that year. After his triumph over Brown, the legendary Harry Hopman patted Asboth’s shoulder and said: “Listen pal, the grass is your element”. Unfortunately, during this match, he injured his ankle the way that next day he was barely able to walk. One day later, in the semifinal, as the only European player, Asboth fought as hard as he could despite his swollen and sore ankle against John Bromwich. In the crucial second set, the lead went back and forth between the two players, Asboth had some breakpoints, however Bromwich had given the right answer every time using his opponent’s limited mobility. Finally, the Australian player closed the set by 14-12 and then there was no escape for Asboth, who lost the opportunity to advance into the Wimbledon final. Despite even this literally hurting loss in the semifinal, Asboth showed dignity and sportsmanship when never used his injury as an excuse for the defeat.
His main strength was his legs, however both mentally and physically he could compete with any rivals, even with the best ones.
Asboth’s mentor was the legendary Henri Cochet, and he followed the footsteps of his great predecessor. He always wore short-sleeved white shirt and long white pants like the Great Musketeer as well as throughout his career was characterized with the following words: devotion in fight, gracious in defeat, humble and gentle in victory.
Asboth was an extremely talented tennis player, he had already shown his gifted aptitude early in his career. However, his career could not achieve its full potential due to political hindering factors (WWII and Communism). He was the pioneer and he opened the door for other players and future champions from the Eastern European countries (Drobny, Kodes, Nastase, Lendl).
In his best years, Asboth was not allowed to compete at Roland Garros until 1954 and he was never allowed to travel to Australia and the United States due to the refusal of the Hungarian then-Communist government!!! Instead, he had to go to Moscow and he had to teach and train Soviet tennis players upon the command of the Communist government.
His Davis Cup record was 24 wins and 17 losses and he won the Hungarian National Tennis Championships 13 times.
After Asboth retired in 1957, he accepted the invitation of the Belgian Tennis Federation and he became responsible for coaching the next generation of tennis players in Brussels and in Ostend. Then, he later became coach in Munich at Tennis Club Iphitos. He promised that he would not come back to his homeland until the Soviet Red Army stayed in Hungary, unfortunately he could not live that moment…He died on September 11, 1986 in Ismaning, near Munich, Germany.
In 1993 a street was named after Asbóth in Szombathely, the city where he was born.
The Hungarian Tennis Federation dedicated 2017 as the year of Asbóth to his memory and legacy.