Mahe Drysdale's struggle with his back complaint was laid bare for the 10,000-strong crowd to see at Lake Karapiro yesterday as he took silver in the men's single sculls at the rowing world championships.

The 31-year-old is normally a feared competitor because of his doggedness in the final 500 metres but the Czech Republic's Ondrej Synek had his measure yesterday. Synek took his first title after going unbeaten at world cup events earlier in the year.

Drysdale could not translate the effort he made at Eton in 2006, when he hauled in German Marcel Hacker with barely a stroke to spare. Instead he was left a length and 1.93s short. Earlier in the week he had beaten Synek in his semifinal when both athletes coasted home.

It brought back memories of his bronze at the Beijing Olympics when he was laid low after suffering illness. However, he does have pedigree when it comes to recovering from hardship - he won his first world championship in 2005 despite getting hit in the back by a waterskier early in the season.

The Drysdale 2010 vintage suffered from limited preparation. A recurring back injury when he came back for the second set of New Zealand trials in August meant he had far from a perfect build-up. He was unable to taper for sprinting as he would have liked - and it showed.

"My back was fine [out there] but it had hindered my preparations, especially [warming into a race] at the start. That cost me.

"On reflection, it is a good result knowing what I've gone through."

Drysdale missed the chance to become the first man to win five consecutive titles in the singles sculls since the inception of the world championships in 1962. German Peter-Michael Kolbe is the only man to win five all up.

As has become customary over the last four years, Briton Alan Campbell competed for the majority of the final but his challenge was fought off by Drysdale just short of the finish line. He took bronze. Double Olympic champion Olaf Tufte was fourth.

Drysdale said Synek was impossible to peg back: "He's been the class man all year. He was on to every move I planned to get ahead. I could never get in charge."

Drysdale's coach Dick Tonks said Synek has improved on past efforts, where he has tended to blow out late in the season.

"His boat was flying. He was a deserved winner. I thought Mahe was going to come through but Synek just skipped away."

Synek took silver behind Tufte at Beijing and has three bronze medals and a silver from past world championships.

Drysdale can take some comfort from making the final after nearly being disqualified in his semifinal.

That followed the stickers falling off his boat in the first 100m. That had already earned a yellow card from race officials for delaying the start. Two yellow cards would have meant automatic disqualification.

Gear failure is the only reason a rower can re-start a race.

It's understood the first thing heard over the umpire boat radio was that "there is no gear failure".

There was then apparently some talk in another language before the conversation reverted to English and Drysdale was given a reprieve.