He played Wimbledon under four different nationalities, ended up winning it while wearing sunglasses while he was already Olympic medallist in ice hockey. This is the story of Jaroslav Drobny, the man with a thousand lives.

He played Wimbledon under four different nationalities, ended up winning while wearing sunglasses, but he was also Olympic medallist in ice hockey and could have become the first European in history to play in the NHL. His name is Jaroslav Drobny, the man with a thousand lives.

 

Wimbledon, June 1954. The London public couldn’t stop celebrating the winner of the men's tournament. He was the favourite in English hearts, he triumphed racquet in hand. But that man wasn't British but Egyptian, at least at the time, and he had the craziest life. So crazy that it is better to write it in chronological order to avoid losing track too. The life in question is that of Jaroslav Drobny, born in Prague in 1921, whose father was a tennis coach who initiated his son to the sport from an early age. Precocity model, the young Drobny was even invited to play his first Wimbledon in 1938, as a representative of Czechoslovakia. A country that will soon be the scapegoat of the Nazis, so much so that a year later, on the eve of the World War, it was under the colours of the very temporary protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, set up by Hitler, that the young tennis player played his second Grand Slam tournament in London.

 

Tennis in the summer, ice hockey in the winter

It was then that the Second World War started. Jaroslav Drobny saw it from some distance, but not enough to be completely distant from the horrors, especially during the 1945 purges when he witnessed the lynching of a German soldier, burned alive and stoned by a crowd drunk with revenge. During the conflict, he still managed to continue practicing tennis. But not only, ice hockey, too, that he practiced diligently. Tennis in the warmer months, hockey during the winter. In 1946, return to Wimbledon with this time a first great achievement: a victory in the fourth round against the American favourite Jack Kramer, who therefore had to wait another year before winning the tournament. In the winter of 1947, Drobny was this time selected to play the ice hockey World Championships at home. Czechoslovakia won, with on the skates, a decisive player, author of 15 goals in the competition. The feat almost happened again the following winter in Switzerland, when Czechoslovakia won the Olympic silver, only surpassed by the invincible Canadians. A few weeks later, the versatile Drobny (who scored 9 goals in the Olympics) took his tennis racquet and reached the final of Roland Garros, where he lost against Frank Parker.

 

An escape with two shirts and 50 $

At that time, Jaroslav Drobny was at a crossroads: it had become harder and harder for him to reconcile the two sports and he had trouble living in the confinement in which Czechoslovakia was immersed since the end of the war. The Ice Hockey American franchise, the Boston Bruins invited him to become the first European to compete in the prestigious National Hockey League (NHL), with a fat check at the end. He refused and said that he wanted to focus 100% on tennis. It was in those very moments certainly – in the late 1940s - that Drobny decided to flee his country, an exile of which he knew that he would never return. It was then one of the most beloved local athlete, second only to the long distance runner Emil Zatopek. In July 1949, during a tournament in Gstaad in Switzerland, he and his teammate in Davis Cup, Vladimir Cernik, refused to return in Czechoslovakia and asked for political asylum. "Everything I had,” he said years later, “was two shirts, my toothbrush and 50 dollars.” Drobny was refused Swiss citizenship, then American and Australian, before receiving an invitation from Egypt, that he happily accepted. So it's as an Egyptian that he finally landed the Grail in 1954: a Wimbledon title - after two to French Open won in 1951 and 1952 - by defeating Ken Rosewall, during an interminable final still far from the introduction of the tie-break in tennis (13/11 6/4 6/2 9/7).

 

A last Wimbledon as an English citizen

First left-handed player to win on the London grass since Norman Brookes in 1914, Drobny was also the first to win a Grand Slam tournament while wearing glasses, souvenir of a collision on ice skates... Very elegant, smart, polite, reserved, the former Czech who became Egyptian by force of circumstance fitted perfectly to the spirit of Wimbledon and the English middle class lifestyle. He besides moved to Sussex with his (English) wife in the early 1950s and applied every year for British nationality, that he eventually obtained in 1959. It was therefore with a fourth passport that he played in 1960 at 38, his last Wimbledon, at home this time, before finally retiring. He then bought of a sports shop in South Kensington, and died in London on the 13th of September 2001, a month before his eightieth birthday.

 

 

By Régis Delanoë