The Czech who won Wimbledon for Egypt

Karel Kozeluh

Though I would say I am reasonably familiar with Czech culture and history, I must admit that I often have to scratch my head a bit - and consult the internet - whenever we feature a new question in our Radio Prague monthly quiz. The subject of the most recent competition - the remarkable prize-winning tennis, ice hockey and football player Karel Kozeluh - was certainly somebody I should have been familiar with, and I learned about his amazing career with fascination.

Kozeluh's incredible story brought to mind another intriguing Czech sportsman of yesteryear, albeit one who made his name on the international stage a decade or two later.

The name Jaroslav Drobny first came to my attention a couple of years ago on a trip to London. Among many interesting Czechs I spoke to there was the late Lady Luisa Abrahams, then in her 90s, whose list of acquaintances read like a Who's Who. She had known Tomas and Jan Masaryk, generations of the Havel family and members of the British royal family. And, she said, Jaroslav Drobny - who later won Wimbledon - was her ball-boy when she was a young woman in Prague.

Drobny did indeed win Wimbledon, I discovered after a little research. After losing in the 1949 and 1952 finals, he finally became Wimbledon champion in 1954, apparently the first ever left hander to win the tournament. His opponent in the gentlemen's final that day was Ken Rosewall of Australia, and heaven knows how long the match must have lasted: the score was a hard to believe 13-11 4-6 6-2 9-7.

But what is particularly fascinating is the fact that Drobny won the prestigious tournament not for Czechoslovakia, but as a citizen of Egypt, of all places. After leaving Czechoslovakia in the late 1940s he was looking for a new country, apparently deciding on Egypt after hitting it off with the chairman of the Cairo tennis club. Drobny seems to have later given up his Egyptian citizenship when he moved to Britain, where he died in 2001.

As I say, hearing about the multi-talented Karel Kozeluh lately put me in mind of Jaroslav Drobny, and I have since learned that they had something in common. Like Kozeluh, he was also an ice hockey player, winning a silver medal with Czechoslovakia at the Winter Olympics of 1948. His father worked as a joiner on Prague's Stavnice and that seems to have influenced Drobny's sporting career: on one side of the island there was an ice hockey stadium, on the other the country's best known tennis arena.