Today marks the start of what will be the busiest summer in the history of the All-England Club, more commonly known as Wimbledon for the area of London in which the great tennis venue is situated.
First up is “The Championship”, a fortnight’s worth of tennis featuring the best men and women in the world, and in three weeks’ time the same players will be back competing for their countries at the Summer Olympics, Wimbledon hosting the tennis event, of course.
This brings to mind the 1954 Wimbledon championship which was won by Jaroslav Drobny, a former hockey star who made his mark internationally with Czechoslovakia at a time when that nation was the first to emerge from the colossal pre-war shadow of Canada, which dominated the ice game from the time hockey started to take root across Europe.
Drobny was one of the stars on the Czechoslovak team that won gold at the 1947 World Championship in Prague. Canada didn’t compete that year, but that team featured several of the best players ever to come out to Czechoslovakia, including goalie Bohumil Modry and scorer Vladimir Zabrodsky.
Drobny scored three goals in the final game in 1947 to secure the gold, a 6-1 win over the United States. A year later, at the Olympics in St. Moritz, Canada and the Czechs played to a scoreless tie, the only blip in either teams’ record. Canada won gold on superior goal ratio, and the Czechoslovaks settled for a silver, but for the first time it appeared Canada had a European opponent to call a rival.
These were the only two major international hockey events in which Drobny competed. During one game, he fell on a skate, damaging his eye, and his career was over. But what few hockey fans realize is that he was a world-class tennis player as well. Indeed, he played at Wimbledon for the first time back in 1938 as a 16-year-old, where he lost to Alejo Russell in the first round in four sets.
Just a few months after the 1948 Olympics, Drobny advanced to the finals of the French Open. Seeded 6th, he lost to the top seed, Frank Parker, 6-4, 7-5, 5-7, 8-6. He did, however, win the doubles on the red clay of Paris, teaming with Lennart Bergelin to win the title. Bergelin was much more famous a quarter of a century later as coach to the great Björn Borg. “Drob” also won the mixed doubles with Patricia Canning Todd, the winner of the 1947 women’s Wimbledon championship.
Just a year later, Drobny made it to the finals of Wimbledon, losing in a five-setter to Ted Schroeder.
Even more fascinating than his hockey background was his necessary use of prescription glasses. Because of an eye injury during his hockey days, Drobny was forced to wear dark glasses when outside to protect his eyes from the sun. As a result, he cut an immediate presence for his look at every tennis tournament he played. The only time the glasses adversely affected his play, however, was when it was raining.
Hockey players represented Czechoslovakia in the 1948 David Cup against Brazil, from left to right: Karel Kozeluh, Jaroslav Drobny and Vladimir Zabrodsky. Photo: IIHF Archive
The Czechoslovak government became Communist in February 1948 under a coup which saw a dictatorship control the country for decades. Drobny felt his freedom was being increasingly violated, so he and Davis Cup teammate Vladimir Cernik defected while playing a tournament in Gstaad, Switzerland. Drobny became an Egyptian citizen and represented that country in tennis for the next decade.
The 1950s saw Drobny reach the highest pinnacles in tennis. He made it to the French Open finals in 1950 (for the third time) and won the tournament in both 1951 and 1952.
Drobny was also the runner-up at Wimbledon in 1952, a particularly harsh defeat as he led Frank Sedgman by two sets before falling in five sets. Two years later, though, he won it all, defeating the legendary Ken Rosewall in the finals by a score of 13-11, 4-6, 6-2, 9-7.
Drobny was the first left-hander to win Wimbledon since Sir Norman Brookes in 1914, and is still the only man to win while wearing glasses. The 58 games of that finals with Rosewall was also a record for the time. By now, Drobny was living in Sussex with his British wife, but the only time he represented Great Britain officially was at the 1960 Wimbledon championship, the 17th and final appearance of his illustrious tennis career.
Later in life Drobny told a story about the ’54 victory to a British reporter: "Before the '54 final, by which time I was married and an expectant father, I was totally calm and I approached the final against Rosewall in a state of complete peace of mind. I had been written off as a 'has been' or 'never was'. On the eve of the final, I caught a few fish in our nearby lake, watched other players chasing tennis balls around the court on television, and sat back in an easy chair at home and told my wife, 'I will win'."
And win he did.
Drobny also won the Italian Open three times. He was renowned for his bullet-like first serve, and even after 1960 he continued to play. He and doubles partner Philippe Washer of Belgium won the Veteran’s title at Wimbledon from 1968-71 inclusive, and in 1983 Drobny was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
In 1997, he was among the first players inducted into the IIHF Hockey Hall of Fame, and in the year 2000, Drobny was part of the historic Centennial Parade at the All-England Club. He passed away a year later, remembered both as a world champion hockey player and among the very best tennis players ever to lift a racquet.