The greatest sportsman you have never heard of
- September 5, 2023
- Lincoln Allison
- Themes: Sport
Jaroslav Drobny excelled in two of the world’s most popular sports. He enjoyed his success as only a true amateur can.
According to the website WorldAtlas, ice hockey and tennis are, respectively, the world’s third and fourth most popular sports. It is entirely proper to have reservations about such claims and there are many alternative lists, but these two sports feature highly in nearly all of them and it is clear that few of the fans of either sport know that there was once a man who was just about the best in the world at both. In the specialised world of twenty-first century sport it would be structurally impossible to have that status. But Jaroslav Drobny won the world ice hockey championships with Czechoslovakia in 1947 – he was the leading scorer in the tournament – and went on to win both doubles competitions at the French Open Tennis Championships in 1948. In singles tennis he won 147 titles in all; it is a dubious comparison, but at the time of writing, for example, Novak Djokovic, coming to the end of his career and widely touted as the tennis GOAT (‘greatest of all time’), has won 95.
There is an amusing but ultimately fruitless debate about where Drobny stands in the pantheon of the greatest all-round sportsmen in history. There are simply too many judgements to be made about levels attained in different periods, numbers and quality of participants and the ranking of particular competitions. For example, Charles (‘C.B.’) Fry is the most plausible English candidate, with successes in cricket, football and athletics, but he barely played cricket or football against anyone who was not English or Australian; his ‘world record’ in the long jump pre-dated official records and he won no major competitions in the event. Drobny, on the other hand, competed against the best in the world in two sports with a broad international base. Although it was ‘only’ two sports, there is anecdotal evidence that he might have succeeded in several. In his late teens he was drafted into a field hockey game, he scored seven goals and was immediately selected for Bohemia against Moravia. Much later, after one golf lesson, he went round the course in 78, a score the vast majority of golfers never attain in a lifetime of trying: transferable skills in abundance. But though the debate about comparative greatness is ultimately fruitless, what is not fruitless is to reflect upon Drobny’s singular career and the insights it offers into the development of sport and the politics of sport over the last century.
Drobny was born in Prague in 1921 though he describes himself as being of Moravian peasant stock, on his father’s side. Arguably the most important event in the first quarter century of his life occurred more or less immediately because his father, desperate for accommodation for his family, was put in the way of the groundsman’s job at a tennis club on an island in the city’s river Vltava (Moldau in German). The offer came from a friend he had met in the Austro-Hungarian navy. The job came with living quarters on site and, though he had no previous knowledge of tennis, he was a hard worker and prepared to learn and accepted the job that he kept for the rest of his working life. So the young Drobny grew up at a tennis club, learning to play, and earning money as a ball boy with which, among other things, he bought his first racket. Given Prague’s continental climate it could freeze for up to four months in winter and the tennis hard courts were flooded and frozen for skating. Thus, he had unequalled opportunities to excel at both sports and by his late teens was an established star of Czech sport.
When he was seventeen, his country was occupied by the Germans and when he was twenty-four by the Russians. As a sports star he was able to sit out the war with an undemanding office job in a factory. He was not drafted either for military service or for German industry. Prague was scarcely bombed and, with peasant relatives within cycling distance of Prague, the family were relatively well fed. In his autobiography he makes no claim to any kind of war heroism. Despite ruthless German policies in occupied Bohemia, such as the destruction of the village of Lidice, he suggests that for people like himself the German occupation was preferable to the Soviet one because the Germans were nominally law-abiding, whereas the default position of the Soviet soldiers on the street was rape and robbery at gunpoint. He reports that by far the most unpleasant and disturbing event he witnessed was not perpetrated by either army, but by a group of Czech women, whom he saw blow-torching a German soldier at the end of the war. He continued to play sport in the war, though ice hockey more than tennis because hockey equipment was available while rubber for tennis balls and gut for racket strings was not. After the war, as the communist party steadily increased its control over the country, Drobny was treated as a prized asset and given accommodation, a car, a sinecure of a job and so on. Nevertheless, in 1950 he defected to the West. This was the most important event in his life and understanding his reasons for it are the key to understanding the significance of the man.
The 1950s were Drobny’s period of exile and world fame. Even as a child I was well aware of him as my older relatives talked about him. Their evidence came from newspapers, from radio and from Pathé newsreels. He was ‘brilliant’, but he was ‘stateless’, attempts to gain British, American or Australian nationality having stalled or failed. (A generation later, they would have been keen to recruit such a sporting asset.) In fact he was technically Egyptian; he had regularly competed in the Egyptian national championships and Princess Faiza easily persuaded her brother, King Farouk, to offer him citizenship and a passport. In any case he had no difficulty in travelling to take up invitations all over the world to play tennis. The Davis Cup teammate who actually initiated the defection, Vladimir Cernik, continued to travel for some time on the papers provided by the Swiss, the defection having occurred in Gstaad. In any case, within the first year he acquired residence rights in the UK as the husband of Rita (née Jarvis), a tennis player he had known for some time. Finally, in 1959, he acquired UK citizenship, achieving an unwanted record of having represented four countries in international sport: Czechoslovakia, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (under the Nazis), Egypt and Great Britain.
In the UK, at least, the defining moment of Drobny’s career was his winning Wimbledon in 1954, when he beat the young Australian Ken Rosewall in the final. It was his eleventh attempt (which would have been many more except for the war) and came after two losing finals. It was one of those moments that cement a career, removing all sense of disappointment and failure. It was also immensely popular: in the absence of any British world-class players, a ‘stateless’ person with an English wife was the best offer the British public was going to get. He was also a natural underdog. I interviewed a spectator who clearly remembered watching him at Wimbledon. He looked completely different to the Americans and Australians who then dominated the game, being smaller, stockier and bespectacled. (His problems with his eyesight started with an ice hockey collision.) The men’s game at the time was dominated by serves and volleys, and he deployed a much wider variety of shots, including lobs and drop-shots. (The Pathé coverage of the event shows as much of Rita writhing and struggling in his support as it does of her husband playing.) The Drobnys had a daughter, Helen, and after retiring in his early forties he had a sports shop in Kensington and a house in Sussex. He died in 2001 having lived low-profile for the best part of four decades.
What makes a small, short-sighted man into one of the most successful of games players? It helps to be brought up at a sports club, and to be ambidextrous; he played tennis left-handed, but could shoot equally well in hockey on both sides of his body. In his view his skills were clearly those of the games player rather than the athlete: he was hopeless at gymnastics and hated to travel anywhere on foot if alternative transport were available. Many contemporaries thought that he had the fastest serve in tennis (no measurements in those days), but, as players will tell you, that is nearly all about timing. He actually thought he was better at ice hockey – mostly because of the ability to shoot hard and accurately on both sides, which is still considered rare in the professional game, and he originally preferred it because of the comradeship of team sport. He more or less abandoned it in exile to pursue tennis tournaments and invitations, which could be extended over the whole year. In his account of his success he emphasises hard work, but it is also apparent that he was extremely shrewd tactically and understood tennis thoroughly. Christine Truman said that he taught her how to adapt her game to clay courts and in 1959 she won the French Open. Writing in 1957, Drobny said of Rosewall that he was such a natural stroke player that he would be able to play at the highest level for a very long time and in fact in 1974, twenty years after he had lost to Drobny, Rosewall reached the Wimbledon final again, this time losing to Jimmy Connors. He was no less prescient on the structures of tennis, remarking that the Australians in particular had ways of supporting their players that were forbidden in the UK, such as sinecures with sports companies. ‘Without materially assisting their players on the Australian pattern, Britain cannot yet expect to find a new Fred Perry without a miracle happening.’ But his perceived weakness was that he lost games he should have won, either because he became upset and lost concentration or because of back problems (described as ‘lumbago’ in the terminology of the time). He also had a weakness, which he turned into a strength, in that his backhand was thought to be vulnerable.
Drobny’s sporting career was played out in what I have described as the last generation of the amateur hegemony, when amateur sport was considered the true version and commercial forces were tightly ring-fenced. He was as aware as anybody that amateurism, like a religious principle, was interpreted both philosophically and in practice in entirely different ways in different sports and countries. He was paid more directly in ice hockey, for example, than was ever permissible in tennis, though it was a sport that permitted professionals in other sports, whereas rugby union, for example, abhorred all professional sportsmen. He was subsidised and rewarded in many different ways in different countries for playing tennis; he was particularly fond of Sweden, because there the king sponsored a competition for a gold cup which really was gold and which you were allowed to keep.
But for a man often in difficult circumstances Drobny showed little interest in maximising his income. He did not discount the possibility of turning professional, but he showed no desire to do so. Jack Kramer offered him terms to become a professional tennis player and he turned them down. The Boston Bruins offered him $20,000 to become the first European in the National Hockey League, and he turned that down. There were particular circumstances in each case to be taken into account: he thought Kramer’s offer was a poor one compared to those others had received and the Bruins’ offer came when he was less interested in hockey than tennis. Even so, Drobny had some underlying problems with the idea of professionalism. These are best understood by reference to the reasons for his defection and the problems surrounding it.
In my book Amateurism in Sport I argued that the amateur hegemony was ultimately doomed by the development of television, which turned audiences of thousands into millions, even billions, and created commercial forces that were insuperable, placing sport in regulatory and political realms where most of its enthusiasts had never wanted it to be. But there was another, partly complementary process which arose out of the communist volte-face on sport at the end of the war. In the interwar period the official doctrine of Communism had been that western sports and sporting institutions were bourgeois and elitist, but as the Cold War developed sport began to be seen as a vehicle for Soviet and Communist superiority. This affected Drobny in two ways. The first was that he, along with the great runner Emil Zatopek, became one of two prize specimens of Czech Communist sport, even though their prowess owed nothing to Communism. They were feted and given the good things of life.
The other aspect is less well known and considerably more bizarre. Having previously refused invitations to Moscow, Drobny was ordered to go there in 1949 along with a quantity of sports equipment and a number of fellow players in both his sports. They endured a number of grim meetings and heavily alcoholic social events with party and sporting officials. The purpose was to demonstrate techniques and equipment in an accelerated push to create Soviet competitors of international standard. In fact, the two sports were entirely different because tennis was not then an Olympic sport; the Russians were targeting the Olympics, so they had relatively little interest in it. In the case of ice hockey, the Russians did not play it, but many people played what was called in most European countries ‘Bandy’ though in Russia the name translated as ‘Russian hockey’. This was an eleven-a-side game played on lakes with sticks and a ball. The transferable skills proved to be huge as Russia was soon competing at the highest level in the codified Western version. The broader consequences were that most developed states began to see sport as a primarily a source of prestige rather than of international friendship, though the UK was late into this process and was only just developing programmes to improve standards in sport as Drobny’s career was ending in the early 1960s.
Drobny was not a natural or likely defector. He had no assets or relatives in the West – his family and friends were all in his own country. Having defected, he was depressed and lonely for many months. He was not interested in politics and was treated well because of his working class origins. When he did defect, the Communist newspaper Rude Pravo referred bitterly to him as ‘professing loyalty while maintaining links with the bourgeoisie for whom he once chased tennis balls’. He knew that if he did defect there might be costs for his family, friends and teammates; no Czech tennis player was allowed to travel to the West for the next five years. Yet in the end he simply could not stand himself and the sport he loved being part of a political project. He most hated, he said, being used as ‘ the cheapest available form of propaganda’. Only slightly less vehemently did he later express disapproval of his performances being part of any project to make money in the west. The true amateur is a free person performing because performance is an end-in-itself; getting rewarded materially for doing the thing you love is likely to mean that you cease to love it.
Drobny was a great true sportsman who loved his sport and refused to put it in any instrumental context imposed by anyone else. That makes him in a sense – and there are many senses – a great amateur, the reason for his joy on winning Wimbledon. Why was he so pleased to win what he regarded as the ultimate prize in tennis? First, it made him a permanent member of the All-England Club. But most of all because, having achieved the ultimate prize in his own mind and that of many others, he could really enjoy playing tennis.