First Person

June 20, 2014 6:08 pm

‘I drive from Poland to engrave the Wimbledon trophies’

Roman Zoltowski, a 76-year-old craftsman, packs up his 52-year-old MG from home near Poznan to set up a work bench behind Centre Court
Roman Zoltowski©Jacek Kolodziejski

Roman Zoltowski will make the trip to Wimbledon again this year in his 52-year-old MG (Photograph: Jacek Kolodziejski)

Most people’s years run from January to December but, ever since 1979, mine have revolved around Wimbledon. The middle weekend of the world’s most famous tennis tournament is the signal for me to start packing up my red open-top MG ready for the 850-mile journey from home, near Poznan, to set up a work bench behind Centre Court, where I will engrave all the trophies straight after every presentation. A 76-year-old man driving from Poland in his 52-year-old car to do the Wimbledon engraving – it’s quite surreal, isn’t it?

Oh, but it is fun. When I receive the email politely presuming my attendance, I do feel a certain apprehension but only because of the journey. There is a great deal of equipment to fit into an extremely small motor car: my gravers, eyeglasses and sandbag supports. The boot leaks, so I also have to cover the interior with a waterproof blanket.

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The car is noisy and not madly comfortable but I take a supply of sandwiches, cheese, liver sausage and energy drinks to fuel myself. One year there was a problem with the brakes and I couldn’t get the spare parts in time so I had to fly but it was very awkward. I’d packed my tools in an aluminium case to go in the hold. Shortly before boarding I was summoned by security, who didn’t like the look of this case of tiny, sharp implements. I explained my job and they let me proceed but since other airlines might also consider my tools “offensive weapons” I drive.

I set off at 10am with the roof up. The equipment needs to go in the space where the retractable hood sits. The journey lasts anything between 14 and 18 hours, depending on traffic. It takes me through Germany, Holland and Belgium. I stay with friends for the night in Bruges and set off the next day mid-morning. I arrive in Wimbledon in time for tea with my friend, the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, who kindly puts me up every year.

You could say the journey takes my family history full circle. I leave my studio in Poland – which is decorated with a poster of the championships, an autographed photograph of John McEnroe, a framed Centre Court ticket and a photograph of my assistant of many years Alan Tetlow – and I travel to the city where my family settled after the second world war.

After Russia invaded Poland in 1939, my family, like thousands of our compatriots, was sent to Siberia. My father was almost certainly shot by the NKVD (later KGB) while in prison; my mother, brother, sister and I remained in Siberia for three years before getting out with General Władysław Anders and the Polish army. We settled in Jerusalem for four years but then the war between Jews and Arabs started and Poles were advised to leave. And that we did, arriving in Liverpool towards the end of 1947.

It was while I was living in Wimbledon and working freelance for Halfhide jewellers, who supply the silverware, that I started engraving the tennis trophies. When, in 1989, the Russians left Poland, my brother, sister and I decided to recover our old family home in Poland. My brother and sister have since died, and I live here now with my wife and son.

I used to get a frisson of excitement whenever the invitation arrived each year but, 35 years on, it’s almost routine. From the Ladies’ Singles final onwards, I sit in a room under the Royal Box and receive the trophies immediately after they’ve been presented, sweaty fingerprints and all.

It’s an advantage that I’m bilingual and that Polish is a logical, phonetic language. If there’s an extremely difficult name – and of course there are – I sound it out phonetically. There are 48 trophies in total and engraving each name, letter by letter, for posterity is a special moment.

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