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The man who marks history, one letter at a time

All England Club trophy engraver Roman Zoltowski
by Sarah Edworthy
Saturday 6 July 2013

Neither Jerzy Janowicz nor Agnieszka Radwanska made it to their respective singles’ finals, but there was a sigh of relief when their compatriot, Roman Zoltowski, pulled up at The All England Club in his vintage red open-topped MG in time for the title deciders.

Zoltowski has been the official All England Club trophy engraver since 1979. Over the course of the weekend, he and his assistant Emmett work under incredible time pressure to inscribe the names of winners and runners-up on a total of 48 trophies and medals as all the competitions of The Championships – seniors, veterans, juniors, wheelchair, singles, doubles – play to conclusion.

The ladies singles' final begins the flow of intricate work which takes place in a room under the Royal Box. Tables are piled with trophies still in boxes, waiting to have history marked on them. The work zone is an orderly jumble of hand implements, eye glasses and an old-fashioned engraving machine from the school of Heath Robinson (it has at least three desk lamps taped in snaking formation to shine more light on to the cutting plate). It takes approximately 18 minutes to engrave the name of each winner on a trophy.

Each year it is Zoltowski’s tradition to drive to Wimbledon from his home near Poznan, in Poland, with every square inch of his vehicle packed with anglepoise lamps, dusters, silver cleaning fluid, tapes, magnifying glasses and an extraordinary number of very small, very sharp chisels. He can’t fly, because the tools of his trade are considered offensive weapons by airlines and he laughs as he describes the sight he creates for passing traffic on his 14-hour journey.

“Yes, a 75-year-old driving a 50-year-old car,” he exclaims. “The car didn’t break down but, when we got stuck in a traffic jam for four and a half hours in Germany, people got out of their cars to take photos!”

‘Williams’ is the name he’s engraved on the Venus Rosewater Dish 10 times in the last 13 years, but as he sharpened his miniature chisels, ready to commemorate the respective results on the winner's and runner-up's silverware, Zoltowski wasn’t suffering from nerves about getting the spelling right in engraving a ‘new’ name in honour of the first-time Grand Slam champion, Marion Bartoli.

“Polish is a phonetic language. It reads as it’s written, so I read any new name out loud phonetically and I have the spelling right. If you’re Polish, it’s dead easy!”

As he reverently handled the large, motif-laden salver, Zoltowski read some of the names - “1884 Miss M. Watson, that is the first one.... and there’s Miss D. E. Round in 1937, the year I was born...” - before flipping it over to show the outside rim where the champions’ names have been inscribed since 1958.

As it happens, Miss D. E. Round beat a certain Jadwiga Jędrzejowska from Krakow which, with this fortnight’s Polishfest, creates a nice symmetry as Zolotowski recalls how he came to enjoy his role here. (Not forgetting that Sabine Lisicki is German, but of Polish descent.)

He became the on-site Championships engraver when he was living in Wimbledon and working for Halfhide, the jewellers who supply the trophies and silverware. Born in Poland, Zoltowski and his family moved to the United Kingdom in 1947 after their home had been taken over by the Communist state and turned into a collective farm. After the changes, Roman, with his brother and sister, decided to buy back their old family home and moved back to Poland.

It's a long drive over the continent each year, and there are many more letters to engrave since the All England Club decided to include Christian names rather than initials three years ago, but he relishes the occasion.
“Sunday is stressful. You learn to switch off. You don’t talk. But this weekend is the highlight of my year. I'm not ready to retire and wear slippers yet. My year divides between before and after Wimbledons. It's a special moment receiving the trophies after they've been presented to the players, sweaty fingerprints and all!”

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