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MIKE DOWNEY

The Best Gift Item of All

May 09, 1999|MIKE DOWNEY

The autographed photograph on Vladimir Petrovic's office wall is a group portrait of Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon, conveying their best wishes. On a shelf sit souvenir pens custom-made for George Bush and Bill Clinton, cups, caps, glasses, vases, gift items galore, all bearing the White House seal.

When the various presidents were in need of knickknacks to bestow upon guests as lovely parting gifts, invariably they came to the Westwood-based promotional products firm that Petrovic has been with now for 40 years.

Ah, but what about those other Capitol Hill keepsake pens, the ones used by legislators in 1998 to sign Clinton's writ of impeachment--the ones with the Quayle-esque typographical error that spelled out "United [sic] States of America?"

"Not from us," Petrovic says. "Another company, they got those from."

He has hobnobbed with a number of notables in his 69 years, met Winston Churchill once, played tennis with the Shah of Iran's wife, dined with a king and once was presented an award by a queen.

Not bad for someone who, back when he was 25, became a man without a country.

*

A woman of Russian origin overhears Petrovic's conversation a booth away at a delicatessen, hears his Eastern European accent and can't resist recounting her own memories of what it was like to leave home.

"I was girls badminton champion," she says.

Petrovic listens politely. But he is not a Russian, and his boyhood pastimes did not include badminton. He is from Yugoslavia--no longer an applicable name, for he is by circumstance a Croatian now-- and his game has always been tennis, just as it was back in 1955, when he went to Wimbledon and decided to defect.

A few weeks before Petrovic left home with three other young Yugoslavs to play tennis in England, his wife, by sheer chance, also left the country, as part of a student exchange program. Her game was neither badminton nor tennis. Georgia was a table tennis champ.

Their opportunity was there. In those days, anyone traveling out of a communist country ordinarily had to leave a loved one behind, as a form of collateral guaranteeing a return. Petrovic's mother and brother were still in Yugoslavia. Yet a chance now existed for him to get out, and not alone.

"We play Wimbledon," he remembers of his tennis compatriots, "and then, all four of us, we ask for exile."

Ask for asylum, that is. Elect to live in exile.

Just that quickly, Yugoslavia no longer was Petrovic's homeland. He had spent the previous five years representing his country in Davis Cup play, while becoming a three-time national champion. He had also attended the University of Zagreb and earned a law degree. The catch there was, he says, that "to practice law, you had to also join the Communist Party."

He would do neither.

Instead, his next four years were spent in Germany, making a living at tennis. It would be 17 years before Petrovic ever set foot in Yugoslavia again. When a tennis federation there organized a 75th anniversary celebration to commemorate the sport's history in that country, 14 living ex-champions were invited. All but three were living in other lands.

The old clay courts of home still looked familiar. Petrovic had gone on to play on Wimbledon's grass several more times and to later win many age-group titles in the United States, including a fistful of father-and-son national events with his boy, Glenn. His life in Yugoslavia had become a distant memory.

"In 1956, I remember playing in Madrid, I think during a New Year holiday. [Francisco] Franco was still in power there, and he would give hundreds of scholarships to athletes from other countries. There was a party in a big room, and on each table was a flag. There was a Croatian flag on one table, a Serbian flag on another.

"That was the first time it truly became clear to me how much our country was divided."

*

Today the Yugoslavia he knew is unrecognizable. And whenever the warfare in Kosovo appears on TV, Petrovic says he turns it off. It is too difficult for someone with a grandchild here to watch what is happening to children over there.

In 1959, on the day Vladimir Petrovic and his family came to live in Los Angeles, unbeknownst to him it was Halloween.

"At about 4 o'clock, these three young children come to our door. I see them in masks and they say, 'Trick or treat.' I have no idea what they are talking about, trick or treat.

"I explain to them that this is our first day here, and that we have nothing to give them.

"I will never forget. This one small boy, perhaps 6 years old, he extends his hand to me to shake. Do you know what he says? He says, 'Welcome to America.' "

*

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com.

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