TENNIS : Knizek’s Court Daring Pales in Comparison to His Great Escape

That Paul Knizek of Grant High reached the finals of the City Section individual tennis championships last week is not an amazing feat.

Knizek, after all, is an accomplished player headed for UC Riverside on a partial tennis scholarship. His ground strokes are consistent and he has a desire to fulfill his potential.

Nor is it amazing that he lost, 6-3, 6-3, to North Hollywood’s Dragan Jovanovski, who had beaten Knizek in three previous meetings.

What is amazing is that Knizek’s feet were on American soil. Knizek was born in Czechoslovakia and would still be there if not for his family’s harrowing escape in the middle of one night in 1984.


“I always believe that one day I will be in America, and it happened,” said Paul Knizek’s father, Paul Sr. “Sometimes I cannot believe that we are here.”

The Knizeks’ adventure began in 1984 when Paul Sr. decided it was time to put into action a plan of escape that he had been devising for nearly a year. “I wasn’t sure about the future of my kids in a communist system,” Paul Sr. said. “Here, if you want to do something, you can do it. That was not possible in my country.”

So Paul Sr. and his wife Jaroslava took the family on a vacation to Yugoslavia, from which they would attempt to escape across the Austrian border. At the risk of discovery, they told neither their parents nor their friends.

With 10-year-old Paul Jr. and his sister Gabriela, 11, hiding under a suitcase in the back seat of their compact car, Paul Sr. slowly approached the armed border guards on the misty evening.


Then, with a lifelong desire to escape his country’s communist regime, Paul Sr. accelerated past the guards and headed for a tunnel 200 feet into Austrian territory. His heart was racing as he reached a customs station.

“A guy there said he just got a call from the Yugoslavian guards and said we had to go back,” said Paul Sr., who knew he and his wife faced lengthy jail sentences if they were caught. “But it was bad joke,” he added. “Very bad joke.’

The Knizek family stayed at a refugee camp in Traiskirchen, Austria, for six months. “I wanted to keep them in the spirit, so I would take the kids into a parking lot and we’d hit tennis balls between the cars,” Paul Sr. said. “But that didn’t last long because people did not like that.”

Eventually, they contacted family members in Czechoslovakia and told them of their escape. “They were happy but sad,” Paul Sr. said. “They knew that if we ever made it to the United States, we would have a better life. But they also knew they may never see us again.”

The family finally received clearance to come to the United States and departed for New York. They told immigration officials of Jaroslava’s uncle who lived in Los Angeles, and the American Fund for Czechoslovakian Refugees paid their plane tickets to L. A.

Hampered by his inability to speak English, Paul Sr. struggled to land a job. He eventually found work with a construction company and took English as a Second Language courses at Van Nuys High in the evenings.

“Those were very long days, but I knew I had to do it,” he said.

Today, he works as a letter carrier and his family has moved into a two-bedroom home in Sherman Oaks with Jaroslava’s 71-year-old uncle, Gabriel Weber. Weber immigrated to the United States in 1948 when the Communist Party came to power in Czechoslovakia.


Gabriela, 19, has earned a partial tennis scholarship at Cal State Northridge, for which she plays No. 3 singles. Paul Sr., Jaroslava, and Gabriela have since earned U. S. citizenship. Paul, 17, will become a citizen when he turns 18.

“I’m not sure what my life would have been like in Czechoslovakia,” Paul said. “I can only thank my parents for taking the risk that they took.”

Last July, the family returned to the refugee camp in Austria. “I think it was important to show my children where their future started,” Paul Sr. said. They also spent three weeks in Czechoslovakia. This time, Paul Sr. and Jaroslava were citizens of the United States.

“It was very emotional for us,” Paul Sr. said. “We came back as free people.”

In eight days, on June 22, they will mark the seventh anniversary of their escape. “We will have a better dinner, open champagne, and go through our picture album,” Paul Sr. said. “It is something we are happy about. We take a positive step. It is a date we can never forget.”

Bannister hot: Mike Bannister, a Newbury Park senior who won the past two Marmonte League singles titles, will compete in a national junior clay court tournament in Louisville, Ky., in July.

Bannister, 18, did not play competitive tennis until he was 15, and he found himself torn between his fondness for tennis and his desire to play basketball. “But, at 5-foot-8 1/2, I decided basketball probably wasn’t going to be my game,” he said.

So Bannister gave up basketball this season.


“I really concentrated on my game, and it paid off,” he said. Next week he will decide between scholarship offers from UC Santa Barbara and Brigham Young in Hawaii.

Junior champions: Two Cabrillo Racquet Club teams won titles in the Southern California Junior Team Tennis championships at UCLA last weekend.

The 15-year-old boys’ team of Pete Webb (Ventura), Fred Wu (Camarillo), Jason Gaona (Simi Valley), John Tobias (Ventura), Andy White (Camarillo) and Steve Schnugg (Camarillo) defeated a team from Pomona, 3-1.

The 12-year-old girls’ team of Rhi Potkey (Ventura), Danica Hardy (Santa Maria), Annie Doud (Camarillo), Katy Messmer (Camarillo), Bettina Rettenmaier (Camarillo) and Lauren Gaona (Simi Valley) won by default over a team from the Inland Empire.