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Tennis – popular and international 1900s–1950s

Women's tennis, advertisement for Barnet Glass tennis balls, 1924 in Australasian Lawn Tennis

Tennis became popular as a social game from its arrival in Australia in the late 1870s, and courts sprang up everywhere in community and private grounds. It was a game that was taken up enthusiastically by both men and women, both for fun and as an elite sport. Since 1900, Australian men and women tennis players have been ranked as some of the world's best.

Australia's first international champion was Norm Brookes who was the first Australian to win the Wimbledon Singles titles in 1907. In the same year Brookes was the first outsider to break the dominance of the UK and USA with his win in the Doubles of the Davis Cup, the international men's championship. Australia then hosted international championship events in 1908 and Brookes went on to dominate tennis administration in Australia for the next 50 years.

Across the four major Open titles, known as Grand Slam tournaments – the Australian, French and United States Open and Wimbledon, UK – there have been five Australian Grand Slam winners. The first Grand Slam winners were Ken McGregor, and Frank Sedgman for the Doubles in 1951. Rod Laver who won it twice, in 1962 and 1969, is arguably the greatest tennis player in the world. Margaret Court also won all four tournaments in one year when she completed the Grand Slam in 1970, one of only three women in the world to achieve this.

Norman Brookes, Wimbledon Singles Champion 1907

From its early days, tennis was highly popular with women in Australia although there was no financial support for them to travel to overseas tournaments. Never-the-less, with fund raising, Daphne Akhurst made the finals of Wimbledon in 1928. In 1938, Nancy Bolton became the first Australian woman to play in a US Championship final when she was 22. Lesley Bowrey was the first Australian women to win two French Open singles titles in 1963 and 1964, and the Mixed Doubles at Wimbledon in 1961 and 1967.

From the 1920s onwards, there was such an increased demand for tennis racquets, balls and equipment that an Australian industry began exporting to both the UK and USA in the 1930s. The images of well-known players were featured on Australian made racquets which made their way into overseas markets. This arrangement of sporting companies endorsing players helped support the amateur status of Australian players competing in the Davis Cup and Grand Slam tournaments until 1969.

Australian players dominated the world amateur tournaments until the 1960s. In 1969 a wider group of players could compete when the Grand Slam tournaments agreed to permit professionals and amateur players. However, even after Australia's domination of world tennis was broken in the 1960s, tennis remained popular as a sport for both participants and spectators. Australian tennis crowds hold their own world records for watching single live tennis games.

‘Real’ or lawn tennis, lawn with new rubber balls

Rippon Lea, Melbourne tennis court built in 1880s

The first recorded tennis tournament played in Australia was held in January 1880 on the courts of the Melbourne Cricket Club. In Australia, tennis competitions were originally called 'lawn tennis' and the courts were surfaced with grass. Prior to this indoor or ‘real’ tennis was played indoors and used balls made from leather stuffed with cotton. Real tennis courts still operate in Melbourne, Ballarat and Tasmania.

Bouncy rubber balls developed following the vulcanisation of rubber by Charles Goodyear in the USA in the 1830s and further inventions in the UK in the 1850s and 1860s. In 1874 cloth surfaces were applied to the rubber ball. In 1902, Slazenger became the ball of preference at Wimbledon.

Both uncovered and covered balls were used according to different surfaces. On asphalt uncovered balls were used, while covered balls were best on grass. In Burnie, Tasmania a Victorian club team from Grace Park in 1901 played on wooden courts with uncovered balls
Development of Tennis Balls & Unusual Ball Cleaners, December 2008, Tennis History)

An outdoor version of tennis was possible with the invention of the rotary lawn cutter, which enabled finely cut grass courts to be prepared and line marked. In the 1870s lightweight human-pushed mowers were a commercial success and in the 1880s a wheel-driven rotary blade was used. Historic Melbourne mansion Rippon Lea grass court has been a feature on the property since the mid-1880s. Thus, the Australasian Lawn Tennis Association was named. In 1905, the year in which the Australian Open was commenced, the tournament was contested on grass. The trend continued to remain in vogue till 1987.

Ant bed courts

However throughout the 1900s, sand, clay and concrete surfaces became more common. Clay courts were and remain popular in Europe. In varying areas of Australia, clay courts are known by differing names; for example, in Queensland and New South Wales many are known as loam/granite or ant bed courts, whilst in Victoria the courts predominantly are en tout cas (French for ‘in any case’ or ‘in any weather’).

12 clay courts at George Alder Tennis Centre. Courtesy of Clay Courts Australia

The Australian raw clay court is made from Australian natural materials ant bed, loam and crushed granite on an ash bed. Most of the courts in Australia until the 1960s were ant bed courts. Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Pat Rafter and many other champions trained on them.

Today, there are a few remaining ant bed courts including Wauchope, Northern Territory.

The rammed ant bed tennis court at Wauchope was constructed by the proprietor, Bob. He took a ute out bush to collect some anthills. He transported them back to Wauchope, dropped them off the back of the ute to allow them to break (at the site of proposed tennis court), hit them with a hammer and then drove over them. After watering them to allow them to set like cement, the ute was driven over them again to flatten them. The entire process was very labour intensive
Trish Morrow, Rammed Antbed Basketball and Tennis Courts - Construction and Maintenance, Centre for Appropriate Technology, c. 2002.

It was only in 1988 that the championship came to be held on hard courts. Each of the four Grand Slam events is contested on a different surface, which challenges professional players to broaden their skill base. Today, rather than specialising in one surface, tennis players play on rebound ace at the Australian Open, clay at the French Open, grass at Wimbledon, and hard court at the US Open, an American green clay court.

Community clubs – anyone for tennis?

Ron, Neville, June, Beth, Maureen, Aub (Father), Betty (Mother), Peter and Alan Smith at Tathra Tennis Club, c.1953. Courtesy of Tathra Tennis Club and Australian Tennis History.

From the arrival of tennis in the late 1870s, tennis became a popular social game and courts sprang up everywhere: at bowls clubs, churches, and stand-alone tennis clubs as well as in private gardens.

Many tennis clubs and associations were formed across Australia including: the Royal South Lawn Tennis Club in 1884; the Western Australian Lawn Tennis Association established in the 1890s; Hawthorn Tennis Club in 1905; Warrandyte, Victoria in 1907; Western Suburbs Lawn Tennis Association in 1912; the Ainslie Tennis Club in Canberra in 1928; as well as groupings like the NSW Country Tennis, and Southern Districts Tennis Association.

The Tathra Tennis Club began in 1933 with three clay tennis courts between the Tathra Beach Bowling Club's bowling greens and the roadway. Matches were also played elsewhere in church yards, Tathra Primary School, in private backyards and farms. In addition to their weekly Saturday competitions and the Tathra Beach October Tournament there were weekly ladies social matches. Some members have seen 60 years of continuous play. South Australia Seniors tennis had over 500 members in 2013.

Tennis fashion – a fashionable freedom

Australian design tennis fashions shown at David Jones, 1947. Still courtesy of David Jones

The lack of a specified uniform in tennis has given players a fashionable freedom. In the 1800s, players generally wore white clothing as it reflected the heat. Men would wear long trousers and a shirt which was long sleeved but could be rolled up to the elbow, and a hat or cricket cap would accompany the outfit. Women wore an everyday dress (ankle length) complete with petticoat, stockings, a corset, and a wide-brimmed hat.

Eventually fashions began to change and men wore short sleeved shirts and shorts, with women wearing lighter cotton dresses without the stockings and corset. These changes however were not always met with encouragement.

At Wimbledon in 1905, the US player May Sutton swapped the popular tight sleeved blouses for her father's button-up shirt and shocked the crowd when she rolled her sleeves up. Sutton went on to win the women's Singles. During the 1920s, the French champion Suzanne Lenglen shortened her skirt to mid-calf and wore a head band instead of a hat. In the 1930s all conventions were broken when Alice Marble from the USA wore shorts in 1932, a fashion followed by Nancy Wynne Bolton, who played in shorts from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Ted Tinling who designed for Margaret Court through the 50s, 60s and 70s, took inspiration from Dior's New Look from the 1940s for his ‘waffle-piqued flare dresses’. Tinling also designed for Evonne Goolagong Cawley who wore white sleeveless shirt dresses that reflected the mod and pop art trends of the 1960s. (Annette Lin, Tennis style throughout the ages, Vogue Australia, 30 January, 2012)

Australian tennis racquet manufacture – exporting and endorsing

The first racquets were made of a wooden frame with animal gut strings. Wire strings were then introduced and lead to the dominance of wooden racquets for almost 100 years.

Alexander racquet advertisement with Jack Crawford, 1933. Courtesy of Australian Tennis History

Up to the mid 1920s most tennis racquets in Australia were imported from England and the USA, but tennis' popularity reached levels which justified local production of racquets and balls. The first Australian made products started to appear in the 1920s. In the 1930s, the Australian tennis racquet industry was exporting to both the UK and USA, who were complaining about the inroads Australian makers were having on sales. In the 1930s and 40s racquets featured the images of Australian players such as James O. Anderson, Dinny Pails and Nancye Bolton.

Many players endorsed and were endorsed by sporting goods companies. Jack Crawford won Wimbledon with an Alexander racquet in 1933 and this was their best year. Other brands like Slazenger, Dunlop and Spalding advertised their tennis racquets and their support for the Davis Cup team, Frank Sedgman endorsed Oliver Sports Goods, Ken Rosewall was pictured with Hardie Ace tennis shoes, and Barnett Glass tennis balls were advertised as appealing to women players.

This endorsement of tennis players from racquet companies continued into the 1950s with Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong, Rod Laver. and John Newcombe featuring on Australian made racquets. (Australian Tennis Advertisements, Australian Tennis History)

It wasn't just star power that sold racquets, it was also inventiveness.

The Empire Racquet company in Sydney created an adjustable balance system inside the racquet handle which featured a wind up device. At around the same time Harry Webeck invented a mercury tube system inside the racquet which permitted the weight of the racquet to change during the motion of a shot.
Australian Tennis Racquet Manufacture, Australian Tennis History

Tony Wilding (NZ) and Norman Brookes (AUS), the winning Australasian doubles team in the Davis Cup 1907

The Davis Cup, 1907–09, 1911, 1914, and 1919 wins

In 1900, US player Dwight Davis donated a trophy and gave his name to a tennis challenge, the Davis Cup, first contested between countries in 1899.

In 1904, Australia and New Zealand, as the Australasian Lawn Tennis Association, agreed that an Australasian team could compete for the Davis Cup with players Norman Brookes and Alf Dunlop (AUS) and Tony Wilding (NZ). Whilst they were defeated in the final round by USA in 1904, the Australasian team of Wilding and Brookes won the doubles title with Brookes winning the Wimbledon singles in 1907.

From 1905 until 1919 Australia competed as an Australasian team and during this time, six Davis Cup titles were claimed: 1907; 1908; 1909; 1911; 1914; and 1919. While Australia's next title did not arrive until 1939, when it defeated the USA 3-2, it signalled the start of an incredible era of success. From 1950 to 1967, Harry Hopman guided Australia to 15 of 18 titles – the most dominant era of any country in Davis Cup history.

Women champions, 1920s

1925 Australian Ladies Team Tour: Miss Akhurst, Mrs Harper, Miss St George and Miss Boyd

Initially tennis was played more by women than men. The 1920s saw the growth in interest in women's tennis largely due to Suzanne Lenglen, a French tennis player who won 31 Championship titles between 1914 and 1926.

In 1925, a team of Australian women, Daphne Akhurst, Mrs Harper, Miss St George and Miss Boyd, left for the UK with approval but no financial support from the ALTA. A fundraising committee was formed in NSW and eventually they had enough funds to send three players to join a fourth who was already in Europe on a private tour. They succeeded against Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Holland but could not match the experience of England and the United States of America.

The Australian Team played the dominant English team in June 1925. ‘Following the first day, a large crowd attended the doubles round and over both days Mrs Harper was praised, ahead of the English players as showing the best form’. Akhurst, rated as an outsider, reached the quarter-finals of the ladies' singles at the All England Lawn Tennis Club championships at Wimbledon. (Women's Team Events 1920s–1930s, December 2011)

Another Australian women's team was sent overseas in 1928; this time they won all 13 matches. At Wimbledon, Akhurst outdid her previous success and reached the singles and doubles semi-finals and, partnered by Crawford, the mixed doubles final. She performed better than any of the Australian men and was ranked by Ayres' Almanac third in the world.
Kerry Regan, Akhurst, Daphne Jessie (1903–1933), Australian Dictionary of Biography)

Daphne Akhurst, Champion 1924-31

Daphne Akhurst, champion 1924–31

Daphne Akhurst (1903–1933) was part of the first women's team to travel overseas. Akhurst's consistency in match play was no doubt developed in practice with local players Norman Peach, Jack Crawford and J.O. Anderson at her home club.

She was the Australian Singles champion from 1925 until 1930, excluding 1927, and the Doubles champion from 1924 to 1931, excluding 1926–7, and the Mixed doubles champion in 1924, 1925, 1928, and 1929. Akhurst's achievement was five Australian singles and doubles titles and the mixed four times, and she was unsurpassed until 1951.

Tragically, Akhust died from medical complications resulting from a pregnancy at the age of 30. The winner of the Australian Open women's singles final is presented with the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.

Nancy Wynne Bolton, champion 1937–51

Nancye Wynne Bolton, Champion from 1937-51

In 1938, Nancy Wynne Bolton, from Melbourne, became the first Australian woman to play in a US Open final when she was 22. Despite her career being disrupted by the Second World War, Bolton was regarded as one of the greatest Australian women ever to play tennis, and played from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Bolton won 20 Australian titles and was Australian Singles Champion six times between 1937 and 1951, and Doubles Champion 10 times between 1936 and 1952. Bolton attained her career-high ranking of No.4 in 1947 and stayed in that position until 1949. Bolton was renowned for her powerful forehand, the assertiveness of her playing style and overall solid groundstrokes.

Thelma Long, champion 1936–58

Thelma Long was Nancy Bolton's doubles partner, holding the record for winning the most Australian doubles titles – ten (10), and she won another two Doubles, a total of twelve championships from 1936 to 1958. Long was Australian Singles Champion in 1952 and 1954 and won the Mixed Doubles in France in 1956. In 1960, Long became a coach and was mentor to many junior players in her home state of New South Wales.

The Federation Cup for women: mooted 1930s, inaugurated 1963

The women's equivalent of the Davis Cup is called the Federation Cup. Unfortunately, women's tennis in Australia fared quite badly in terms of promotion and competition from 1930–1960 compared to men's tennis. The idea of an international women's tennis completion was first mooted in the late 1930s by Nell Hopman in discussion with the supporters of the Wightman Cup, played between the USA and the UK annually.

Margaret Court in full flight, 1964

One of the key turning points in Australian woman's tennis was the 1952–53 tour involving the 8 year old Wimbledon Champion, Maureen Connolly. Such was the interest that crowds flocked to see her play and the media actively promoted her to national prominence. This was the first time tennis administrators had witnessed massive interest in woman's tennis.

A £5000 pound sponsorship from the Australian Wool Corporation enabled an Australian Woman's team to travel the 1961 Tour. During this trip, their manager, Nell Hopman realised that woman's tennis had significantly developed in France, South Africa, Japan and Italy and that administrators were now taking more notice of woman's tennis. Eventually;

The Federation Cup, an International Event for Woman's Tennis was inaugurated in 1963 after considerable effort by Nell Hopman, wife of Harry Hopman. Individually Harry and Nell were elite tournament tennis players and even played mixed doubles together winning the Australian Open Mixed in 1930, 1936, 1937 and 1939.
The Federation Cup, History

Australia was represented at the inaugural Federation Cup event by Darlene Hard, Billie Jean King, Margaret Court and Lesley Turner,

Men champions – Tennis Hall of Fame

Norman Brookes, champion 1907–1919

Norman Brookes was the first Australian and the first player outside the UK and USA to win Wimbledon, in 1907. Brookes was nicknamed ‘The Wizard’ for his all-court game, which was a mixture of solid ground strokes backed up by a well-varied serve. Brookes won his first Singles title in Australia in 1911 and three years later, returned to Wimbledon to capture the Singles and Doubles titles. Brookes won another Doubles title with the US Open in 1919.

Davis Cup challenge first hosted in Melbourne, 1908

When Australasia won the Davis Cup in 1907, it meant that for the first time the challenge round would be played outside of the UK. Norman Brookes also won Wimbledon in 1907 and in honour of such a successful campaign, Melbourne was designated the town to host the Challenge round and in fact was just a few blocks away from his home. New dedicated grass courts were constructed for the 1908 contest … and many players practice on these courts pretournament.
Australian Tennis History, Tennis Heritage Australia Newsletter

Jack Crawford, Champion 1929-35

Jack Crawford, champion 1929–35

Jack Crawford was Australia's Men's Singles champion for four consecutive years between 1931 and 1935, as well as winning the French Open and Wimbledon in 1933. A stylish and sporting player, ‘Gentleman Jack’ Crawford came within one set of completing the Grand Slam in 1933, but fell in five sets in the United States final. Apart from singles success, Crawford also captured six doubles titles and five mixed doubles titles. He won three-straight Australian mixed titles with his wife, Marjorie Cox Crawford between 1931 and 1933.

Harry Hopman, champion 1929–39 and Davis Cup captain, 1939–1967

Harry Hopman was a successful doubles and mixed doubles player, who amassed seven majors in a 10-year period, winning the Australian Doubles in 1929 and 1930, and four Australian Mixed Doubles titles between 1930 and 1939, as well as the US Title in 1939. Hopman is best known as Australia's most successful Davis Cup captain of all time. Hopman guided Australian teams to 16 cups between 1939 and 1967.

Out of admiration for Harry Hopman, the Hopman Cup has been contested since 1989, and has been an official team competition of the International Tennis Federation (ITF) since 1996. It is staged at the start of each year in Perth as a prelude to the Australian Open in Melbourne.

1950s – Grand Slam doubles and more doubles

Ken McGregor, Grand Slam (doubles) 1951 and champion 1951–52

Ken McGregor (1923–2007), from Adelaide, was the winner of eight Open Doubles titles between 1951 and 1952 – winning the Australian, French and Wimbledon titles as well as the US Mixed Doubles, a total of nine Open titles in two years. McGregor completed the Doubles Grand Slam in 1951 with compatriot Frank Sedgman. Between 1950 and 1952 McGregor made the final of the Australian Championships, winning it once in 1952 when he beat his doubles partner, Sedgman.

McGregor and Sedgman won seven consecutive majors together from 1951 to 1952 – a feat that has never been equalled. McGregor's highest singles ranking was No. 3, which he achieved in 1952. McGregor retired from tennis at the age of 25 and returned to his other sporting passion in football.

Frank Sedgman, Wimbledon win, 1951

Frank Sedgman, Grand Slam (doubles) 1951 and champion 1951–52

At aged 14 years, Frank Sedgman rang Harry Hopman to explain, quite brazenly, that he could beat most of the kids in Harry's current clinic and wanted to join his coaching squad. Harry permitted Frank to join and so began a long training relationship.

Sedgman dominated tennis from 1949 to 1953, amassing 22 major Grand Slam titles. Out of the 24 major trophies on offer in 1951 and 1952, Sedgman won 16 of them, including a doubles Grand Slam in 1951 with countryman Ken McGregor. Quick around the court, Sedgman was known for his impeccable net play.

Lew Hoad, champion 1953–57

Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall with the 1953 Davis Cup at Kooyong, Melbourne

Lew Hoad (1934–94) was born in Glebe, Sydney. The son of a tramway man, he was introduced to Adrian Quist, a former champion, when Hoad was 12 years old. He often played with Ken Rosewall in his youth and worked for Dunlop sports goods company where Quist was general manager.

He is often remembered for his match as a 19 year old amateur in the 1953 Davis Cup against the great United States champion Tony Trabert. In a titanic struggle, Hoad defeated Trabert by a score of 13–11, 6–3, 3–6, 2–6, 7–5 to help his country retain the Cup.
Wikipedia, Lew Hoad

Hoad reached the ranking of World Number 1 after winning the Australian, French and Wimbledon Singles champion titles in 1956, coming close to completing the Grand Slam. Hoad was defeated for the Grand Slam title in the United States final by countryman Ken Rosewall. He had one last crack at the Grand Slam in 1957 (winning only Wimbledon) before he turned professional. Hoad also had success in Doubles with nine Open Titles across all four major titles. Hoad was a tennis icon in the 1950s.

Ashley Cooper, champion 1957–58

Ashley Cooper, Champion 1957-58

Ashley Cooper from Melbourne won back-to-back Australian titles in 1957 and 1958 in Singles and Doubles, and featured in Australia's Davis Cup team in both years. In 1957 the Australian doubles pair of Cooper and Anderson, triumphed over the United States 3-2. Cooper was an attacking player with smooth ground strokes and poise at the net. In 1958 he came close to completing the Grand Slam, but fell in the semifinals at the French Open. He is one of only nine men to win three majors in a season. Cooper turned professional in 1959.

Malcolm Anderson, champion 1957–58

In 1957, Malcolm Anderson, born near Rockhampton, Queensland, was the first unseeded player to win the US National Singles Championship. In the same year he made the final of the Australian Championships, but lost to Ashley Cooper. In 1957, Anderson won the Doubles title at the French National Championships with Ashley Cooper. In 1958 he made the finals of the US National Singles Championship and the Australian Championships, but lost both to Cooper.

Australia's tennis post-war–1950s – a series of seamless wins?

The story of Australian tennis from the 1880s, and its champions from 1900s, to the 1950s, is a story of interactive engagement with both international tournaments and also a broad based community engagement. It was this community engagement which supported an industry able to support the amateur status of its players – the men at least. Australia was quite unique in having its champion players coming from a broad spectrum of the community.

Winning Australian Davis Cup team 1934: Jack Crawford, Adrian Quist and Vivian McGrath

After titles at the amateur grand slam tournaments and then, sometimes playing as professionals on the international circuit, Australian champions set up their own clinics and schools. Tennis coaches worked with tennis clubs and associations to promote participation in tennis and to support the development of junior players.

In the 1940s, women's tennis came into its own when Nancy Wynne Bolton and Thelma Long won a string of Grand Slam titles. At the same time, the champions were supported by a network of women tennis players and tennis club and association office-bearers who had stepped into the role whilst many of the men were at war.

From 1951 until 1959, there was a string of Grand Slam titles by the men players: Frank Sedgmanm, Lew Hoad and Ashley Cooper, and Malcolm Anderson. When Sedgman wanted to turn professional in 1952, Harry Hopman, led a fund-raising drive via his newspaper column in the Melbourne Herald to keep Sedgman an amateur for another year.

Hoad and Cooper ranked as the World's Number 1 players in 1956 and 1957 respectively. Whilst Hoad lived overseas, Cooper served as a tennis player development administrator with Tennis Queensland, where he was based for 50 years.

Anderson continued to play and appeared at another Grand Slam tournament at age 36, when he was a finalist at the Australian Open, losing to Ken Rosewall. In 1973, he captured the Australian Open doubles title along with John Newcombe.

Since 1905, the Australian Open has been held in five Australian and two New Zealand cities. The tournament has mostly been staged in Melbourne and also in Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth, as well as Christchurch and Hastings in New Zealand.

1911 Davis Cup with Australasia playing USA at Hagley Park, Christchurch, New Zealand on 1–3 January 1912

Since 1908, when Australians flocked to Albert Reserve in Melbourne to see the first David Cup challenge in Australia, Australians have continued to be keen tennis spectators. In the 1950s, the game seemed to hit its peak as a community based sport supporting a handful of Grand Slam winners every year of the decade.

The world record crowd for a live single tennis game is the 25,578 people who watched Australia play the USA in the Davis Cup challenge round in Sydney in December 1954.

This series of apparently seamless amateur titles wins in the 1940s and 1950s, made possible by extensive community and industry support, and investment in development and administration, set the stage for ‘the golden age of tennis’ for Australian players in the 1960s.

Useful links

Look, listen and play

YouTube videos of tennis play 1900–1950

Tennis fame and fashion

History of games and equipment

Grand Slam events

Australian tournaments

Davis Cup and Federation Cup


Last updated: 20 June 2013
Creators: Kathryn Wells

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