Almanac Tennis: Ant bed nation – why Australian tennis owes the termite



Mal Anderson hasn’t played much tennis in recent years but that doesn’t mean he isn’t all over the game. His modest place in a Brisbane retirement village is dominated by a large screen television that is permanently tuned to the tennis channel with the volume wound up high. Shouting over the top of the commentators, he adds his own special comments about style, strategy, and inevitably how things used to be.


‘I just love tennis – somehow I became addicted to it as a kid,’ he said during a pre-Covid conversation and cuppa.


Anderson played in the Harry Hopman golden era of Australian tennis during which he was a Davis Cup champion and won the 1957 US singles title. Such was the depth of the game in Australia at the time, his feats are rarely mentioned. But when he nods at the wooden racquet framed on the wall he says with gentle pride ‘I was unseeded at New York that year but only dropped two sets – beat Coop in the final in three.’


That Mal Anderson went from a 6,000-acre cattle station west of Rockhampton to the centre court at the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills is thanks, in part, to termites. And like the ants themselves, he was the gift that kept giving.


As has been previously documented in The Almanac, the industrious ants chewing on dirt and making a filthy mix with their saliva was essential for building their complex nests – and if pounded and watered – a very fine surface for tennis courts.


In South Australia, the lucky played on lawn and the battlers went at it on bitumen while in Victoria there was the exotic sounding en-tout-cas and in Sydney many courts there was clay. But in the far north, the ants did the spadework.


The Anderson family played on ant bed at their property. They invited neighbours around on weekends for picnics and a few sets. When Mal showed promise he was sent to boarding school in Rockhampton where he came into the orbit of coach Charlie Hollis. He also met Bob and Trevor Laver and they played each other almost every day on an ant bed court. The only distraction they had was chasing the Laver’s younger brother Rod off the court when he kept trying to join the match.


The court surface allowed Anderson to develop a serve and volley game and there seemed to be something about the industrious work that the termites put into the surface that set a tone for a Queensland work ethic – particularly those from the country. Nodding an agreement at this idea is Mal’s wife Daphne, herself an excellent player. She grew up on a dairy farm near Blackbutt where she played for hours on a court alongside her brother Roy. Roy Emerson likes to say that the smartest thing Mal Anderson ever did was marry his sister.


‘Roy learned a lot on the ant bed because his dad went and got these big ant beds and crushed them and watered them,’ explained Anderson. ‘It made a fantastic surface – one of the best and sometimes we played on granite, most of the country tournaments were on granite. The only time we played on grass was with the big tournaments in Brisbane here.’


The ants’ nest was so accessible and once laid down provided a sure surface. It would absorb a tropical downpour and be ready to go again within a few hours. The endless sunshine made playing tennis possible almost all year round and honed the skills of a clutch of talented juniors. They were naturally fit from living on a farm and the hours on the court topped them up.


In 1954 Anderson and Emerson led Queensland in the Linton Cup, along the way they beat Victorian Ashley Cooper who soon migrated north and became an honorary Queenslander. Throwing Laver into the mix it is possible to mount an argument that Queensland could have contested – and won – the Davis Cup a few times in the late 1950s and early 1960s.



Rockhampton Morning Bulletin 21 January 1954


Anderson’s final fling was in the Open era. In 1972 as a 36-year-old he reached the final of the Australian Open at Kooyong. The following year he won the doubles with Newk and was part of the victorious Davis Cup side (with Newcombe, Laver and Rosewall) that is arguably the greatest Australia ever produced.


Anderson was later asked to look after a group of promising juniors who were going on tour in Europe. One was Wally Masur, who remembers the demands that Anderson placed on them, repeating an old Hopman adage – ‘you may not be the best player, but you can be the fittest.’


Another who was shaken out of bed before first light to go running (with Anderson leading the charge) was John Fitzgerald, who admits that was the time that a penny dropped about what was required to make it as a professional player.


Decades on Cooper was running Queensland Tennis and feared the regional areas were being neglected – that the line of sunburnt champions had ended. He asked Anderson if he would take on a job running clinics and revitalising the game. He loved it and drove endless miles across the vast state, spreading the lore. Pat Rafter emerged from Mount Isa and joined the list of Grand Slam winners from ant bed nation.



To read more from Mike Sexton click HERE


Read another story about ant bed tennis courts in Queensland: The Tent Hill Tennis Club HERE


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About Michael Sexton

Michael Sexton is a freelance journo in SA. His scribblings include "The Summer of Barry", "Chappell's Last Stand" and the biography of Neil Sachse.


  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Great piece Mike. I knew none of this. Didn’t KD Walters learn his craft on an ant bed pitch in Dungog?

  2. Marvellous stuff. I’m keen to get Bernie & Nick on an ant bed court. With honey & ropes.

  3. Thanks for this, Mike.
    A most interesting history lesson!

  4. Terrific yarn Mike. In the 70s we Queenslanders were very proud of our tennis heritage. You can throw in an earlier generation too – the Ken McGregors of the world. Ken Fletcher was another. (Where we stay in Brisbane is a 9 iron away from Ken Fletcher Park). And then the ones who weren’t quite as successful but were pretty handy in the 70s such as Ross Case (Toowoomba’s own) and Geoff Masters (his doubles partner) and Wendy Turnbull.

    All would have had experience on ant bed.

  5. Rod Oaten says

    What a really great story. I had never heard of termite courts before thanks for the information. Both Mal Anderson and Roy Emerson were tall and lean characters on the court, big serves and brilliant volleys.

  6. Daryl Schramm says

    Thanks for this Mike. Don’t recall ever seeing an ant bed court, let alone playing on one in my very early days. Plenty of bitumen in the bush and lawn in Adelaide. Those tennis names – just fantastic. Re the mag cover, I’d be very interested to find out what Sid Barnes would do to cricket. The mind is boggling!

  7. We had an ant bed court at the little one-teacher State primary school I went to at Blenheim, about 100kms south-west of Brisbane, in the late 50s and early 60s. It was always well looked after (not sure by whom) and there was some weekend social tennis played there.We were bare-footed kids but did don sand shoes on the rare occasions we played friendly matches with other schools in the area.I remember it as a pretty good surface. A cement roller, just like a cricket pitch roller, nestled in a corner of the surrounding fence.

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