Almanac Tennis: Martina and My Tennis Ball



The great Martina Navratilova (pic: Wikicommons)



Out at the far reaches of the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club, beyond the embankments which surrounded the outside courts, was a wire fence which separated the tennis club from the playing fields of St Kevin’s College. Amongst our number were a couple of lads who were students at the school and, having carried out some reconnaissance during lunch breaks, they were confident that the numerous holes in the fence would allow our group to easily breach Kooyong’s defences and afford us free entry into the Australian Open. The things we were prepared to do to avoid a $5 entry fee!


With backpacks brimming with food and drinks, we disembarked at Heyington station and furtively made our way across the ovals. The fence was in complete disrepair, and access to the tennis club was as simple as taking candy from a baby. Once through the fence, the five of us were confronted by a steep embankment covered in thick grass and long weeds. Obviously, the remit of the groundskeepers was confined only to the grass of the courts. As we crawled ever so stealthily up the mound, in the thicket we were delighted to find numerous old tennis balls; balls which had, over the years, been mis-hit by mid-week hackers and left neglected. Active teenagers such as ourselves could never get our hands on enough tennis balls. And with beach cricket season approaching, any extra balls were a bonus. Into the backpacks they went! With security virtually non-existent, we slid happily down the other side and into the Australian Open.


Navigating the outside courts at Kooyong was like wandering the backstreets of a foreign city without a map. The courts themselves were fenced in with impenetrable black plastic, so that one had no knowledge of whom might be holding court only metres away. The crowds wandered in a glacier-like fashion along a central alleyway. The players and umpires assigned to these extremities were expected to jostle their way through the slow-moving throng.


The whole event had a loose, amateur feel about it. We made our way to the centre-court. But by 1983, the main arena’s glory days of staging Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones concerts had long since passed. The decay was well advanced, and the splintering bench seats were bordering on dangerous. The grandstands had a sense of sad, decaying grandeur.


Back at the outside courts, not far from the main Kooyong clubhouse, we wandered into a wobbly makeshift grandstand of perhaps eight rows. On court, a one-sided ladies singles match was drawing to its conclusion, and we decided to take a punt and stay on to watch whoever might be playing next. Our patience was rewarded when the immediately recognizable figures of Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver emerged from the crowd and plonked down their tennis bags on the side of the court. Their opponents were a pair of Eastern Europeans who were probably still cursing their misfortune at having drawn in the first round one of the greatest doubles combinations in tennis history.


As the players stood chatting and stretching at the net, it suddenly dawned on them, the umpire, and the hundred or so murmuring spectators, that there were no balls at the court. The hit-up could not commence. Minutes ticked by, and Martina especially was getting a little antsy. “I have a ball” I shouted down to the players, and Martina looked up instantly and beckoned me to toss it down to her. I reached down into my bag and pulled out one of our recently discovered dark, fluffy neglected tennis balls. I perfectly lobbed it down to her.


In all her time in tennis, the great Martina Navratilova – winner of 18 grand slam singles and 31 grand slam doubles titles – had surely never set eyes on such a dilapidated tennis ball. She gingerly held the ball up by a strand of fur, as if it might be carrying a disease. The crowd laughed. Her opponents shook their heads: it seemed that they would rather wait for the batch of practice balls to arrive than to suffer the indignity of hitting up with that hideous thing. And so, the great Martina Navratilova tossed up my tennis ball and, with a swift and imperious backswing and perfect timing, thwacked it over the baseline, over the black plastic covered fence, over the trees next to the railway line, and over the Glen Waverley line itself. The crowd laughed, applauded. Martina shrugged. My mates and I were stunned: we could not believe that someone could hit a tennis ball so far, and so sweetly.


A vision came to mind of a grandmother tottering down the adjacent street, heading for lunch in Glenferrie Road, being bonked on the head by a rotten old tennis ball falling from the sky. We would both have stories to tell the grandkids.


As for Navratilova and Shriver…they would lose only two games to those first round opponents, on their way to capturing the second of their seven Australian open doubles titles. But I have not forgotten: Martina, you still owe me a tennis ball.



You can read more from Smokie HERE.


Read more tennis stories HERE.



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About Darren Dawson

Always North.


  1. Super yarn

    You’ve lived sport Smoke.

  2. Peter Flynn says

    Likely to be Iva Budarova and Marcela Skuherska.


    Ted Tinling

  3. Brilliant Smoke, what a day and what a story! I could relate to most everything but this especially:

    Active teenagers such as ourselves could never get our hands on enough tennis balls. And with beach cricket season approaching, any extra balls were a bonus.


  4. Stone Cold Steve Baker says

    The glory days of the LTAV!

    Great story Smokie.

  5. Mark ‘Swish’ Schwerdt says

    Ripper Smokie. Does a tennis ball hurt more than a tennis elbow?

  6. Great story Smokie. I know that exact spot with the wire fence and neglected embankment. It still looks exactly as you described it.

  7. Gold Smokie

  8. This is a ripper yarn. Smoke. Hope twitter can help you get that replacement ball!

  9. Fantastic Smokie. That’s a great yarn. And it would’ve been worth the $5!

    Sometimes seeing sporting genius at work but just slightly out of the usual context is equally impressive. When I was at uni a mate and I went to the SA Open and my strongest memory is of watching Greg Norman on the practise fairway. He was hitting 5 irons and had his caddy catching the balls in a net. The caddy was barely moving. And he caught them all.

  10. Marvellous! As ever.

  11. Love it Smoke. Didn’t you have a decent tennis ball to toss down?

    Kooyong still has a certain mystique I reckon. Just needs a good paint!

  12. roger lowrey says

    Top story Smoke.

    I remember just one outing at Kooyong before John Cain created Melbourne Park – not a minute too soon – thereby securing our ongoing Grand Slam status.

    Those old wooden seats were quite typical of their time (think here not only the MCG but just about any sports ground in the country) before an emerging generation of sports’ fans demanded more. Thank goodness.


  13. Thank you one and all for your comments.
    Much appreciated.

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