‘Old Champ Shows Her Class…….’ – KB Hill

It’s Australia Day, 1981………..

 

A young university graduate has just landed in Wangaratta to take up an appointment as a Phys. Ed. teacher at St. Joseph’s School. Being no slouch as a tennis player, she ‘sniffs out’ the ANA tournament which appears to be reaching its climax on this sweltering afternoon.

 

She’s immediately taken by the cavernous surrounds of Merriwa Park; its oasis of parkland……playgrounds….neat wooden clubhouse…..and diligently-manicured grass courts……

 

She spots Ken Wurtz, a familiar face from her home-town of Wagga Wagga, and is soon being introduced to a host of welcoming locals.

 

Little do they realise it, but the slim, athletic 21 year-old they are meeting is to eventually re-write the record books of the Wangaratta Lawn Tennis Club……….

 

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Michelle Hill won her 13th WLTC  A-Grade Singles Championship a fortnight ago; 23 years after her last – and a staggering 38 years on from the first title she collected upon joining the Club.

 

For good measure, she also picked up her 13th Doubles crown – this time with one of her old pupils, Georgia Allen – to add to the 5 Mixed Doubles championships she has shared.

 

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Some say she’s the Club’s greatest-ever. That’s always a contentious subject when comparing different eras…… But there’s no doubt that she’s been one helluva player………….

 

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Sport runs deep in the Berrigan family.

 

Michelle’s dad, Tom, played international Rugby Union for Australia, and was a dynamic centre and full back for Wagga Brothers throughout a lengthy career. When his five kids started coming through, they were conditioned to spending hours around Rugby and tennis, where Tom also was an A-Grade player.

 

Although their mum Helen didn’t have a sporting bone in her body, she loved watching it.

 

“Dad owned a Shoe Shop when we were growing up, and couldn’t get away of a Saturday morning,” Michelle says.

 

“I remember, my older brothers, Anthony and Lou, were playing Junior cricket at one stage, and didn’t have anyone to look after their team. So Mum read up all the rules and became their Coach/Manager, besides keeping the other three of us under control. She was a really encouraging person, and the kids responded to her.”

 

“It delighted her when they won the premiership over the other sides which were so well-organised. It also helped, I suppose, that Geoff Lawson (the future Test quickie) was part of the team.”

 

“It’s funny, even though Mum was no good at sport, she could watch me playing tennis and give me clues about flaws in my opponents’ game. She was never far from the mark, either………”

 

“Mum loved sewing, and made all my tennis clothes. She died two years ago, and not long before that, I was lucky enough to spend some time with her. I lay down beside her, watching the Australian Open. She was more interested in discussing the girls’ dresses than who looked like winning……”

 

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Michelle was always obsessed with tennis. “Dad used to coach my older brothers, and I’d be hanging around making a nuisance of myself, standing at the back of the courts and hitting back the balls they missed.”

 

“I pleaded with Dad to let me play, but he was adamant that he wouldn’t let me start until I’d turned 10.”

 

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The Berrigans lived around the corner from Wagga’s Tennyson Park courts, and had a key to the club-house.

 

“We used to practice all the time. The people over the road from the courts loved it. They said we provided their entertainment.”

 

She won her first Tennyson Park A-Grade title at 12; and the first of five-straight City of Wagga A-Grade singles the following year.

 

In one of her earlier tournaments, her dad took her over to play at Deniliquin. Wally Rutter, the coach who helped chart Margaret Court’s rise to fame, saw her in action and wrote to her parents, suggesting that if they’d permit Michelle to move to Sydney to be coached by him – and stay with his family – he’d make her a champion.

 

“Mum didn’t show me the letter until years later, but said there was no way they were going to let me leave home at such a young age,” Michelle says.

 

Once she began playing age-group competitions, she took all before her, winning U15, U16 and U17 NSW hardcourt titles, along with the State U17 and U18 grass-court events.

 

After playing in successive NSW Wilson Cup teams, she finished third in the 1979 National U19 championships in Brisbane, and represented Australia at the World Students’ Games in Mexico City.

 

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When she headed to play in the U.S Open Junior titles, Michelle was ranked Australia’s number 3 junior; seeded in the world’s top 20.

 

Unlike most of the top Australian juniors, though, she chose to complete her tertiary education in Sydney before making a serious decision on her future.

 

She reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open qualifiers in 1977, aged 17, before being knocked out by the veteran Judy Dalton.

 

She was back home in Wagga the following January, when she received late advice that she’d again been accepted into the Qualifying Rounds.

 

“I said to Dad: ‘’I’m in.’ ‘Righto, then, I’ll take you down. We’ll leave as soon as I shut the shop at 9pm.’”

 

“We got down to our motel in Melbourne about 1.30am. I was supposed to be at Kooyong to register by 10am that morning, so I arrived, stood in a queue behind some foreigners, who were trying to book practice courts and were having considerable difficulty communicating.”

 

“By the time I got to the window to register, the fellah in the office said: ‘You’re too late; it’s two minutes past 10. You’re out of the tournament.’ ”

 

“I was in tears, and I thought Dad was about to ‘do his block’. He went over to nearby Glenferrie Oval and ran a few laps to calm down……….Then we jumped in the car and headed back to Wagga…….”

 

But by the time Michelle had finished uni, she was pretty sure the pro circuit wasn’t for her.

 

“I don’t think I was suited to the ‘dog-eat-dog’ atmosphere. I really enjoyed playing, but deep down, never thought I was quite good enough,” she says.

 

I compare the course taken by Amanda Tobin, with whom she had a strong rivalry through junior ranks, and suggest that she’d have no doubt made her mark. Tobin created an impression on the WTA tour, and was once ranked number 58 in the world.

 

“Yes, it would have been nice to find out how far you could go,” she says, “…..but I’m more than happy with the path I took………..”

 

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Armed with a Bachelor of Education (with first class honours), Michelle had little trouble adapting to life as a teacher in Wangaratta.

 

In fact, there weren’t too many idle moments, as she taught P.E. all day, coached tennis most nights, and played all week-end.

 

When the two single-sex local Catholic colleges merged, she began her 36-year association with Galen College. Eventually, a romance blossomed with fellow teacher Peter Hill, whom she married in 1984.

 

Of all the WLTC titles she won, she’s proudest of the two Mixed Doubles championships she shared with Pete – the first of which came in 1988.

 

“I was a cricketer, and only took up tennis when I started going with Michelle,” Pete jokes. “She’d say: ‘You serve, and then get out of the way. I’ll do the rest.’ ”

 

One of the many youngsters Michelle coached – Kate McDonald – also shared a Club Doubles title with her in 1984, and an ANA Doubles the following year.

 

Kate later spent some years on the pro circuit, and at one stage achieved a world Doubles ranking of 103. Upon retirement, she then embarked on her own coaching career.

 

Susan Batey, another of the array of talented youngsters in that era, shared seven ANA Open Doubles titles with Michelle. The pair also travelled to Melbourne, to play State Pennant tennis with Caulfield – and later, Dendy Park.

 

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Wangaratta’s Australia Day tournament – the plum tennis event in the local area – gave Michelle the opportunity to prove her mettle against some quality players. She prevailed in the Open Singles nine times.

 

She also got a kick out of representing Wangaratta in inter-association tennis, and helped to guide the Club to the Goulburn Valley Pennant in 1994.

 

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It was the lure of playing Team Tennis that prompted Michelle and Pete to head over to Wahgunyah, to play in the Corowa & District Association in the mid-nineties.

 

“John Voss, a good friend, persuaded us to go over. It was great fun.”

 

By then, their two kids, Jack and Harry, were starting to move through the sporting ranks, and following their progress became a priority.

 

“It was brought home to me when I came off the court whilst playing State Grade pennant in Melbourne. Pete rang me from Wangaratta, to tell me that Jack had kicked his first goal in Under 7 soccer. I felt terrible that I’d missed it and decided ‘that was that’. I was going to follow their sport from then on.”

 

“So I became a Soccer Registrar, secretary of Wang- Magpies Cricket Club , soccer Team Manager,  cricket scorer, and then we watched the boys playing footy for a few years.”

 

Jack, a lawyer, and Harry, a doctor, are now both  heavily involved with their own careers and families.

 

It was only recently that Michelle and Pete decided to pick up the racquets again and play competitively, after a lengthy sabbatical. They took it on with renewed enthusiasm, and there’s no reason to suggest they won’t hang them up any time soon.

 

Maybe there’s time for another few titles for the unassuming veteran…….

 

Footnote: Michelle competed in the 55-and Over event at the Oceania Masters, staged at Kooyong last week-end. After an effortless win over a Russian player, she met No.2 seed, Jill Meggs.  After a marathon, which lasted 3 hours 22 minutes, she went down 7/6 in the third set tie-breaker……..

 

 

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To read more of KB Hill’s excellent stories about local sportspeople, click HERE.

Comments

  1. Yet another beautiful story, KB, about a classy lady. The generations that follow at the WLTC will owe a lot to Michelle – they’ll certainly have an excellent role model.

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