Percy Cerutty and Harry Hopman – Half-Loons

Percy Cerutty might have been half a loon, but he made Herb Elliott the greatest middle-distance runner of his generation. According to Herb, when they first met, the coach didn’t mention anything about athletics but asked the teenager, ‘What sort of man do you want to be?’


Others profited from Cerutty’s ‘Stotan’ (Stoic and Spartan) philosophy – John Landy, Betty Cuthbert, Les Perry and Dave Stephens. Whatever was going on in the sandhills at Portsea produced results.


This could also be said of Harry Hopman in the same era. He might have been half a loon too, but he put the finishing touches on the greatest tennis players of that generation – Frank Sedgman, Ken McGregor, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Merv Rose, Neale Fraser, Mal Anderson, Ashley Cooper, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Fred Stolle, John Newcombe and Tony Roche plus he played a part in the careers of Mo Connolly, John McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis.


There was the tennis equivalent of the sandhills-at-Portsea experience; the grinding training sessions were accompanied by the occasional waft of chunder from the back of the court. Bill Bowrey, the amateur who won the last Australian Championships in 1968, recalled being in the Davis Cup squad and that balls he couldn’t reach in the first week, he was getting a racquet to by the end of the second. ‘Hop just pushed you to where you didn’t know you could go,’ he explained.


In his way, Hopman also asked his players ‘What sort of a man do you want to be?’ He did it by taking them by the elbow and guiding them through social circles, into places they didn’t understand, teaching them good behaviour and fining them for poor manners. ‘I knew them better than their parents,’ he once said. Hopman’s alchemy was to make the disparate talents play as a team – the players understood that their collective worth was greater than as individuals.





Over the past few years, I have spent a lot of time with Harry, researching a biography now published as ‘The Fox’. He is long gone but his legacy remains. Those who came into his orbit are rarely warm in their reminiscences of him, but the respect is immeasurable. Like Cerutty, he was self-taught – absorbed everything he could about training, diet and psychology – and mixed it with an uncommon zeal.


‘I never knew what it was to be tired,’ he said. Think about that for a moment.


His first tennis experience was when his father pounded out a dirt court in the backyard of their home at Glebe in 1915, his final day was spent on court in Florida coaching juniors in 1985. He had lunch with his second wife Lucy, stood up and said ‘back to the courts’, turned and suffered a fatal heart attack.


It is easy when working on such a big story to start making broad assessments such as: Hopman was the greatest coach/trainer Australian sport has known. Was he? My perspective is hopelessly biased, but the argument is that he took a sport, put both hands in its back and pushed it so hard that a small (in population) country dominated for two decades. Australia won 17 of the 22 Davis Cup tournaments it entered when Hopman was in charge. The Ashes were the pinnacle of former British Empire sports, but the Davis Cup was truly international. Those players collectively won more than 150 major titles.


Cerutty has a claim as does Harry Gallagher and later Noel Donaldson… he successes of Ron Barassi, Bart Cummings and Wayne Bennett are in domestic competitions.


The Almanac community has a broad knowledge, and I welcome your thoughts on this.


In the meantime, draw a deep breath and reflect with some pride that Australia was capable of producing at least two half-loons who sought and found a level of sporting success previously unknown.




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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. Barry Nicholls says

    Congratulations Michael. A story that needed to be told. He’s lucky to have you tell it ! I wish you every success.

  2. Malcolm Rulebook Ashwood says

    Ditto Barry above – Michael ! Yes hard to argue with as well insane success

  3. Bernard Whimpress says

    Congrats on the Hopman book and an interesting parallel with Cerutty as you argue. Whether you can call them half-loons or inspirational figures I’ve long thought a good comparison can be made with Franz Stampfl and a Science v Philosophy model.
    If we look at Australian Football I believe John Kennedy was taught by Stampfl and the science/phys ed approach continued with the likes of David Parkin and here in SA with Halbert, Hicks, Nunan and Craig who, of course, were also disciples of Jack Oatey. The ‘inspiring’ coaches include, Norm Smith, Alan Killigrew, Neil Kerley (influenced by both Oatey and Fos Williams), Haydn Bunton (who trained briefly with Cerutty) and others.
    One of the best meetings we had in the early days of ASSH (SA) was when the late John Daly spoke on the contrasting methods of Stampfl and Cerutty.
    Regarding tennis, it was interesting to note your remark about players being pushed hard in practice to the extent of vomiting
    on the court. I was reminded of this when I called the intensity of Australia’s Davis Cup team training for a tie against Yugoslavia at Memorial Drive in the 1980s. Neale Fraser certainly set tough, exhausting drills and this was in marked contrast to the Yugoslav whose practice next day was more like that of decent club players.

  4. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I don’t have much interest in tennis as such, but there is always plenty to be learned from your work about the era in question, so I’ll be getting hold of this when I can Mike. Will it be available directly from you?.

  5. There is a football link to Percy Cerutty. Haydn Bunton Jnr left Norwood in the SANFL to become captain coach of Launceston, but played only one game before a serious car accident smashed his kneecap and there were fears he may not walk again.
    Bunton did his rehabilitation with Percy Cerutty running up and down the sandhills at Portsea. He returned as a player at Norwood in 1960 (losing the GF to North Adelaide by 5 points).
    Given the opportunity to coach again in 1961 with the flagless Swan Districts in the WAFL who had finished last – winning only 2 games in 1960 – Bunton started with Cerutty’s principles. He emptied the nightclubs of Perth and set Swan Districts players the task of regular running up and down the Scarborough sandhills.
    Together with savvy recruiting and a more possession oriented game plan it resulted in a first to last transition for the Black Ducks and a 61-63 flag treble.
    Never would have happened without Percy.

  6. Who was the greatest Australian coach? Tennis was a much smaller game in Hopman’s day – dominated by the US and Australia. Same with swimming back then. European, Asian and South American competition had not emerged at any depth.
    Cerutty had to compete with the best runners the USSR and Africa could produce. There is no international barometer for the football codes, until recent times with soccer. Bart Cummings was an animal conditioner – not a human coach – give me a break.
    Be interested to read your insights into Hopman’s personal life. His 5 wives and gambling history raises questions for me – but I’m sure you’ve gone much deeper than the sketchy articles I’ve read.

  7. Michael Sexton says

    Thank you all.

    I think Cerutty popularised the sandhill run. Nei Kerley made the South Adelaide players do it in 1964 with a brick in each hand.

    Swish – book available not through me but via all good bookstores.

    Peter B – Hopman was a very complex person but married only twice. Gambling was a problem. Although USA and Australia dominated tennis it was still a world game in that era – Davis Cup challenges wound their way through Latin America, Europe and later Asia. Each country had different courts, balls, conditions and referees/umpires that had to be navigated.
    The other issue Hopman faced was that his success fuelled the rival professional game. Every few years his best players would be signed away to play for money, so he needed a conveyor belt of talent to keep the amateur game afloat.

  8. The sandhill run went international

    In Scotland the sandhill run was a multi-sports phenomenon. There was a shore sand version popularised in the opening sequence of Chariots of Fire, but the nearest equivalent to the Australian up and downhill torture chamber was the Sandhills of Gullane. They were used by Glasgow Rangers coach/manager Jock Wallace in the 1970s. Bannockburn Amateurs, the Scottish team, not the one from the village I live in in Victoria, copied the professionals in 2015. Gullane is on the south side of the Firth of Forth, east of Edinburgh and close to the North Sea. So it tends to be bracing even in summer.
    The football training story was very much the same as the Victorian one. The players were trained to the point of collapse and were worn out before the season started, but by midway through their respective campaigns they were outlasting their opposition and winning games regularly, often scoring the vital goal late in the game.
    Modern training methods have become more scientific and specific and focussed on particular goals. It will be interesting to see if sand-dunes make a comeback in some future regime, though I doubt it.

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