Tennis as a Game of Beauty and Well-Being

I was only eight years old when my tennis-mad grandmother presented with me my very first racquet, her old wooden Slazenger which probably hadn’t fired a shot since the early 1930s. Not long after she took me to Kooyong to watch an exhibition match involving the veteran Ozzie Ken Rosewall with the super backhand competing with the dazzling dark-skinned American Arthur Ashe. So began a lifetime of enchantment with the beautiful game of tennis.

Armed with an upgraded (but still wooden) Dunlop and a pair of Volleys, I soon began lessons at the Caulfield Park courts, and would later move onto Hurlingham Park, East Malvern, and eventually Ajax Maccabi in Alma Road, St Kilda. At Caulfield Park I managed to beat a few other boys my own age, and naturally thought I was on the way to champion status. So I entered an Under 11 tournament at Grace Park in Hawthorn, and was drawn to play a certain Pat Cash in the first round. Cash was a few months younger than me, but much taller, and had a big serve and a killer volley. I got smashed 6-0 although proudly managed to lead 40-0 on my serve in the final game before folding. His dad told my grandmother afterwards that Pat hoped to become a professional. She also claimed he asked whether I would be interested in being Pat’s hitting partner, but my grandmother did have a habit of fibbing.

A few years later I played Cash’s doubles partner Mark Hartnett in the second round of a junior tournament at Kooyong. Hartnett had an amazing kick serve which I couldn’t lay a racquet on. He was arguably even better than Cash, but unfortunately chronic injuries as a teenager prevented him from joining the professional tour. My career as a suburban journeyman continued. I played regular weekend competition till I was about 25 years, and even won a couple of junior club championships. But the problem was that whilst I had a decent top-spin forehand modelled on my heroes Borg and Vilas, my backhand was little more than a defensive prod, and my serve was a rather soft slice which irritated average hackers, but generally got smashed by serious players.

My ball-boying career at the 1977 and 1978 Australian Opens was arguably more successful. Those were the days, no hats or sun-cream under the hot 30 degree Christmas sun at Kooyong. I got to work with lots of good players including Roscoe Tanner, Chris Lewis, Ken Rosewall and doubles champ Sherwood Stewart. My highlight was the 1978 Women’s Doubles title won by the blonde Czech Renata Tomanova and her American partner Betsy Nagelsen. During the match a friend of mine in the crowd yelled out “Have a go Mendes” as I was throwing the ball to the delectable Tomanova. I turned a bright red amidst the laughter of the crowd.

In 1978 my parents finally allowed me to stay up late and watch a Wimbledon Final live. It was Borg versus Connors and the Iceman prevailed in straight sets hitting inch perfect passing shots every time Jimbo ventured into the net. In 1979 Borg just held off the huge server Roscoe Tanner. Then came the 1980 classic final which I was forced to watch at our Year 11 school camp in Ballarat amidst a horde of unwashed barbarians who knew nothing about tennis. At the end of the famous long fourth set tiebreaker they screamed in unison that Mac had it won. But I sat quietly knowing that the Iceman would prevail as he did in the fifth.

In the late 1980s and 1990s I lost a bit of interest in tennis. Other than Pat Cash the Australians were fairly ordinary. And once the stars of my childhood such as Borg, Vilas and then McEnroe retired or slowed down, many of the other top players seemed bland in comparison. It was hard to get excited about Lendl, Chang, Courier, Sampras, Kafelnikov, Rios and the various bland Eastern European baseliners yawn, yawn. But then the rise of Rafter, Hewitt and Scud drew me back. And later the sublime skills of Federer, Nadal and Djokovich have proved a joy to watch.

As for playing, I found a regular partner (and now dear friend) of relatively similar ability 20 years ago, and we have been hitting ever since. My backhand and serve have even improved over time. And watching my son Lucas develop his tennis skills has been a pleasure. We managed to win the Boroondara Easter Classic Father and Son doubles title together in 2009 when he was only 10 years old. That was special.

The great thing about tennis though, is that you don’t need to recruit a whole team or even a partner to play. I absolutely love going down to the local tennis wall and just belting the ball for 20 or 30 minutes. It’s great for fitness, and also majorly therapeutic. All the cares of the world quickly fade away.

 

Whether it be baking in the sun at Kooyong, catching a hidden gem of a match on an outside court at Flinder’s Park or bagging the antbed (en tout cas) courts after a few sets at the local tennis club we’d love to hear your stories and memories of tennis. Read more here.

 

 

About Philip Mendes

Philip Mendes is an academic who follows AFL, soccer, tennis and cricket. He supported Fitzroy Football Club from 1970-1996, and on their death he adopted the North Melbourne Kangaroos as his new team. In his spare time, he occasionally writes about his current and past football teams.

Comments

  1. Sherwood Stewart, he’s a blast from the past! Jog my memory Phil, Sherwood won a doubles title down under in this period. Can you recall if it was the Australain Open or In Sydney ?

    Glen!

  2. There’s a ‘tennis wall’ near me in Elwood at Elwood Park. I often see people getting the forehand going and think I to myself that “I should have a crack at that”, but never do.

  3. I agree that cashy was wonderful Phil but I thought Peter mcnamaras ascent to world number 6 prior to injury mark edmondsons win at the open over Newcombe in 1976 and John Alexander’s win over the urbane adrianno pannatta in the David cup in 1977 at white city were also great australian highlights

  4. The two Macs wins in the Wimbledon doubles, as well as Peter McNamaras win in the German Open, 1982, plus his big win on carpet in a European tournament in early 1983, can’t remember the tournaments name, just prior to buggerng his knee, are worthy of inclusion. Phil Dent also played some good tennis in this time, with 1977 eing a stirling year for ‘Philby’.

    Glen!

  5. Hi Phil,

    I enjoyed reading your story. It sounds that enjoying the sport is more important.

    I am sad to hear that you can’t find attractive in professional tennis any more. But it’s good to hear that you still enjoy playing tennis. Hope I will gain being motivated to play tennis again soon.

    Great stuff! Cheers.

    Yoshi

  6. Philip Mendes says

    Glen – Stewart won the Sydney Indoor doubles title in 1978, and the Aust Open doubles title in 1984. In 1977, he actually beat Ken Rosewall, who was about 43 years old by then but still a tough player in the singles. Steve – there are some great tennis walls around: Grace Park in Hawthorn and Caulfield Park are two good ones. The best ones even have wire fences above to stop the ball going over. We are lucky enough to have a wall inside our tennis club at Kew. Ian – remember JA’s amazing win over Panatta in 1977 well. Panatta had won the French and Italian Opens the year before so a seriously good player, although less effective on grass. JA unfortunately never performed at his best in the Grand Slams.

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