Tennis Party

'Group portrait of a tennis party, probably at Towong, ca.1900-1902.' by Gabriel Knight (1876-1946). Courtesy of State Library of Victoria Image Collection

‘Group portrait of a tennis party, probably at Towong, c1900-1902.’ by Gabriel Knight (1876-1946). Courtesy of State Library of Victoria Image Collection


In the life of old Australia a few things were handy to know: how to sneak a trick with a rag-spade lead; how to do the Gypsy Tap; how to sort out the shout when one in the school was lagging (“take it out of that: one to come”); and how to handle yourself on the tennis court. When to shark at the net. When to lob. When to cross. When to both scamper back to the baseline. When to flatten out the forehand.

Tennis was big – really big – all over the country, but it was more obvious in small country towns where there were always courts: two next to the memorial hall, a couple beside the church, and one at the primary school. And that was for a population of 176.

Along the Murray and its tributaries it might have been a lawn court marked with white lime. Possibly not quite level, but not a potato patch either. The roller would rest up against a leaning post of the high fence (only tennis courts had high fences – in anticipation of the wayward) partly obscured by vegetation: bougainvillea (unwisely) in the north, and some hedge or jasmine in the south. Those rollers were at least Edwardian and possibly Victorian. (I never saw a Georgian version.) They were Australian brown-bronze, the colour of old ploughs and abandoned Plymouths, and by crikey they held the heat well. They squeaked as you walked along, with a note a tone or two lower than the note of the winder for the net (also Australian brown-bronze). Somewhere in the small pavilion – which was really a wooden shed with the paint peeling off it – there was a room that smelt like the workshop at Grong Grong Motors, where the Atco cylinder mower was housed, and hairless tennis balls gathered in the corner.

That was in those places where there were reserves of water. In more of Australia, courts were made of ant-bed, the supreme tennis surface which produced so many champions, which also had to be watered, although not to make anything grow. Just to keep the ant bed from going rock-solid and opening up. (You could lose juniors in those cracks.)

I grew up on antbed – and asphalt. The asphalt got so hot it became sticky and balls remained new for a rally and a half. But asphalt were practical.

The antbed was magnificent with its firm base and the sandy top which allowed you to time your slide, so that in coming to rest not only were your feet in position for the shot, they left a perfect Dunlop Volleys imprint in the surface.

At Oakey High, two caretakers – Mr Achilles and Mr Frank –  looked after the whole school, which included general handyman duties, emptying the rubbish (making sure they didn’t put young Leahy in the incinerator after the 10B2s deposited him in the bin) and preparing the tennis courts most days – in fact I reckon it was every day when a tennis craze had taken hold. I was as into it as anyone else. They were the years of late Rosewall and Newcombe, and new Connors and  then Borg.

I also played Wednesday night fixtures – not the big stuff on Saturdays, although many players doubled up. Ladies’ tennis was also very popular. I remember the pleated skirts, always white, and the sun visors.

There was no chance of maintaining a lawn tennis court in Oakey although I was never invited into the secret world of the squattocracy who no doubt had water galore. Who knows how those kids who went off to boarding school experienced their tennis.

I first played lawn tennis in Albury with my cousins, in bare feet, diving around at the net onto the cool grass of the summer evening. We loved it so much we went back the next morning for another hit, and played for about four hours.

At Uni there were dozens of flexi-pave courts and tennis was still very popular before a swim to cool off and a few beers at the Rec Club. Many lecturers could be found there, the younger ones impressing the bright young things from their International Relations course, the older ones playing among themselves, too old for that nonsense, serving with the idiosyncratic actions of bodies tortured by academic research.

Tennis. Sometimes I forget about tennis. And then, like going to the picture theatre, in the middle of playing a set or two I think, “I should do this more often.”

Perhaps that could be the aim this year. A tennis party. A regular tennis party.

Or maybe I should stick to the 500 and the golf.





About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears (appeared?) on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three school-age kids - Theo, Anna, Evie. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst four. His ambition was to lunch for Australia but it clashed with his other ambition - to shoot his age.


  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    A few years back, I noticed on one of our semi-regular road trips back to the old country, that a gleaming tennis complex seemed to have sprouted at Pimpinio, north-west of Horsham, seemingly disproportionate to the surrounding population.

    Was it a mirage, as it doesn’t seem to be there any more?

  2. Beautiful JTH. I’m playing tennis most days up here in Yarrawonga with Liam. On his bad days he beats me 6-4. On his good days he beats me 6-1. Then I plunge into Lake Mulwala to cool down. The only spectators we have are the donkeys in the paddock opposite.

  3. Lovely stuff JTH. Towns had shops and schools and footy and cricket ovals. For a tennis court/club you only needed a crossroads, and perhaps an abandoned church or overgrown cemetery. 4 farming families converging was enough for men’s singles, ladies (never girls or womens) singles, and a mixed (avert your gaze) doubles.
    In country SA there was always a harvest break when too many players were on the harvester to keep local sport going. For some reason the cricket harvest break was a couple of weeks longer, so us young cricketers would get roped into the B Grade tennis while they were still a bit short.
    Yorketown was a BIG town (maybe 800) but the farming clubs we played against always had a little bantam rooster bloke with bandy legs, who wore a felt hat, and played with devilish undercut spin specially designed for boiling asphalt. Talk about the ball not coming onto the bat!
    I swear he had it on a string and would yank it back toward him just as I was doing my Newk forehand windup.
    Great memories. Thanks JTH.

  4. Love this piece John. Tapped into so many memories playing tennis as a kid (and marveling at Tennis courts in one horse towns on family trips.) Tennis is like that: you forget about it the way you never would footy and cricket. But shit my heart is full of nostalgia for it.

  5. Ben Footner says

    Many an abandoned tennis court in the Murray Mallee. Sometimes they’re just in the middle of nowhere, not even really associated to a town! Like a few of the local farmers just got together, yanked out a few mallee tree stumps, and started their own tennis club.

  6. Shit, you’ve got a good memory for detail. The beautiful, old rusty detail memoir is built of.
    I was one of those lucky kids playing on lawn. But, then, as you know, Shepp had a lot of lawn courts.
    The olds would have a few drinks after the Saturday comp. Until, some time after dusk, Mum having repeatedly told the old man it was time to go, would get in a huff and say, “Right, I’m walking home.” Off she’d go. The old man knew he had time for three quick pots before jumping in the Galaxy and tooling off to catch her a hundred yards short of our place. She’d get in and he’d drive her that last precious bit of the journey. A woman respects that kind of attention.

  7. Emma Westwood says

    At my rural Victorian primary school in Windermere (not far from Lake Burrumbeet) in Ballarat, the tennis courts doubled as our ‘evacuation centre’ during the Ash Wednesday fires. Hoses would have been put on the courts if we’d been forced to put our emergency plan into action but I still wonder how that asphalt would have fared with those fires burning down on us – like black molasses, I’m guessing. Thanks for this lovely reverie, JTH.

  8. G’day JTH,

    Your story is brilliant and interesting to read. Tennis sounds very popular in Australia and I am happy to hear that small towns have tennis courts.

    Tennis parties seem very interesting too. I wish I could have joined!!

    From my experience, playing tennis in lawn courts is the best because there is less muscle tension, especially on legs. Do you face any muscle tension when playing at an asphalt court?

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    Cheers :)


  9. Great memories. Bring back the celebratory leap over the net at “game, set and match”, I say.

  10. Tennis net winders and Dunlop Volleys. Two essential images. Thanks John.

  11. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Definitely relate to ‘I should do this more often’ whenever I have a hit of tennis, be it on a court or in the backyard with Anastasia.
    Played regularly with my brother and AWOL Almanacker James Gilchrist back in 2008-9. I think James used to be a tennis teacher in Creswick. Made them shoot past you with a flick of the wrist. Looked effortless.
    Asphalt was not problem until it collided with wooden or flimsy aluminium racquets. Flexi-pave (very 1980s) was much more forgiving.
    At least you got to see Newcombe, Roche, Rosewell at something near their best.
    When I started watching tennis in late 1979 our hopes lay with blokes like Phil Dent, Eddo, Colin Dibley and Paul Kronk. Cheers

  12. Terry Towelling says

    My parents were proper old-school tennis people. Dad was a very handy A-grade player back in the late 50s/early 60s, and spent a lot of time traveling the Riverina on weekends playing tennis, baking under the sun at Hay or Balranald or Finley with Brycreemed hair and sporting spotless whites. My mother was one of these indefatigable country women players who played at a good competitive level in her younger years and then stuck on and played once a week with “the girls” until infirmity and death robbed her of all her companions. She finally hung up the Volleys at 73 years of age.

    I was always more of a cricketer and golfer and (average) footballer and could never quite get hold of tennis. My parents would watch it on the box and try to educate me on the various subtleties and stratagems, but it never clicked with me. Not even a fortnight’s school holiday lessons with the redoubtable local coaching legend Alf Strike could spark a love for the game.

    I regret this now, of course. I would love to be a proper tennis person, still holding my own in B-grade on a Wednesday night and still capable of taking a set or two from the hotshot youngsters with my wily court craft but, along with not sticking with guitar and dropping French in favour of the more manly Tech Drawing in Year 9, never following through with tennis is one of those youthful idiocies that you don’t realise will come back to haunt and limit you in later life.

  13. Grew up playing tennis at the local church in Coburg, where on the eastern side of the courts there was no need for a high fence – we had the Pentridge Prison wall to keep the balls on our side. Although we always managed to get one or two over – these days we would be under suspicion of trying to smuggle something into the prison.
    Courts were en tout cas (literally “in any case” but understood to mean “in all weather”) which according to Wikipedia: “Particularly in the state of Victoria, and before the advent of various synthetic surfaces, a very common alternative to grass courts were en tout cas courts. They were a porous, red, very finely crushed rock kind of surface. They required large amounts of water to manage, and recent drought and water restrictions seem to have led to the replacement of a lot of them with synthetic courts” They were like clay courts but more granular in composition.
    I would dispute the “in any weather” label – on the Melbourne scorching hot days with the hot north wind, the courts would dry out in minutes and you would be playing in a dust bowl – the temptations of the local pool were much more attractive on these days.

  14. Great to remember the old courts out in the middle of nowhere with clumps of grass attempting to colonise the levelled surface through the chain link fence. From the outside it was all out of control, inside the fence was maintained with an iron thumb.

    Those B grade players were tough too. A mate of mines Dad was playing into his sixties. During one game he was caught short by a serious heart attack. Upon waking in hospital with the family surrounding him in fairly concerned tones, suggesting it might be time to retire. He replied “Be buggered. I just played a great cross court passing shot to win against a kid 38 years younger than me.”

  15. Have just enjoyed ten minutes reading these responses.Thanks for taking the time to pen them.

    From the bottom up:

    Gus (and PB), that wily old B Grader with the undercut – yes! One bloke at Uni didn’t serve a double fault in all the time I played in the group – an ecelctic four I might add of Religion and Philosophy lecturers.

    Terry Toweling, if you don’t already write, I’d advise you take to the quill. [Send us something!] “Death robbed her of all her companions”. And Alf Strike: you can’t make that up.

    AJC, you already are a writer. Remember the technique to measure the height of the net: a racquet standing plus the width of another racquet head.

    SCB, the jumping of the net was superb. Just ending in my primary years (1974).

    Yoshi, Australia and asphalt don’t go well together, but asphalt was hardy and took no caretaking. Oakey primary was asphalt and it would melt on hot days (much of summer). It also ripped the balls to the state a dog wouldn’t chase. You could slog those bare Spaldings like you were on a squash court and they’d always fall in. You were more likely to suffer heat exhaustion before you felt any fatigue in your muscles.

    Mickey, a couple more memories: two quarters of lemon in a jar of water in the fridge in the wooden shed. And a bikini girls calendar from the local mechanic in the blokes’ loo.

    PZ, they’re still doing all this in the bush. And at clubs like St Monica’s Moonee Ponds where I have done the Trivia Night for a few years (brilliant crew there, some of whim possibly played with Norman Brookes).

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