The Tent Hill Tennis Club

With the Australian Open being played at the moment, we thought we’d reprise this classic from four years ago with its tale of tennis in rural Australia from another era.

 

by Glen Natalier

 

Farm in the valley

Tent Hill – that fertile valley south of Gatton in the Lockyer Valley. Today part of the winter vegetable bowl of Australia. Years ago its agricultural pursuits were more modest with mixed farms predominating. Cows grazed on the hillsides and the rich valley floor was intensely cultivated. On one such farm as those seen below on the photo, we go to visit Tent Hill Tennis Club

 

I grew up with a tennis court in the back yard. Well, not exactly in the back yard. It was over the fence from the back yard.

I lived on a mixed farm which means that there were dairy cows which provided cream for sale as well as cultivated cash crops such as potatoes, pumpkins and onions. Dairy cows required milking bails with an attached yard. In wet weather this could become somewhat smelly and so was better situated a little away from the house. Dairying also needed a small milk separating building which could be situated closer to the house for convenience.

The tennis court was squeezed between the milking shed (we called it the cow bails) and the dairy (that’s where the milk was taken to have the cream separated from the milk). The cream was sold and the now creamless milk was fed to the pigs. They were housed some distance away in the other direction.

 

pepperina tree

A glimpse past the iconic pepperina tree – a long-time resident at the farm – to the dairy in the background

 

But to get back to the tennis court squeezed between these two vital establishments on the farm. It was a tight fit. Sure there was room for a full-sized court but the space behind the base lines was somewhat limited. Thus a deep smash was a sure winner. Strike the ball too hard and it could land in a cow pat.

It was an ant-bed court, fast and true when in good condition. I remember the court being upgraded and resurfaced with a new layer of ant-bed material. Years of use had caused the surface to deteriorate. The players decided that it should be resurfaced during the off-season.

So on the nominated day, the regular players turned up with picks and shovels ready to start the job. The horses were yoked to the old German wagon and all set off up Frankie’s hill to dig up and collect the hard ant-hill material. Ant hills set rock hard and it is for this reason that they make a good playing surface. But it was hard work digging them up by hand and then loading the material on to the wagon to be taken down to the court. Farmers were used to hard work and the whole exercise was seen as relaxation and a social outing.

Load after load was fetched until the piles were gauged to be sufficient. Then it had to be smashed up very finely, levelled, watered, levelled, allowed to set, then levelled again. This process went on for a number of weeks until the surface was hard, level and true. A new top quality court emerged.

 

 

Tennis players

Some of the tennis players on the court in the mid 1940s. The old dairy can be seen in the background. I am the smallest of the group about to execute a forehand drive on the left.

 

The members of the club, for it was a club affiliated with the Lockyer Valley Tennis Association (or whatever it was called) were all farmers who lived within a short distance of the court. They were a pretty fair bunch of players too. They would be up with the A grade competition winners more often than not. Tall strapping lads they were, who could hit a ball as hard as ramming in a fence post. But not only brute strength was used in their play. They also knew their way around the court.

Courts such as this one were scattered around the land, and this was why Australia became known as a land of tennis players.

I was just a kid then who hung about hitting tennis balls but still too young to be drafted into a competitive team. By the time I was old enough I was off to boarding school, played my tennis there and never became a real member of the club.

 

Ant hill and wagon

An ant hill and the old German wagon. The wagon was the one which more than 60 years ago carted the ant hill material from Frankie’s hill to resurface the court of the Tent Hill Tennis Club. The ant hill? No, this one was not used. Those on Frankie’s hill were much smaller. This one was on the Atherton Tableland. Must have bigger ants up there.

 

That court doubled as a cricket pitch for my mate Cecil and me. We were both keen schoolboy cricketers . We would often play a two-man cricket match on the court. I would bowl to Cecil until I got him out ten times. While batting he would score runs – one for hitting the fence behind the batting wickets, two for the off-side fence, three for the on-side fence and a four when the ball got through to the back fence. Over the fence was a six BUT also out. When his innings was over he would be the bowler and I the ten batsmen.

The years passed, one tennis season after the next – Saturday fixtures, afternoon teas, farmers’ talk (the weather, price of crops, the weather, so-and-so’s health, the weather). This was a social outing for all concerned but some keen competition as well.

But the era of the country tennis competition gradually began to die. The club eventually was disbanded. Kikuyu grass took over the court and it became a good horse yard. The team of winners I remember, Reg and Alex, Ron and Ronnie, have all passed away. I wonder do their children, or grandchildren or even great-grandchildren know about the time when they were part of the do-it-yourself Tent Hill Tennis Club? They built their own court and their reputations by being hard workers and good country tennis players.

 

Dairy

The old dairy no longer exists. This is a photo I took as I was pulling it down in 2013. How many thing of the past live on only in one’s memory or on old faded photographs?

 

Glen Natalier is also the author of Sunrise in the West (Sid Harta Publishers, 2017), ‘a work of fiction… based on the actual experiences of Franz and Helena Natalier and their family members in Germany who fled their home’ at the end of World War II and their contact with their distant relatives in Australia.

 

Want to read more stories about tennis? You can explore our collection by clicking here.

 

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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Comments

  1. Terrific Glen. Rod Laver had similar memories of ant bed courts in his young days. There was something very communal about the local tennis court. It belonged, like the corner milk bar and the footy ground. Simpler days.

  2. Neil Anderson says

    I was a city-boy but was lucky enough to experience that sort of community tennis during most school holidays. My auntie’s dairy- farm was across the road (The Prince’s Highway) from the type of tennis courts you have described. The courts were at the back of the milk-stand where the milk-cans were collected.
    My Aunt who played competition tennis until she was about seventy used to round up her nieces and nephews laden with those heavy timber-framed rackets and send us over to the court which was always available for use. None of your get the key from someone first and then get the nets out of the shed business in those days.
    Playing tennis with dairy-farming relatives, the thing I remember most and what annoyed me most, was our matches were suddenly halted at 4pm, because It was time to get the cows in for milking.
    Of course it wasn’t all bad if you had a chance to ride the pony or drive the jeep when you were about ten-years old and coming from Footscray.

  3. Michelle Natalier says

    Uncle Glen, thanks so much for writing this. It brought tears to my eyes. I remember Dad talking about those tennis days. I loved seeing the pictures too. So many fond memories.

  4. Thanks Glen. Grand memories and photos. I grew up in country SA in the 60’s/70’s and mainly played cricket, following my dad around. Mum played tennis. Both sports had a harvest break in January, and for some reason the cricket break went a couple of weeks longer.
    I have memories of being a ”fill-in’ and playing doubles with mum on asphalt courts at places that were only a cross-roads where different farms met. No shop or school, jus t a tennis club and courts sustained by a half dozen families. When mum passed a couple of years ago I reflected on how much she loved having her sons in the same team for a couple of weeks. It completed the sporting circle in our family.
    And every opposition farm team (we were ‘townies’) had a bandy legged little bloke with a grey felt hat who never ran but stood and hit cut/slice shots that kept me running. Cunning always beat athleticism.
    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Fascinating story. Thanks, Glen.

  6. Kate Birrell says

    Love the story you tell here, Glen.

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