I grew up in a small country town in the middle of the Wimmera in the 1970’s. It was a great place to grow up and us kids had all we could ask for. One of those things was tennis.
My earliest memories of it was watching it on TV in summer. Newk was King, Evonne Queen and they reigned supreme for what seemed like years. Both wielded those (now ridiculously small), wooden racquets with effortless power and grace, displaying athleticism and guile in spades.
Whilst they were on the top of their game, we were on the bottom of ours; being introduced to the finer points of tennis through organised coaching at primary school. Each week for what seemed like months our class would be put through our paces by the aptly named Mr Fox, a wily old coach from the big smoke of Horsham.
Mr Fox was a real pedant and we regularly had to do 100 ball tosses in a row, which for a young kid keen to wield his ‘John Newcombe’ junior Slazenger racquet, was anathema to fun. He was a stickler for a strong backhand too and I’m sure in the decades to come he would’ve turned in his grave at the subsequent popularity of the double handed version.
Mr Fox’s methods seemed to work and soon there was a bunch of us following our mums or dads to tennis on Saturday arvo’s and having a hit. Like many towns back then the local comp was an institution and ours was no exception. Each week there’d be keenly fought men’s, women’s and mixed games and we’d watch on avidly. When play stopped for afternoon tea or after the last set we’d race on and play bare footed on the beautiful warm grass. The sensory impact of this so strong I can still instantly feel it.
Watching on must have had an impact on our skills too, as soon enough when the adults were short we’d be called up to fill in. This was equal parts daunting and exciting, particularly facing the pace of their serves - even despite them going a bit easy. It was a win-win though; they were happy to have a fourth player to have a game and we were stoked to be out there.
If that was exciting, then the club’s annual Easter competition was beyond comprehension; to us kids it was the town’s very own Australian Open. What seemed like hundreds of people descended on our courts for the long weekend and battled away under the warm Wimmera sun. To a group of wide eyed youngsters seeing close up what some of these players could do was nothing short of amazing.
Of course in the mid ‘70’s it seemed every kid in Australia had a racquet, every town some courts and every TV just one Channel, (7, to watch the Open and get Neale Fraser’s armchair view of the Davis Cup). Australia was still a tennis superpower and the game’s popularity at this time could in some part at least be attributed to three decades of sustained international success.
This was the era immediately before monster sized racquets rendered many player’s games obsolete; when they still wore white, emitted no audible obscenities and behaved in a sportsmanlike manner, (save for the odd Jimmy Connors outburst). Whilst us youngsters were about to have our gaze averted by three decades of sustained international failure no one had an inkling of this and our local stars were still who we aspired to be.
Beyond the King and Queen there was a cavalcade of Aussies to look up to: JA the dashing Sydney sider probably shaded the rest, there was Phil Dent, Mark Edmondson, Kim Warwick, Case and Masters the doubles specialists and John Marks, the hitherto unknown Australian Open runner up in 1978. On the women’s side Kerry Reid, Wendy Turnbull, Di Fromholtz and Helen Gourlay were names in households.
Back then all manner of game styles could still prevail and there were some epic encounters. Among them our very own Mark ‘Edo’ Edmondson beat Newk, the hot favourite in the ‘76 Aus Open in 4 sets in 40 degree heat and Vitas Geruliatis took 5 to beat severe cramps and Chrissie Evert’s boyfriend, (John Lloyd) in ’77.
‘Edo’s win in ’76 in many respects was the end of Australia’s golden run; apart from one more Davis Cup win the following year our metaphorical trophy cabinet lay bare for many years. At the time we didn’t think much about it, in fact such was the level of veneration us kids had for the new internationals that no sooner had Vitas thrown off his head-band in ’77 than we were pulling on ours!
And when his powers waned we kept the head gear and reverted to being Bjorn Borg. Around the country other kids did exactly the same. It seemed the game was in great shape.
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact time or date that the gradual decline of the game occurred here, but looking back it seems the early ‘80’s may have been the start. It’s fair to say the changes were almost imperceptible for some time; certainly they weren’t evident each Saturday in and around the local competition I played in, nor courtside at Kooyong where the thrill of being so close to the stars at the Australian Open that you could ask Edo how he was going to perform was the highlight of your year.
But looking back there were little signs. Such was the dearth of our success that when time came to purchase my own super-sized racquet the best I could do was an Emrik 2000, a model made in Australia but devoid of an Australian player’s endorsement.
Doubles was our only real glimmer of hope during this fallow period and The Super Macs and then the Woodies were the best we could bang on about, but no manufacturer was a doing a line in double endorsed racquets. And of his contemporaries only Pat Cash Junior, as he was briefly known, became star-worthy enough to endorse a racquet.
Perhaps equally tellingly, at our high school there was no formal coaching program, the courts had no nets and interschool sport in summer involved cricket not tennis. Where once it had been accessible to all, tennis was becoming a sport for weekends via clubs and weekdays via wealthy schools. Further exacerbating this was the sport’s perennial weekend problem; competing with cricket. Like many I juggled the two for several years before choosing cricket.
In the following decade, the ‘90’s, it was as if the country’s tennis court owning brethren had given up in despair, as the number of small community and church courts that were left to fall into disrepair became increasingly noticeable. Keeping up with the Joneses might have had something to do with it, as the newfangled surfaces cost far more than oldfangled asphalt.
By the late ‘90’s even the small local club I’d competed for in the previous decade had shut up shop and left its courts to rack and ruin. And we weren’t the only ones. By the time Pat Cash hung up his own head-band in 1997 even his fellow Channel 7 commentator, JA was beginning to notice the slow death of his beloved game, estimating a few years back a loss of 2000+ courts in Sydney alone in the decade or so that followed.
Having drifted away from the game over this period myself I recently reconnected with it and have been pleasantly surprised. My kids do lessons each week at the moment and whilst there’s room for improvement on each of their ball tossing and backhands they all enjoy playing and the governing body seems to be imparting wisdom well. And this year we went to the Open too and whilst there was enough local talent on display to be encouraged, I’m just not quite sure Tomic, Kyrgios or even Kokkinakas are ready for a racquet endorsement deal just yet.