SI Vault
 
THE GREAT GAME OF TENNIS
Robert Gordon Menzies
August 29, 1955
The Prime Minister of Australia, in a mood both reminiscent and prophetic, talks about his country's national love and its lessons in sportsmanship
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 29, 1955

The Great Game Of Tennis

The Prime Minister of Australia, in a mood both reminiscent and prophetic, talks about his country's national love and its lessons in sportsmanship

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Lawn tennis, as games go, is a new game. It was not so many years ago that it was a polite garden-party accomplishment. I can, myself, remember the jeering remarks of the "working" youth as white-flanneled players went by. Yet today, on thousands of public and municipal courts, no other than the "working" youth is hard at it. The game of the privileged few, in less than half a century, has become the game of the many. This reflects in part a marked rise in the standards of living, but it also shows the vast attraction of the game.

A few nights ago I was astonished to hear Sir Norman Brookes, in a reminiscent mood, recall that when he first played as a boy the tennis ball had no cover as we know it today. We can say, therefore, that the development of today's game, and the implements used in it, spans the lifetime of one man.

LONG SKIRTS AND UNDERARM

I am a much younger man than Norman Brookes, having been born in 1894. Yet I can remember, as if it were yesterday, how some ruling woman champions served underarm, wearing skirts down to the ground, playing a steady baseline game, never venturing to the net. The first woman to go up to volley and to smash was regarded as a miracle or a monstrosity, according to the point of view.

In Australia the popularity of tennis is enormous. It is actively played by hundreds of thousands of people, and (such are our fortunate conditions) from one year's end to another. Australia's eminence in the game surprises many people. "How does it happen," they say, "that a country which has only just reached a population of 9,000,000 can so consistently have produced teams which, over a long period of years, have been outmatched in success only by the United States?"

The answer is simple enough. Australia, for tennis purposes, is one large California. The varying climates of the six states have this in common: They favor outdoor sport and outdoor living. Material standards of life are high; leisure is abundant. Good food and fresh air are the common lot. Most dwelling houses stand in their own grounds and gardens. For all these reasons, our inbred love of sport finds opportunity and expression. Even the most hardened theoretical socialist finds in games a satisfaction for his natural zest for private enterprise and individual initiative. I know that people have been heard to say reproachfully that Australians are too fond of sport. If this meant that we were a nation of mere onlookers at professional sporting spectacles, the criticism would be powerful. But the truth is that we are a nation of games-players who look at others only on occasions. There are, in Australia, 250,000 registered competitive players, plus at least 500,000 who play nonofficial tennis in a purely private way. Behind all the traditional informality and indiscipline with which we are credited, you will find the fitness, the resourcefulness and the competitive spirit which have made the Australian soldier world famous in war and which, in peace, have wrought a national development and construction which have earned the praise of so many perceptive visitors.

Thus it is that tennis has taken its place among the great popular games in Australia and has become one of the influences which form the national characteristics.

Yet one of the fascinating things to witness is how the popularity of a game can affect the game itself, and the position of its leading players. When a game becomes so popular as a spectacle for thousands or scores of thousands, the game becomes big business. To the public or private provision of thousands of tennis courts there is added (I emphasize added, because the active playing of the game continues to expand) the large-scale and costly provision of spectator accommodations, the intensive organization of competitions, the handling of interstate and international tours.

All this has meant an inevitable change in the activities and nature of the leading amateur players. The old amateurism has been replaced by the new, and we have seen the rise of professional play.

There were great advantages in the old amateur days. I will not dwell on them too long, for there is no more weakening emotion than yearning for the "good old days." The times change and we must change with them. But I will briefly state what I believe those advantages to have been and will then examine more closely what I believe to be the reasons why the old amateurism at the top level has passed away.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4