A History of Australian Tennis

From the 19th century until today.

Tennis Australia Origins by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

A popular beginning

People often pinpoint the establishment of the Lawn Tennis Association of Australasia (LTAA) in 1904 and the inaugural Australasian Championships as the origins of the sport in this nation. But lawn tennis was in fact already well-entrenched in the Australian sporting landscape by then. The popularity of lawn tennis, invented by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield in 1873, rapidly outstripped that of royal tennis in England, and that in turn influenced the rise of the game in the colonies. Having commenced as a popular backyard pastime at homes around Australia in the mid-1870s, the sport began the move away from private courts in 1878 when the first Victorian club tennis court was built by the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC). Devotees flocked to the asphalt surface, delighted at the opportunity to socialise around their favourite sport. The MCC laid a grass court in 1879 and a second asphalt court in 1883 to help cater to the multitude of passionate local tennis fans. In 1890, the MCC’s asphalt court played host to the first championship of the colony of Victoria. The steady growth of the game led to clubs springing up around Victoria and throughout Australia, tennis players engaging keenly in premiership (pennant) and interstate competitions from 1884. The sport quickly outgrew the MCC as the home of championship tennis in Victoria, the MCG unable to cater to the demand for courts or spectator facilities. The headquarters of tennis shifted to the Warehouseman’s Cricket Ground (today known as Albert Reserve) from 1890 onwards; the 2000 spectators who attended the inter-colonial singles tournament there in 1891 justified the move. Management of tennis in the colony was formalised in 1892 with the establishment of the Lawn Tennis Association of Victoria (LTAV). While representing Victoria’s interests, organising inter-colonial matches and maintaining tennis’ headquarters at the Warehouseman’s Ground, the bulk of the LTAV’s time was devoted to managing inter-club competitions and the huge fan following they garnered. The following was in no small part due to the rivalry between South Yarra club’s Norman Brookes and Alf Dunlop, a New Zealander representing the MCC. 

Norman Brookes by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

A founding father

The drama that played out between Dunlop and Brookes, two years his junior, captured the imagination of Australian tennis fans. Dunlop was a free-swinging player as effective at the net as he was from the baseline. His killer cross-court shots earned him fame as the best service returner in Australia – that is, until Brookes came along.As dour on court as his strokes were flamboyant, Brookes took the tennis of the era to another level after his debut for South Yarra in 1896. His perplexing serve, imparted with a dizzying array of spins and slices, and the paralysing return, soon earned him the nickname ‘The Wizard’. Victorian fans watched fascinated as Brookes’ rapidly developing talents eclipsed those of his older, more experienced rival, Dunlop. Exciting pennant battles between the duo were regularly played out in front of 1000 fans. As Brookes’ star power grew, so too did his influence on Australian tennis. He was keen to contest the Davis Cup – the international team competition established between the USA and the British Isles in 1900 – and in order to do so, had to represent a recognised national tennis association. The Lawn Tennis Association of Australasia was duly formed in 1904. 

Norman Brookes Hall of Fame by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

The inaugural Australasian Championship 

While Brookes won the Australasian Championship just once, his interest in Davis Cup – and his heroic partnership with New Zealander Anthony Wilding in that competition – arguably led to the establishment of the Australian Open. Ironically, neither man competed in the first staging of the event that began on Saturday 18 November 1905, both remaining in Britain following the first Davis Cup campaign of July that year. Prevailing against an all-Australian eight-man field, 17-year-old Rodney Heath was crowned the inaugural champion. Heath defeated Dr Anthony Curtis in a four-set final; while Victorians Tom Tachell and Randolph Lycett triumphed in the first doubles event.  Brookes, meanwhile, flourished on an international stage. In 1907, the Melburnian became the first non-British player and first left-hander to win the Wimbledon gentleman’s singles title. He also led Australasia to five Davis Cup titles between 1907 and 1919. Those feats, combined with the establishment of the Australasian Lawn Tennis Association (for which Brookes would later become president) and the national championships that showcased the sport to many fans, were a key to establishing tennis domestically. 

Norman Brookes Forehand by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

Enduring love 

With a commitment to the Davis Cup and Wimbledon limiting Brookes to just one Australasian Championships title in 1911, distance also impacted the tournament in other ways; air travel was still some decades off, so few international players contested the event in those early years. American Fred Alexander become the first non-Australasian to win the title in 1908. By then, the LTAA was scheduling the event to coincide with visits by international tennis teams, generally on tour for Davis Cup. As 1914 concluded, several sporting commentators noted that lawn tennis in Australasia was more actively pursued than ever. Inspired by heroes in the region, clubs sprang up in the most remote locations and amateur tournaments attracted many entries. While the Australasian Championships was abandoned due to World War One from 1916-1918, the region’s love affair with the sport endured when play resumed. As it became clear that tennis in Victoria had outgrown the Warehouseman’s Cricket Ground, the search for a new home began. In February 1920, the LTAV purchased 17 and a half acres of land on Glenferrie Road for 175 pounds, which eventually became the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club. 

Kooyong Centre Court (1957)Melbourne & Olympic Parks

Major move 

In late 1922, a meeting of the LTAA council would shape the Australian Open as we currently know it: a seeding system was introduced to protect higher-ranked players and most significant of all, women’s singles and doubles, mixed doubles and junior boys’ events were introduced. There was also longer-term planning – from 1924 onwards, the tournament would alternate between Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide in January each year. In 1923, all of those factors combined to influence the International Lawn Tennis Federation’s (ITLF) decision to “recognise the Australasian Championships on the same footing as those of the United States, England and France”. It was therefore recognised as a major tournament. 

Daphne Akhurst by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

Leading lights 

As the depth of Australian male and female players steadily grew in the post-World War One era, one in particular stood out. Daphne Akhurst became a leading light of the women’s game, winning five Australian titles between 1925 and 1930. Universally adored for the natural humility that existed alongside her stunning ability, the Sydney-born Akhurst tragically died after an ectopic pregnancy at age 29 in 1933. Since 1934, winners of the women’s singles title have been presented with the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup. Other women who thrived in this period included Esna Boyd – runner-up in the national event each year from 1922 and 1926 before at last triumphing in 1927 – and Joan Hartigan. Nancye Wynne Bolton claimed the first of six titles in 1937. 

Jack Crawford by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

Boosting popularity 

While the Great Depression took hold throughout the world, the feats of players including Jack Crawford, Harry Hopman, Vivian McGrath and rising stars Adrian Quist and Nancye Wynne Bolton helped ward off any slump in the sport’s popularity. With his dapper dress, elegant court coverage and spectacular shot-making, the widely-adored Crawford, who claimed four Australian titles, is credited with inspiring generations of tennis stylists; Hopman was regarded as one of the game’s greatest tacticians, while three-time Australian Championships winner Adrian Quist – the only man to win a tennis major before and after World War Two – was known for his textbook strokes. 

Frank Sedgman by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

The Golden Age 

Signifying the success-breeds-success mentality that has long shaped Australian tennis, athletic right-hander Frank Sedgman was Harry Hopman’s first coaching protégé. Winning back-to-back Australian titles in 1949 and 1950, the popular Victorian also led Australia to three Davis Cup titles and was widely considered to be the first champion of the nation’s “Golden Age”. Champions in this period included Ken Rosewall (who remains both the youngest and oldest winner of the Australian title, after triumphing at age 18 in 1953 and at 37 in 1972), all-time great Rod Laver and Roy Emerson, who won six Australian titles (five of them consecutively from 1963). As Lew Hoad, Neale Fraser, Tony Roche, Ashley Cooper, Ken McGregor, Mervyn Rose and John Newcombe also rose to prominence, Australian men claimed 62 out of 121 Grand Slam titles on offer between 1950 and 1979. Australian women also thrived in a memorable period – Thelma Long, Margaret Court, Lesley Turner, Kerry Melville and Evonne Goolagong Cawley each claimed Grand Slam titles and achieved history for their nation, Australia winning seven Fed Cup titles between 1963 (the first year the Fed Cup was contested) and 1974. 

Rod Laver by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

Turning points 

There was a sense of what might-have-been as many of those Australian stars, struggling to make their sport profitable, turned to professional tours. Paid by international promotors, they were subsequently denied entry into Grand Slams, as well as Davis and Fed Cup. Laver arguably best highlighted the impact of that difficult period, having turned professional after winning his first calendar-year Grand Slam and featuring in a Davis Cup title for Australia in 1962. The dazzling left-hander was subsequently ineligible for the next 21 Grand Slams. Following the birth of Open era tennis at the 1968 French Open, Laver lifted five further major trophies – and while that included his second calendar-year Grand Slam in 1969 (a feat that no man has replicated in the 50 years following), many believe his 11 major titles in total could have been many more. 

Mark of a Champion - Rod Laver - 2014 Australian Open (2014) by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

Margaret Court by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

Inspirational women 

The powerful and athletic Margaret Court also inspired with her unrivalled achievements in the sport. One of just three players in history to complete a “Grand Slam boxed set” – winning every major title in singles, doubles and mixed doubles – she claimed 64 majors in total. In 1970, Court become the first woman of the Open Era (and only the second in history until then) to win a calendar-year Grand Slam. Her 24 major singles titles across the amateur and professional eras is a milestone that remains unmatched. Evonne Goolagong Cawley would also forge a special place in the hearts of tennis fans. Renowned for her grace, ethereal touch and speed around the court, the beloved “Gong” claimed seven Grand Slam titles from 18 finals between 1974 and 1980. She climbed to world No.1 in 1976.Several Australian women would influence tennis in other powerful ways: Judy Dalton, (runner-up to Billie Jean King at Wimbledon in 1968) and Kerry Reid (the Australian Open women’s champion in 1977) were each members of the “Original 9” players who, led by King, broke away from the tennis establishment to form their own tour. In protest of the inequality on prize money and support compared to their male counterparts, this brave move paved the way for the formation of the WTA Tour. 

Melbourne Park Australian Open (2008)Melbourne & Olympic Parks

A place to call home 

Since its inaugural tournament in 1905, the Australian Open has had more than a dozen homes including Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and even twice in New Zealand (Christchurch in 1906 and Hastings in 1912). In 1972, the nomadic tournament found a permanent place to call home at Kooyong. Accompanied by a $100,000 facilitiy upgrade, it also marked the event’s first move towards commercialisation. The following year, professional promotions company Tennis Camps of Australia (TCA) was appointed and cigarette company Malboro became a naming rights sponsor in 1974 – a move that was described at the time as “groundbreaking”. Still, the Australian Open was in many ways considered a poor cousin and in danger of losing its Grand Slam status. For a time, the men’s and women’s events were even split and played as separate tournaments. The revitalisation of the Australian began with the Victorian Government announcement that a purpose-built tennis complex would be built on the edge of Melbourne’s CBD. The final Australian Open played on grass at Kooyong in 1987 attracted a record 140,000 spectators, but that numbers pales in comparison to today’s massive crowd numbers. The first Australian Open at then Flinders (now Melbourne) Park was considered a huge success with its 244,859 attendance. Highlighting how significantly Australia’s premiere sporting event has grown since then, the 2019 tournament attracted a record 796,435 spectators. 

Lleyton Hewitt by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

On top of the world 

While Mark Edmondson (in 1976) and Chris O’Neill (in 1978) remain the last local players to lift an Australian Open singles trophy, their compatriots have thrived at other Grand Slams. Pat Rafter is a two-time winner of the US Open (in 1997 and 1998) and was twice a runner-up at Wimbledon. Lleyton Hewitt won the 2001 US Open and 2002 Wimbledon, while Sam Stosur won the US Open women’s title in 2011. Most recently, Ash Barty triumphed at the French Open in 2019. Renowned for their camaraderie, Australia also boast some of the world’s most memorable doubles partnerships: Peter McNamara and Paul McNamee were dubbed the “Supermacs” as a team that collected the 1979 Australian Open, as well as 1980 and 1982 Wimbledon men’s doubles titles. Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde rose to even greater prominence as they collected 11 Grand Slams – including the 2000 French Open, which made it a major sweep – and Olympic gold and silver medals together. Australian players have also featured prominently in rankings since their inception (in 1973 for men and 1975 for women) five Australian players have ranked world No.1: John Newcombe (in 1974), Rafter (1999), Hewitt (2001), Goolagong Cawley (1976) and Barty (2019).

The Making Of The Norman Brookes Challenge Cup by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

New Look Australian Open (2008)Melbourne & Olympic Parks

Timeline of Australian tennis 

1870s - having first been established in Britain in 1873, lawn tennis becomes a popular backyard past-time in Australia. | 1878 – the first Victorian club tennis court (on asphalt) is built by the Melbourne Cricket Club at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  | 1880 – the MCC hosts the inaugural championship in the colony of Victoria. | 1890 – the headquarters of tennis moves from the MCG to the Warehouseman’s Cricket Ground (now known as Albert Reserve). | 1892 – the Lawn Tennis Association of Victoria (LTAV) is established. | 1904 – the Australasian Lawn Tennis Association is established. It is later known as the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia. | 1905 – the inaugural Australasian Championships is played. | 1907 – Australasia (Australia & New Zealand) wins the Davis Cup for the first time. | 1920 – the LTAV purchase 17 and a half acres of land on Glenferrie Road for 175 pounds, which becomes the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club. | 1922 – women’s singles and doubles, mixed doubles and junior boys’ events are introduced at the Australasian Championships. | 1926 – the LTAA relocates from Sydney to Melbourne; Norman Brookes is appointed president (a position he holds until 1955). | 1927 – the opening of a horseshoe-shaped concrete stadium at Kooyong makes it the most sophisticated tennis facility in the nation. | 1927 – the Australasian Championships officially becomes the Australian Championships, with New Zealand no longer having an organisational involvement. | 1939 – no longer the “Australasian” team, Australia defeats USA to win the Davis Cup title. | 1962 – Rod Laver wins the first of two calendar-year Grand Slams. He subsequently turns professional, making him ineligible for the next 21 Grand Slam events. | 1964 – Australia wins the first of seven Fed Cup titles. | 1968 – the Open era commences, changing the course of history for many Australian stars. | 1969 – Laver wins his second calendar-year Grand Slam; a feat that no man has replicated in 50 years since. | 1970 – Margaret Court wins a calendar-year Grand Slam, becoming the first woman in the Open era to do so. | 1972 – Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club becomes the permanent home of the Australian Open. | 1985 – Victorian Government determines a purpose-built tennis complex will be built on the edge of Melbourne’s CBD. | 1988 – Flinders Park hosts its first Australian Open. A record 244,859 fans attend. | 1996 – Melbourne Park becomes the new name for the previously known Flinders Park. | 2003 – Australia wins the most recent of 28 Davis Cup titles, defeating Spain in a Melbourne Park final. | 2008 – Courts change at Melbourne Park to the “true blue” surface now adopted by many clubs and tennis centres throughout Australia. | 2019 – Australian Open 2019 attracts a record 796,435 spectators.

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Select imagery courtesy of Melbourne & Olympic Parks.

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