Story: Tennis

Tennis became popular in New Zealand in the 1870s, with lawn courts established on rural estates and in large city gardens. Women enjoyed the game despite restrictive dress codes, and Māori leaders encouraged Māori to play.

Story by Joseph Romanos
Main image: Grasshoppers, a programme to introduce primary-school students to tennis

Story summary

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Early years

Modern tennis began in England in 1858, evolving from an older game played by royalty and aristocracy. It became popular in New Zealand in the 1870s, mainly among the wealthy. Māori took up tennis. So did women, despite restrictive clothing and social disapproval. Courts were built in large gardens, on country estates and on marae.

Tennis clubs were set up around the country. The first open club tournament was held in 1885, and the first New Zealand championships the year after. The New Zealand Lawn Tennis Association was formed in 1886.

Notable early players included:

  • Kathleen Nunneley, who won the national singles title 13 times in a row
  • Anthony Wilding, who was the world’s number-one player in the early 1910s and was killed in the First World War.

1920s to 1940s

In the 1920s major tennis venues were built in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. A national Māori tennis association was set up in 1926, and there were inter-marae tennis competitions.

At the time New Zealanders had few opportunities to play internationally, except in Australia. However, some players from overseas competed in New Zealand.

The Second World War interrupted competitive tennis.

1950s to 1970s

After the war club memberships increased. A major annual tournament began in Auckland in 1956 and attracted top international players. It continued in the 2000s as the Heineken Open (men) and the ASB Classic (women). In 1968 world tennis went open, meaning amateur and professional players could compete with one another.

Notable players included Ron McKenzie, Ruia Morrison, Brian Fairlie, Onny Parun and Marilyn Pryde.

1980s to 2000s

The early 1980s were a high point for New Zealand tennis.

  • Chris Lewis reached the Wimbledon singles final in 1983, and was ranked 19th in the world.
  • Belinda Cordwell was 17th in the world in 1989.
  • Kelly Evernden was ranked 31st in the world in 1984.

Since then, Marina Erakovic has been the only New Zealand player of real international standing.


In 2011 there were 431 tennis clubs and 39,000 registered players – down from a peak of 61,000 players in 1983.

How to cite this page:

Joseph Romanos, 'Tennis', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 April 2024)

Story by Joseph Romanos, published 5 September 2013