Major new tennis venues were built in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch in the 1920s. Comprising both grass and hard courts, they were used for national championships and international matches, as well as for local games.
Symbolism of tennis
Politician Apirana Ngata saw great leadership qualities and hope for the future in Māori tennis players. He said that during the 1926 championships he saw the finest members of the Māori community in one place, and that their tennis prowess, vigour and optimism boded well for Māori.
The New Zealand Māori Lawn Tennis Association (now the Aotearoa Māori Tennis Association) was founded by Apirana Ngata and other prominent Māori leaders, including Taipōrutu Mitchell and Pei Te Hurinui Jones, in 1926. Inter-marae tennis competitions had started in the early 1900s and were later extended to inter-rohe (tribal area) events. The Whanganui-based Marumaru Cup (first played in 1907) was the forerunner of the present-day national Māori Tennis Championships.
Until the late 1920s there was little effort to develop the skills of young competitive players. They played alongside adults at clubs, though there were also school-based competitions. The first national junior (under-20) tennis championships were held in Wellington in 1929, and junior teams were sent to Australia in the 1930s.
New Zealand separated from Australia and entered the Davis Cup under its own banner in 1924. Because of the high costs involved, New Zealand only played eight times (and not particularly successfully) between 1924 and 1954. This meant that New Zealanders had few opportunities to play internationally (except in Australia), unless they were based overseas.
There were some good male players in this period, including Geoff Ollivier (New Zealand’s first fully professional player), Buster Andrews, Cam Malfroy and Dennis Coombe. However, most of them settled in England. The women’s game was dominated by Dulcie Nicholls of Petone and Margaret Beverley of Waikato.
Tennis’s growth was assisted by a stream of leading international players who competed in New Zealand, such as Bill Tilden and Fred Perry. These public matches were welcome money-earners for the New Zealand Lawn Tennis Association.
Tennis balls were hard to come by during the 1930s economic depression and the Second World War. During the war, according to Stella Scoullar of the Wanganui Tennis Club, balls ‘were almost unprocurable. When seams frayed they were sewn up at home and brought back for use. When they became too dark with grass stains we washed them and roughed them up on the mat outside the men’s room. The mat became quite bald with the constant friction.’1
Second World War
The Second World War interrupted competitive tennis along with all other aspects of life. The annual national championships were played in 1940 but not again until 1946. The war hampered the competitive careers of top New Zealand players such as Stan Painter because regular tournaments ceased when they were in their prime. Club membership also declined because some members served in the armed forces.