Tennis is a sport in which either two people (singles) or four people (doubles) hit a ball over a net with a strung racket, on a court laid out with white markings. The advent of covered courts meant that in the 2000s tennis was played all year in New Zealand.
Modern tennis began in England in 1858 when an outdoor grass tennis court was laid out in Edgbaston, Warwickshire. It evolved from a centuries-old game played by royalty and the aristocracy on a hard indoor or enclosed court, and called jeu de palme by the French, real tennis by the British and court tennis by Americans. The modern game was known as lawn tennis because of the usual court surface, although some were made of asphalt.
Tennis began to take hold in New Zealand in the 1870s (a period in which the game was undergoing modernisation in England), courtesy of the influx of British immigrants. It was mainly played by wealthy urban and rural people.
The sport was given a boost when the first All-England championships were held in 1877. This tournament, now called Wimbledon after its location, became the most prestigious in the world.
In 1885 a father wrote to the Evening Post newspaper complaining about his daughters’ tennis playing: ‘I have noticed that after a game of lawn tennis my girls appear to be almost exhausted, they perspire profusely, and are susceptible to draught. Their sleep is disturbed … and they have several times been lamed and used-up. I have finally forbidden them to play…. I am not going to have my womenkind laid up with sprained ankles and twisted wrists, strained tendons, and colds in the head.’1 A columnist advised that rational dress free from corsets and high-heeled boots would cure their exhaustion.
In New Zealand, Māori took up the game. So did women, in spite of restrictive dress requirements and social disapproval from some quarters. Over the next two decades tennis grew in popularity, despite less-than-ideal court surfaces and a lack of good equipment (rackets, balls and nets). Courts were established in large gardens in cities and on city fringes, as well as on large estates in rural districts, and at some marae.
Tennis clubs allowed people to play competitively with other members and players from other districts.
The first tennis club in New Zealand was the Parnell Lawn Tennis Club, founded as the Parnell Croquet Club in 1872. Tennis was first played there in 1877. A clutch of clubs followed, including Thorndon (Wellington, 1879), Napier (around 1879), Whanganui (1880), Cromwell (1880), Masterton (1881), Canterbury (1881), Hawke’s Bay (around 1881), Taieri (1884) and Green Island (Dunedin, 1885). The first open club tournament was held in Hawke’s Bay in 1885 and the following year the first New Zealand championships were held.
In December 1886 the New Zealand Lawn Tennis Association was formed at the urging of Hawke’s Bay player John Jardine. Representatives from the Auckland, Hawke’s Bay and Thorndon clubs met and formed a national association, inviting Otago and Canterbury to join as well. The national association was based in Hawke’s Bay for two years, before moving to Wellington. Provincial associations were also established.
The first great New Zealand player was Kathleen Nunneley, who emigrated from England in 1894, aged 22. In England Nunneley had been regarded as an outstanding young player, and she was a class apart in New Zealand. She played at the Thorndon club in Wellington, as did her contemporary Harry Parker, a six-times national men’s champion.
Nunneley won the national singles title 13 times in succession between 1895 and 1907, and won 32 national senior titles in all. There were some other good women players in New Zealand, particularly Lucy Powdrell of Taranaki, but Nunneley was far better, and outplayed the Australians on the rare occasions there was an international contest.
Anthony Wilding remains New Zealand’s most internationally successful player. Born into a sporting family in Ōpawa, Christchurch, in 1883, Wilding won his first Canterbury title when he was 17. He was also a good cricketer who rose to first-class status. But after he moved to England to study law at Cambridge University in 1903, tennis was his game.
Anthony Wilding was popular, dashing and handsome, and was described by his first biographer as tennis’s first matinée idol. Women were said to swoon at the sight of his ‘manly brand of tennis’.2 Wilding was renowned for his attention to physical fitness, something that was inculcated in him by his parents and distinguished him from other players, particularly the British. Wilding Park in Christchurch (which became the city’s premier tennis ground) was named after Wilding’s father, Frederick, but was linked with Anthony in the public imagination.
Wilding won the Wimbledon singles title from 1910 to 1913, the doubles title in 1907, 1908, 1910 and 1914, and the Davis Cup (a competition for international men’s teams) as part of the Australasian team from 1907 to 1909 and in 1914. Largely because of Wilding, New Zealand hosted Davis Cup ties in 1911 and 1920. Wilding also won the bronze medal at the Stockholm Olympic Games in 1912 and innumerable other titles, mainly in England and Europe. He was clearly the world’s number-one player at the time.
Wilding’s career was cut short at its peak, when he was killed on the battlefield in France in 1915, during the First World War.
Since the 1920s the national men’s and women’s teams events have competed for the Wilding Shield and the Nunneley Casket.
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.
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
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.
After the Second World War, club memberships grew and tournaments resumed.
A new invitation tournament was held in Auckland in 1956. An annual event, it grew in importance and attracted major international players. The tournament – called the Auckland Glass invitation, the Wills tournament, the Benson and Hedges Open and finally the Heineken Open (men’s) and ASB Classic (women’s) – grew into one of New Zealand’s major summer sporting events.
Ron McKenzie managed to overcome the lack of tennis during the war to compile an impressive record over his competitive career. Perhaps his best result was in the Wills tournament in 1960 when he beat top Australian player Rod Laver, at the age of 38. After McKenzie, Jeff Robson and John Barry were the best-performing male players in the 1950s.
Ruia Morrison was the most talented female player and was a class ahead of other leading local players Judy Burke and Sonya Cox. Morrison was the first New Zealand woman to play at Wimbledon and reached the last 16 in 1957. She won 13 national (including six singles) titles.
Lew Gerrard emerged in the late 1950s and won the national singles title five times in succession. He had some international success, including winning one British hardcourt title. Gerrard, Ian Crookenden and Jeff Robson were Davis Cup stalwarts in the early 1960s.
In 1966 sports reporter and tennis administrator Ian Wells heard that American film star Charlton Heston was coming to New Zealand. Following the example of celebrity tennis matches on streets in South Africa, he arranged for Heston to play with John Souter against Peter Snell and Robert Clarke on Mercer Street in central Wellington. Two games were played, each side winning one. About 10,000 people watched, some perching on walls and window ledges.
In 1968 world tennis went open – amateur and professional players could now take part in the same tournaments, something which had previously been banned. The Benson and Hedges Open of 1969 in Auckland was one of the earliest international open tournaments.
Two outstanding young New Zealand players, Brian Fairlie and Onny Parun, emerged as tennis went open. Fairlie was initially considered the more talented, and enjoyed many victories during his career, in singles and doubles. However, Parun ended up with the better record.
Parun reached at least the singles quarter-finals of all four Grand-Slam events (the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open). In 1973 he reached the final of the Australian Open, where he lost in four sets to John Newcombe. He won the French Open doubles in 1974.
In 1974 there was a New Zealand version of the famous 1973 ‘battle of the sexes’ tennis match between American tennis players Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Ben O’Connor claimed that he could beat any woman player in New Zealand despite his advanced years. Marilyn Pryde took up the challenge and the two met on the court at Wellington’s Central Park. Then National Party opposition leader Robert Muldoon umpired the match, which Pryde won. The first prize was a La-Z-Boy reclining armchair and the consolation prize a cookbook. Pryde believed that this showed the organisers expected O’Connor to win.
Parun also compiled a remarkable record at home. Not only did he win the Benson and Hedges title three times, but he repeatedly returned from overseas to play in the national singles championship, winning six times. He played in 25 Davis Cup ties between 1967 and 1982.
Parun and Fairlie were New Zealand’s leading players in 1974, when New Zealand began hosting Davis Cup ties at home. They were responsible for some impressive victories, the most notable being the 1975 and 1978 wins over India.
The women’s game expanded internationally with the introduction of the Federation Cup (later the Fed Cup) teams event in 1963. New Zealand’s leading player in the late 1960s and early 1970s was Marilyn Pryde, who won her first senior national title when she was just 15. She was followed by several other competent players, including Judy Connor, Linda Stewart, Christine Newton and Brenda Perry (later a leading Women’s Tennis Association administrator), but they were not good enough to be a serious factor in the Federation Cup.
Perhaps the high point for New Zealand tennis – certainly since the days of Anthony Wilding in the early 1900s – occurred in the early 1980s. In the Davis Cup, Chris Lewis – who had foreshadowed future greatness by winning Junior Wimbledon in 1975 – and Russell Simpson formed a strong combination. In 1982 they took New Zealand all the way to the Davis Cup World Group semi-finals, where they were beaten just 3–2 by France.
In 1985 Chris Lewis was the last New Zealand player to win the Benson and Hedges Open. New Zealand has been absent from the tournament roll of champions since then, except in 1996 when Brett Steven was the runner-up. New Zealanders appeared on the roll more frequently in the 1970s and early 1980s. No New Zealand women have won the ASB Classic – Belinda Cordwell was runner-up in 1989. International players treat these tournaments as a warm-up for the Australian Open, which partly explains why New Zealanders no longer get a look-in. However, this also reflects New Zealand’s modest standing in the tennis world.
Lewis, unseeded (unranked for the tournament), and ranked 91st in the world, stunned tennis followers in 1983 when he reached the Wimbledon singles final. His 8–6 win in the fifth set over 12th seed Kevin Curren in the semi-final was a cliff-hanger that kept New Zealand tennis fans up all night watching on television. In the final, Lewis was outplayed by John McEnroe, but his effort was still remarkable. He won the Sportsman of the Year award and his world ranking rose to a career high of 19.
Russell Simpson never reached Lewis’s heights, but was a good professional player. Soon after, two more notable players emerged, Kelly Evernden and Brett Steven. They carried New Zealand’s Davis Cup efforts into the 1990s, but after their departure New Zealand men’s tennis declined rapidly. New Zealand became ensconced in the lower tiers of the Davis Cup, a far cry from the heyday of the 1980s.
Belinda Cordwell emerged in the mid-1980s as New Zealand’s best woman player. She scored several notable wins at Fed Cup level and most notably in the Australian Open, where she reached the semi-finals in 1989. Her highest world ranking was 17. Julie Richardson and Claudine Toleafoa were two other near-contemporaries of Cordwell who achieved well, Richardson more in doubles than singles.
The women’s field in the Benson and Hedges Open was discontinued in 1981, but a new women’s tournament (now the ASB Classic) started in 1985.
Since Chris Lewis, Belinda Cordwell and Kelly Evernden, the only New Zealand player of real international standing has been Marina Erakovic, who was coached in Auckland for some years by Lewis. Erakovic was a junior doubles winner at the 2004 US and 2005 Australian opens and a junior doubles runner-up at Wimbledon in those years. She was ranked inside the top 50 in July 2008, but fell to 324 at the end of the 2010 season due to injury. Erakovic recovered form in 2011 and was ranked 39 in May 2012.
The national association (called Tennis New Zealand in the 2000s) tried various methods of developing players. It sent junior teams overseas, set up a national coaching school in Auckland and encouraged some players to gain scholarships at American universities. No method was especially successful. Several competent players were produced, including Leanne Baker, Sacha Jones, James Greenhalgh and Steven Downs (Junior Wimbledon and French Open doubles winners in 1993), but they were unable to break into the top levels of world rankings.
In the years after the Second World War, tennis grew in popularity and lost some of its elitist associations. As a result of membership drives by the New Zealand Lawn Tennis Association and tennis clubs, membership numbers rose. By the end of the 1960s there were over 47,000 registered tennis players.
Under the administration of the association’s chairman, Ian Wells, the number of registered players reached a peak of 61,000 in 1983. However, membership numbers dropped from this point. In 2011 there were 39,000 registered players.
The Post and Telegraph building (now apartments) on Wellington’s waterfront was built in 1939, complete with two tennis courts on the roof for staff. The courts were relatively short-lived though – they were removed when an extra storey was added in 1943.
According to the 2007/08 Active New Zealand Survey, 9.3% of New Zealand adults (304,000 people) played tennis at least once in a 12-month period. Compared with registered player figures, this showed that most people played recreationally and did not belong to clubs.
New Zealand’s major tennis facilities were upgraded in the 1980s. Wilding Park in Christchurch, Stanley Street (now the ASB Centre) in Auckland and Central Park (now the Renouf Centre) in Wellington were all substantially modernised. Wellington had hosted major international events alongside Auckland, but as New Zealand’s standing in the tennis world declined, sponsorship became harder to find and these events were discontinued.
In 2011 there were 431 tennis clubs in New Zealand.
Aotearoa Māori Tennis Association. A history of Māori tennis: He hītori o te tēnehi Māori. Manukau: Aotearoa Māori Tennis Association, 2006.
Elenio, Paul. Centrecourt: a century of New Zealand tennis, 1886–1986. Wellington: New Zealand Lawn Tennis Association, 1986.
Romanos, Joseph. Chris Lewis: all the way to Wimbledon. Auckland: Rugby Press, 1984.