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.
‘Should ladies play lawn tennis?’
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.