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.
Celebrity street tennis
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.
Brian Fairlie and Onny Parun
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.
Battle of the sexes
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.