The preparation before a tennis tournament, is something. The focus, the pressure, the equipment, the surface… it all had to be just right.
Davis Cup, Wimbledon…? It could easily have been- but no. I’m talking a Sunday tennis tournament on our farm at Lichfield as I was growing up.
It struck me recently when I was explaining to someone where I grew up…
“Just south of Lichfield, on Highway 1… just after the Wiltsdown turn-off… hang on a minute I’ll show you”
Excitedly dialling up Google Maps to show in almost real time, to my now glazed eyed audience of one, the house and farm where I spent my formative years.
“Here’s the front boundary and here’s the house… and… what the hell!!”
It wasn’t the fence lines criss-crossing almost every paddock boundary, replete with cypress and Lombardy poplars that were resplendent each autumn in rich green interspersed with vibrant gold – all torn out! Nor the front garden of the house with the trees I used to spend most waking moments in – gone! Nor the white weatherboard home that my mother and father so lovingly tended – covered in some ghastly faux-stone cladding… OMG!
The real kicker was the tennis court – or more to the point the outline of where the tennis court was… now covered in shrubs and trees and gardens. I find it difficult to utter the words… my father would turn in his grave. Melbourne has the MCG… Lichfield had Colin Wood’s tennis court. It was spoken of in terms of similar reverence, it was lovingly tended with the same care, it was Colin’s pride and joy – just like I’m sure those who grow, cut and mark the G, regard it more of a religious experience than a job.
Farm life is one of rhythms. The seasons, crops, harvest, sowing – it’s the constant ebb and flow of annual, seasonal, monthly rhythms. In some instances that rhythm is much more frequent. For dairy farmers it’s every day – 5am and 4pm. Milking at the same time every day – rain hail and shine. For those on ‘town supply’ providing milk to milk processors, it was every single day of the year. There was not one day where milking the cows wasn’t a top priority.
So, when it came to social life it all had to fit around milking times.
During the 60’s in NZ, especially in farming areas, the height of a social outing was tennis at the <<insert farming family name here>>.
The Cox’s, the Dodds, the Grahams, the list goes on. Almost everyone had a grass court – everyone definitely had tennis whites, racquets and balls… and a pair of Dunlop Volleys.
The court was a whole other level. Years of seeding, growing, weeding, yet more oversowing, to get the right breed and thickness of grass – and before milking the day prior, two or three mows with the Morrison 36” reel mower, followed by rolling with a cast iron split drum lawn roller with water ballast AND a cantilevered handle [Google it… you probably can’t find one in existence now – let alone perfect working order].
So, game day was a big affair it was all about presetation and equipment – lawns cut, gardens weeded, gumboots put away, the outdoor tables and sun umbrellas placed for the perfect gallery view – and a few beers in the fridge. The line marker filled with thick gloopy whiting mix [my first involvement was to be allowed mix the whiting – just the right consistency and no lumps!], the measured care and love that went into application – it could have been Wimbledon centre court.
The net was tightened and measured, the balls were inspected - only the best balls were used [the kids played with the old ones] and maybe even a new box opened. Guests would never be rude enough to bring balls, unless they were a new type, or they wanted to play them in.
Then all the families arrived - often after a quick change out of Sunday best post church and into their tennis whites, with a plate, ready to play. Men’s doubles, women’s doubles, mixed doubles and occasionally a couple of sets of singles. The competition was fierce – the talent prodigious. Many were school or club champions in their day, so it was all taken very seriously. Umpiring and scoring was done on the court [although there was an umpire’s chair] and etiquette and ethics in abundance. A line ball was never disputed, the person closest would call it and that was that - it was a given they were both accurate and honest.
If in any doubt the call went out to the other end of the court… “It looked out to me Col… what do you think?” - followed almost immediately by - “You’re closest Jim… we’ll go with you”. If anyone were suspected of not being completely, impeccably honest… they wouldn’t be invited back, no matter their talent on the court. Honesty was a given - as Colin would say “It’s the mark of a man”.
The day finished with a last cup of tea, or perhaps a shandy at quarter past three, ready for the drive home at half past and at the shed for four. If you were running late the cows were already at the yard waiting.
With all that in mind, I felt sick when I looked at the image on Google and there was the clear oblong footprint of the once impeccable tennis court – with trees and gardens across it. Colin would have cried – he almost did over weeds! But that was then – this is now, fifty years has passed and the world is a whole lot different.
It would be easy to pass it all off as a few familes getting together to have a hit of tennis - it was that - but it was much much more. It was one of the social activities that define a community… and a time. It was a simple pleasure - but the ability to grow a surface on which to play lawn tennis whilst running a dairy farm, was no small feat. It was an opportunity for Col and Dot to welcome and host friends; a chance to introduce new arrivals into the community - “Do you play tennis?” was a much more layered enquiry than it may at first appear; a chance for the entire family to get together with other families - there was no leaving the kids at home - after all, it was a chance to play with kids on your turf - the only other chance was at school - the concept of driving kids anywhere to play, would have been met with complete derision.
As much of a chore as it may have been as a kid growing up – I’d love the chance to roll the court and mark it up, just one more time.