The 2021 Australian Open, beginning on 8 February, will see some of the world’s best players once again competing in one of the world’s major tennis championships. The Open naturally puts the focus of the game upon the elite level and the major venues that have hosted the big tournaments like the Victorian and Australian Open championships. But the game has a long history in the rural and regional areas of Victoria.

Tennis in Australia began as early as the 1870s. The origins of tennis can be traced to the ancient game of Royal Tennis, (also called Real Tennis). This was a much earlier version of the game of lawn tennis which became popular from the late nineteenth century. Royal Tennis was played on indoor courts and a splendid court was opened in Melbourne in 1882.

The New (Royal) Melbourne Tennis Court, 1882, A/S20/05/82/149

Lawn tennis was pioneered by a Major Walter Wingfield in England. Wingfield’s idea was to make it possible to play outside rather than in the imposing and costly indoor courts used for Royal Tennis. Wingfield produced and sold ‘tennis kits’, also known as ‘tennis sets’, comprising racquets, nets and uncovered balls. This form of the game was played on asphalt courts, but lawn tennis courts soon became more popular. By 1878 there was a tennis committee within the Melbourne Cricket Club and the first asphalt court in Victoria was made outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

During the next few decades the game spread throughout Victoria. From the earliest stages it was present in the rural areas of Victoria. Some of the early rural locations where tennis clubs were established include Bendigo, Geelong, Kyneton, Hamilton, Bairnsdale, Yarrawonga, Camperdown and Heathcote.

Not only was tennis thriving in the larger towns and regional cities but it had also spread to many smaller and quite remote communities. Some of the most fascinating images of tennis held by the State Library are those of tennis courts in bush land settings.

Bush tennis match, probably at Thowgla Creek, near Corryong, 1897, H87.52/60
Opening of Swift’s Creek Tennis Court, 1890, H26591
Men and Women on tennis court in paddock, ca 1900-1910, H2012.171/342

After World War I tennis went through another surge in popularity. In popular rural and coastal holiday places such as, Torquay, Warburton, Marysville, Sassafras and Lorne tennis court construction increased for the increasing number of tourists.

Tennis Court, Palace Hotel Torquay, 1920, H32492/5457
Tennis Court, Grantulla House Sassafras, 1920, H32492/5145
Marylands’, Marsville, 1934, H96.200/1114

In the larger towns and regional cities tennis tournaments were not only significant social events they were becoming important stepping stones for players who aspired to higher levels of competition. Larger centres like Geelong Bendigo, Benalla and Wangaratta conducted tournaments that attracted and produced high quality players.

A rich source of tennis images from the north eastern region of Victoria are those produced by the Le Dawn Studios of Wangaratta. Bob Beel, a self-taught photographer, established the Le Dawn Studios in Wangaratta in 1956. From 1956 to his retirement in October 1996 he recorded public events and life in North Eastern Victoria images. The Le Dawn Studios archive comprise over 1,000 images. This includes many sporting scenes such as regional tennis tournaments in Wangaratta and Benalla.

Tennis, Wangaratta Lawn Tennis Club Merriwa Park, 1970, H2005.100/493
Tennis at Wangaratta, 1970, H2006.100/749

The popularity of tennis in Australia has declined in recent years but it still retains high levels of participation and spectator sport numbers. State Library Victoria continues to collect images of the game in Victoria. If you have images of tennis in Victoria, and you want to donate them to the Library then please let us know about your material through our collection donations page.

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