Tennis — it’s a game that’s all about the love. At least that’s how it seemed to me this year when I took up the sport for the first time. Every mixed doubles concluded with a player pointing at me from the other end and calling out, “Love”. But I don’t think it was necessarily a term of endearment.
So called “Lawn” tennis developed as a sport in the 19th century from an ancient and obscure predecessor called Real (or Royal) tennis, managing to keep most of the old scoring system and many of the original French words of the earlier game along the way. Love in tennis actually comes from the French expression l’oeuf meaning the egg like shape of zero. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, love counts for nothing on the tennis court.
I’ve heard tell that Queen Victoria’s wastrel son, Edward the Prince of Wales, liked a bit of love. He popularised the game of tennis for the masses in the late 19th century after taking the sport up in a futile exercise to halt an ever expanding belt size. It soon became apparent that Eddie’s love of a second serve at the dinner table meant that this was never going to happen. The P of Wales was destined to be a whale. The game itself meanwhile became one of the world’s most widely played sports with a style about it that was all its own. It’s a funny thing, but have you noticed that in every drawing room, period comedy or murder mystery there always come a point when a Freddie Threepwood type wearing flannels bursts into a room and asks of the assembled guests, “I say, anyone for tennis?” It generally happens just before the first body is found with a knife protruding from its back in the library or the romantic lead is revealed as the lost child of a titled lady, accidentally abandoned on a railway station at birth.
Murder and adoption aside, the sight of a rubber ball being hit homicidally across a net was actually an early feature of this district. The Wragge family built themselves a lawn court south of the Yallambie Homestead for their recreational use on a site that had previously been occupied by the Bakewells’ pre-fabricated farm house.
Tennis was not necessarily limited by the size or availability of lawn space however or by competition from gnomes at the bottom of the family garden. Tennis clubs were started at various places around Melbourne and other outlying suburbs for it was a game that could be played wherever a piece of level ground could be found and a net, a soft ball and racquets plus a pot of paint could be provided.
All the same, some inventiveness might be required on occasion as was the case at the Wragges’ up-country sheep station, Tulla. At that property, unlike the lawn court at Yallambie, a court surface was created by grinding ant hills in the Riverina dust where the fine grass would not grow. In Winty Calder’s “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” (Jimaringle 1996), Lady Betty Lush described this tennis court as she remembered it in her youth:
“It was far from being a good court but it gave an immense amount of fun to us all. The posts were Murray pine trunks between which were hung lengths of netting of assorted meshes. The surface originally was made of ants nest gravel and in parts was really good. Unfortunately there were areas where the water lay and these areas tended to grow grass. However a Dutch hoe always removed the grass even if it didn’t improve the surface. Up at one end there was a large bull ants’ nest. Many times and in many ways we tried to remove it but they always came back again and in the end one just had to remember to jump over that part of the court.”
If you want to see tennis played on grass these days your best option is to tune into the box this week, and watch the championship played at Wimbledon, home of the All England Club. Tennis courts with grassed surfaces in Melbourne are as rare as a 21st century grand slam event at Kooyong. The game itself is played enthusiastically all over Melbourne however and is a regular feature at Yallambie with play linked to a site in Yallambie Park just below the Lower Plenty Rd Bridge. It is here, at an entrance off Moola Close, that the Yallambie Tennis Club makes its home.
Yallambie TC was formed in 1972 and played initially on courts located at the Army Barracks at the Greensborough Rd end of Yallambie Rd, alongside the site of the church built by the Wragge family on the north western corner of their estate. This was at a time when the Jennings’ sub division of Yallambie was gathering momentum. The name “Yallambie” was officially adopted for the suburb in 1974 and it was in that year that the location in Yallambie Park was chosen and developed as the home for the fledgling tennis club.
Before the advent of various synthetic surfaces, a common alternative to grass courts in Victoria was “en tout cas” and it was this style of surface that was chosen at the home of the Yallambie Tennis Club. A co-op was formed and money raised to build the courts, the Heidelberg Council matching the club’s funds dollar for dollar. A local landscape gardener who had never built a tennis court but who reckoned he could build one without resorting to ant hills was commissioned to construct the first surfaces at Yallambie TC, the present day courts 1 and 2. Facilities before the construction of club rooms were initially limited to the provision of an old telegraph pole lying adjacent to the north of the courts where players and spectators could park their cold bottoms and watch play in progress.
The present day courts 4 and 5 were the next constructed followed by what are now courts 3 and 6 making a total of six “en tout cas” surfaces. Playing lights were provided in 1978 enabling the club to field teams in the NENTG and a club house provided in 1988. For many years the court surfaces were maintained by the efforts of long-time club president, Rob Kew. With his recent retirement however a professional groundsman has been employed.
Today Yallambie TC fields teams in the NEJTA, NENTG and Pennant competitions. The association of the Fireball Tennis Academy with Yallambie and involvement of Gareth Constance as a coach of the younger players, together with a new committee under a new president, Pauline Scala, has contributed much to the reinvigoration of the club. Our son has been playing tennis at Yallambie since he was barely able to see over the top of the net, typically to mixed parental acclaim from yours truly, but after my experience this year of flailing at empty air with a racquet I’ve determined never to criticise again. It’s really a lot harder to lob that furry ball over to the other side than you might think.
The sight of Annie Wragge in a long skirt and corsets careering across the tennis court at Yallambie Homestead or of one of her brothers in a blazer and straw boater stringing up a net is certainly a thing of the past. But the tradition is continued at the Tennis Club where the sport has been undergoing a bit of a Renaissance of late. Last month Yallambie 1 mixed doubles won their section grand final in the autumn competition and this was followed by grand final wins by both the junior girls and junior boys’ teams.
On the strength of that latter achievement they gave our son a little trophy which featured a plastic player, tennis racquet uplifted menacingly in hand. He received it in one hand and the boys snapped the racquet off in their excitement with the other. You might say the plastic player is suffering from a bit of tennis elbow. I hope it’s not a sign of things to come.
Tennis is a great sport and Yallambie TC is friendly and welcoming environment to play it in. The club has teams playing during the week on weeknights and at weekends and most standards are catered for. Even those like me who are still struggling to tell one end of a racquet from the other. According to one opponent I played against last season, the game should never be taken too seriously. “Afterall,” he said as he watched me hit the ball out of play for what seemed like the umpteenth time, “You know we’re not playing for sheep stations”. That at least would have been a comfort to old Tommy Wragge.