TENNIS was a way of life in Gunnedah in the game’s boom period with courts dotted all over town and on nearly every farm in the district.

In the days before television, the game was easily Gunnedah’s biggest participant sport with competition and social play, intertown matches and Sunday afternoon “hit-ups” in the bush for people of all ages.

The game was played on private courts in the Gunnedah district as long ago as the 1890s, with the first two public courts in the town constructed in Kitchener Park in 1897.

The first tennis club was formed in 1903, its courts located in the police paddock beside the School of Arts (now Gunnedah Shire Council offices). These were later transferred to the Showground area facing South Street. Tennis was played almost exclusively at the old Gunnedah Tennis Club on the Showground, near what was known as Pike’s Dam, and at a few private homes and clubs.

It was not until 1923 that an administrative body was set up, with the Gunnedah District Tennis Association formed to organise and control the game in the town and surrounds. The first president was ES Hamilton and the secretary-treasurer was Vic Gilmore. In that first year, competitions were organised for teams in two grades – seven in A grade and six in B grade.

The game expanded rapidly and in 1935, when Russell McDonagh was president and schoolteacher CG (Garney) Cawood secretary, there were 51 teams playing competition tennis and more than 400 registered members, who played on courts all over the town and district.

Lights were installed for night play in 1925 and the Spencer brothers and their cousin Guy Williams came over from Barraba for an exhibition. Bob Spencer and Guy Williams were among Australia’s finest players in the 1920s, on the fringe of Davis Cup selection.

A key figure in tennis was long-serving secretary Ced Hussey, who became an institution in tennis, organising virtually every aspect of the rapidly growing game. He was followed as secretary by another long-term friend of tennis, Arthur Turner, who held office for more than 30 years until the early 1980s and was also heavily involved in the formation of the flourishing junior tennis branch in 1964. Other tireless contributors to junior tennis over the years were Joyce McAndrew and Phinny Herden.

In the late war years, constituent clubs of the association began to levy themselves to provide a fund for a tennis clubhouse in Wolseley Park. Post-war building restrictions and growing costs delayed the project but a spacious timber-framed clubhouse was finally opened in 1954 at a cost of 3200 pounds, with tennis enthusiasts acting as guarantors to the bank to enable the project to be completed. 

The driving force in the clubhouse project was local dentist Tom Boshier, president from 1951 to 1954. He was also involved in staging the first Easter tournament (1954) which, in time, became one of the largest on the country circuit, attracting as many as 300 players.

Through the 1950s, exhibitions by top-line players helped to boost the association’s finances. The first exhibition in 1955 featured Lew Hoad, Graham Lovett, Beth Jones and Mary Carter, followed in 1956 by the Davis Cup squad of Hoad, soon to become Wimbledon champion, Mal Anderson, Neale Frazer and Mervyn Rose. 

In 1959 four of the world’s best players, Ken Rosewall, Mervyn Rose, Tony Trabert (US) and Pancho Segura (Central America), played on a grass court prepared and marked out on the wicket area in the middle of Wolseley Park. Another memorable exhibition comprised Hoad, Rose, Cooper and Trabert, part of Jack Kramer’s professional troupe, who played through to 2am in February 1960.
Gunnedah has always been regarded as one of the pre-eminent centres in country tennis. In 1967 the club conducted the NSW Hardcourt championships with the singles titles going to Tony Roche (21), then the reigning French singles champion, who defeated Bill Bowrey in the final, and Elizabeth Fenton, originally from Temora, who beat Karen Krantzcke. 

The club again conducted the titles in 1985, when the singles titles were won by Tasmanian Simon Youl and Janine Thompson (NSW). 

In 1984 the club staged a leg of the Australian men’s satellite circuit, just a few weeks after flood had wrecked eight courts. 

President Kevin Birchall, curator Allan Wall and a team of workers had the courts back in top-class order before the tournament began. The event was won by Queenslander John Frawley, who defeated West Australian Chris Johnstone in the final. After the match, Johnstone described the court as the best loam surface he had ever played on.

In the late 1960s the GDTA forged an alliance with the RSL Sports Club, largely at the instigation of president Vic Gardner. The arrangement allowed Allan Wall to be employed as a full-time curator. The RSL also purchased land in Chandos Street and another four courts were built. The arrangement with the RSL continued until 1992.

The synthetic surfacing of the courts and the extension of lighting was a major achievement for the club in the early 1990s. In 1998, however, seven of the synthetic courts were badly damaged by flood but were replaced, on a concrete base, through a combination of grants and club funds.

Gunnedah has always had outstanding players. Topliners in the early days included Les Watson, manager of the Union Bank, Doug Cameron, the Edmonds brothers from Emerald Hill, particularly Adrian Edmonds, Ossie Ward, a chemist, Ted Iceton, a solicitor, and Fletcher Hargrave, also an outstanding cricketer. Frank O’Keefe was also a solid player. 

One of the top players in the 1950s was Brian Attwater, who won a total of 29 club championships. The best woman player of that time was Nita Connolly.

Dominant male players in the last 40-50 years included Barry Wilson, Tom Bailey, Wayne Birchall and Dale Martin. Of these, Dale Martin has been the most successful with 51 club titles (15 singles, 20 doubles and 16 mixed). The late Tom Bailey won 31 (three singles, 17 doubles and 11 mixed) and Barry Wilson has 25 (nine singles, 14 doubles and two mixed).

Prominent women tennis players over the same period include Bernice Pople and Pat Green, Patricia Bailey, Lyn Galvin, Robyn McAndrew (now Louis) and her daughters Kristy and Tammie Louie and sisters Annette (Osmond) and Karen Birchall.

Patricia Bailey (now O’Gorman) was the Australian junior and senior grasscourt champion in 1977, represented NSW and Australia and played overseas until her career was affected by illness. At club level, she has won 38 titles (eight singles, 20 doubles and 10 mixed).

The Centenary Ball (as previously advertised) will be held at the Gunnedah Rugby Club on April 1. Tickets: trybooking.com.au/CFUHR

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