They’re turning 96 in 2023 and local identities Ron Whiteman and Joyce McAndrew have both been friends of tennis in Gunnedah for decades.
With the centenary of tennis in Gunnedah approaching on April 1, their association with tennis goes back 60-70 years, making them the oldest former players and supporters in the district, Ron turning 96 in May and Joyce the following month.
Ron Whiteman was one of Gunnedah’s best players in the 1950s and recalled his time in tennis as “great days” when the game was a vital part of the social fabric of the town.
“Almost everyone played and tennis brought people together more than anything else,” he said.
“There was very little coaching, everyone more or less taught themselves, but they played so much they kept improving and tennis became very competitive. There was nothing given away on the court but the game was always played in the right spirit. You could see how much people enjoyed playing, there was a happy-go-lucky atmosphere and a great sense of fair play.”
Mr Whiteman recalled that tennis was so big there were as many as 300 playing competition each week.
“Before television, we had up to 80 teams in the Saturday afternoon competition. There were six courts at Wolseley Park and other courts at Kitchener and the High School but we also had to rely on a large number of private courts in town and on nearby properties. Doing the draw was a nightmare.
“I don’t know how many courts there were in town but nearly every block had at least one court. I lived in Little Barber Street and in those three blocks there were five courts.
“Saturday was the main day but on Sunday there were intertown and social matches in the district, or people just getting together for a hit-up on farms.”
Tennis reached its peak of popularity in the 1950s, with exhibitions by touring players, amateur and professionals, drawing large crowds.
The first exhibition was arranged by the ball company and clothing and racquet-manufacturing supplier Dunlop and featured the brilliant youngster Lew Hoad, supported by leading players Graham Lovett, Beth Jones and Mary Carter.
This was followed by the visit of the Australian Davis Cup squad and Ron Whiteman recalled that up to 1000 spectators watched the 1956 exhibition, with supporters from Narrabri, Moree, Tamworth and Quirindi joining the locals.
In 1959 four members of Jack Kramer’s professional troupe – Ken Rosewall, Mervyn Rose, Pancho Segura from Central America and Tony Trabert from the US – played an exhibition in the middle of Wolseley Park, on the turf wicket area. Tiered seating was erected around the court and the four players later said it was one of the best grass surfaces they had played on anywhere in the world.
Fletcher Hargrave was the curator and he was one of Gunnedah’s finest sportsmen, excelling in cricket, tennis and golf.
The next year the Kramer troupe returned with Hoad, Frank Sedgman, Ashley Cooper and Mervyn Rose playing until 2am, watched by an estimated 800 spectators.
At the local level, Brian Attwater was the player to beat but Ron Whiteman was able to lower his colours twice in the club championships.
“Brian made very few mistakes, he was like a machine from the back of the court and he used to wear everyone down, me included,” he said.
“The first time I beat him (1961), he had me down 6-2, 4-love and everyone thought I was gone. But I always believed that if you were being towelled up, you had to change your game, so I went for every shot and attacked the net, and that seemed to unsettle him. To my surprise, I won 12 of the next 13 games for the match.
“The next year I did the same and I was lucky enough to win again. But that was it for me – Brian changed his game, too, and I was never able to beat him again.
“Brian wasn’t the only good player at that time – George Keeley, a schoolteacher from Mullalley, was a really classy player – he had a mighty forehand and he won a few championships too.”
Brian Attwater ended up winning 29 club championships between 1958 and 1972 – nine singles, 11 doubles (nine with John Easey and one each with Ron Pople and Frank Maunder) and nine mixed with partners Robyn Paul, Nita Connolly and Bea Noble.
Ron Whiteman said Gunnedah had always been a tennis town, benefiting from the work of the Bailey and Louis/McAndrew families in the coaching field for several decades and an enthusiastic junior organisation.
“The good youngsters hit the ball so hard these days, probably harder than in our day, though that’s not surprising, with the size of the racquets.
“We played with much smaller racquets, of course. We look at the wooden racquets of our day and wonder how we were able to even hit the ball.”
Mr Whiteman hopes that tennis will regain its peak of popularity.
“The game meant everything to people in my time. It was a game that combined all the best features of playing sport, but I think that, above all else, the social aspects were so important. It was our life.”
Joyce McAndrew’s life has always been steeped in tennis, a lifetime of involvement which saw her awarded the Australian Sports Medal in 2000 for services to the game.
She became “hooked” on tennis when she won the junior girls’ championship at Bathurst High in 1942. She was so keen on the game, she virtually signed up “for life.”
When she moved to Gunnedah with husband Keith in 1950, she joined the Gunnedah Tennis Club and played in all the local competitions, championships, tournaments and intertown fixtures over the next 45 years. Only an injury forced her to retire in 1995.
Back in 1964 Joyce attended the first meeting of the Gunnedah Junior Tennis Development branch, becoming treasurer in the second year, with Barry Ashford as President and Arthur Turner secretary. She remained treasurer until 1984, as junior tennis enjoyed an outstanding growth period, churning out hundreds of young players through year-round competitions, coaching, divisional and age titles and trips and intertown matches. In 1979 she was awarded life membership of the junior branch.
She was also a tireless worker for tennis, heading an auxiliary which raised thousands of dollars through tournaments and catering. In 1991 she was awarded life membership of the seniors.
It’s a matter of great pride to Joyce that her family has been such a strong influence on tennis over the last six decades.
Daughter Robyn (Louis) was a prominent player, winning five club singles championships in the late 1960s and 1970s. She then became a coach and over the last 50 years has coached many hundreds, perhaps thousands of youngsters, joined later by her husband Peter and their son Craig, who have been full-time coaches for two decades.
The third generation of the McAndrew-Louis family have all been excellent players – Kristie was selected in the Australian Schools team in the 1990s, Tammie won a NSW age singles title and Craig has been Gunnedah club champion five times, in a total of 14 club titles.
Even though she had to retire almost 30 years ago, tennis is still very much a part of Joyce’s life, through the family’s coaching involvement.
“I am so happy and so proud that my family is still heavily involved,” she said.
“Watching young people playing tennis still gives me great enjoyment – it’s a wonderful game.”To order photos from this page click here