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Posted on 11 Jul 2024 in Non-Fiction | 0 comments

MICHAEL SEXTON The Fox: Harry Hopman and the greatest dynasty in tennis history.  Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

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At last, a wonderfully comprehensive biography of tennis legend Harry Hopman, who captained Australia’s Davis Cup teams to 16 wins from 21 Challenge Round finals.

It is fortunate that Michael Sexton took on the task. A gifted writer, whose credits include the award-winning Chappell’s Last Stand (2017) and the outstanding biography of a footballer/confidence man, The Trials of Jack Broadstock (2021), Sexton examines not only Hopman’s career and personality but places him within the context of Australian tennis history until his late move to the United States and embrace of professionalism in the 1970s.

Hopman wasn’t exactly born on the wrong side of the tracks but he was a little Aussie battler – his adult height would be 170 centimetres – who learned by playing wherever he could. As he later recalled, he had little formal coaching:

All I can remember about my tennis then is that I could get about the court and hit the ball back. I could run all day without flagging. I never knew what it was to be tired … It took me much longer to learn than it should have. As I grew older, I used to think ‘What the bloody hell was I doing; I should have thought of that tactic, of this way of doing it.’ In other words, I didn’t have any brains. That’s one of the things that made me so keen to coach people. I’m sure I would have done better if I’d been able to get the help that I was later to give people.

Sexton sensibly structures his book in three parts: the first eight chapters covering Hopman’s main playing career, culminating in his captaincy of Australia’s Cup win against the US in 1939; the next 12 chapters dealing with his incredible reign as Davis Cup captain in the 1950s and 1960s; and then three chapters on his move to America and the establishment of various tennis academies.

Hopman’s playing career saw him fall just short of the top rank as a singles player. He won provincial and state championships in singles and was a three-time losing finalist in the Australian championships from 1930 to 1932 (twice to Jack Crawford). His greatest wins, however, were his two victories over world number ones: against Ellsworth Vines in the second Test match at Kooyong on Boxing Day 1932; and his ending of Don Budge’s 92-match winning streak in the Pacific Southwest championships in Los Angeles in 1938.

He had much greater success in doubles with Crawford, winning the Australian championships of 1929-30 and five Grand Slam mixed doubles wins. The first mixed doubles success came with Nell Hall in 1930, and (after the pair married in 1934) they won the Australian title three more times in 1936, 1937 and 1939. As Sexton tells it, the Hopmans were an ideal couple:

They were the same in every major way in that they loved sport and were ferocious competitors who believed that success was something that was only available at the end of a tunnel of discipline and sacrifice.

In 1939 Harry won the US mixed doubles championships with Alice Marble.

Hopman’s Davis Cup playing career was surprisingly brief, consisting only of a 1928 first round loss to Italy, losing again in 1930 against the same opponents, and again in 1932 against the United States. At 26 he was likely pressured to stand aside from the 1933 Davis Cup team comprising Crawford, 17-year-old Vivian McGrath, 20-year-old Adrian Quist, and 24-year-old Don Turnbull. Instead, he turned his attention to journalism.

As Sexton explains, Hopman received an offer to join the Melbourne Herald as tennis correspondent, enlarged that role to a daily column, ‘Talking Sport with Harry Hopman’, and became a regular broadcaster on radio station 3DB.

Hopman applied himself to his new craft with the same zeal as he did tennis – itching and scratching and listening and chasing. He was determined to learn how and where to find a story and write his own copy. His first by-line rolled off the press in the late morning of 7 July 1933 … and for the next two decades Hopman derived most of his income from newspaper writing and in so doing forged an unusual relationship where he was often both the reporter and the story.

Hopman’s journalism gave him a sometimes-testy relationship with players and the autocratic Norman Brookes, who largely controlled selection of Davis Cup teams during his 28-year term as president of the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia from 1926. Defying Brookes, however, LTAA delegates appointed Hopman captain of the 1938 Davis Cup team of Quist and John Bromwich, which performed admirably in losing the Challenge Round final to the US. He held the role as they turned the tables on the Americans the following year.

Feted by now Sir Norman Brookes following that win, Hopman nevertheless found himself on the outer in the immediate postwar years when divided Australian teams reached four Challenge Round finals against the Americans but won only two matches out of 20.

Sexton suggests that Hopman was the ‘prime suspect’ for an acerbic Herald editorial in July 1948 that began with a jibe at Brookes – ‘Is Australian tennis suffering too much from “old man” control?’ By January 1950 the LTAA delayed a decision on a touring team for the Davis Cup until after the Australian Championships.

[Hopman] was still the most influential tennis writer in the country, but he had recently tempered his criticisms. The administrators from every state arrived in Melbourne in a sign that change was afoot. The sport remained hugely popular for recreation but at the highest level the Davis Cup was mired in disharmony and instability. After swallowing some pride the officials met Hopman to ask if he had ideas of what could be done.

Not only did he have ideas – he had been acting on them for several years.

It is sometimes considered that Hopman’s influence on Australian tennis and Davis Cup success in the period 1950 to 1969 is overrated because of the wealth of talent at his disposal – Frank Sedgman, Ken McGregor, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Mervyn Rose, Ashley Cooper, Mal Anderson, Neale Fraser, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Fred Stolle, John Newcombe and Tony Roach – who won 46 Grand Slam singles titles. But that is to overlook his role in developing their talent.

Hopman certainly ‘found’ Sedgman as a teenager and nurtured and sponsored him to become a world-class player capable of combating the American power game, but he also added a physical element to his squad’s talent: rigorous sprints back and forth across the court and strength training in Stan Nicholes’ gymnasium. Hopman had a big picture in mind, as Sexton tells us:

Although catching up with the United States was the goal – Australians were not ready to embrace an American brashness. Sport was deeply rooted in English culture which included its character-building essence. Hopman believed Sedgman could carry it all as both a champion on the court and an example of where he was positive, modest and respectful of others but with a hard edge.

The hard edge should be emphasised, although with it came the social change in tennis from an ‘upper-income activity to a middle and working-class sport’. Sedgman and McGregor were the first to reveal their own hard edges by joining Jack Kramer’s professional troupe and were replaced by teenage champions Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, who emerged from Sydney’s working-class suburbs. When they in turn entered pro ranks, the talent pool remained strong. As Sexton writes: ‘The twinkling lights over hundreds of courts along with good weather allowed workers [and their children] to play night tennis most of the year.’

As a coach Harry Hopman adopted professional methods in tennis’s amateur era. Most players conformed, however his petty fines and snubbing of those who left him grated, and other talented players such as Barry Phillips-Moore, Bob Hewitt and Ken Fletcher were sidelined. After Nell’s death in 1967, the coming of Open tennis and Davis Cup defeats left him

… embittered, alone and broke. The game in Australia had no role for him and so he looked across the Pacific Ocean where professional tennis stood waving.

At age 63 it might have seemed an unlikely move, except that he was a man who ‘made his own luck’. A nine-week contract in 1970 coaching junior players in Connecticut extended to 15 years. It followed the establishment of a modest tennis academy on Long Island which attracted star juniors such as Vitas Gerulaitis, Peter Fleming and Mary Carillo as scholarship holders, and eventually the ultimate brash American, John McEnroe. In late age he found himself revered by a new generation of tennis players and headed huge tennis academies in Florida bearing his name. After finding love a second time around, he died between giving lessons at the age of 79.

My congratulations to author Michael Sexton for a well-rounded portrait of a significant Australian sportsman and to English publisher Pitch Publishing for producing a handsome hardback edition. The book deserves a wide readership, and my only complaints are the lack of an index and the miniscule photo of the author and tiny size of the type on the back inside jacket. I certainly exonerate the publisher for the imbalance of photographs – only one after 1954 – in the two sections of plates. The exorbitant fees charged by newspaper archives and photographic agencies do a great disservice to history.

Michael Sexton The Fox: Harry Hopman and the greatest dynasty in tennis history Pitch Publishing 2024 HB 352pp $59.95

Bernard Whimpress is a historian who usually writes on sport. His most recent book as editor is Burns v Johnson World Heavyweight Championship 1908: 100 Letters.

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