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Looking the part

Updated: Mar 22, 2022

Left: My Aunt Dorrie and Uncle John, perfectly attired for tennis in the 1930s

At my first meeting as a newly elected committee member of the Melville-Palmyra Tennis Club a few years ago, I raised the question of tennis attire. I wondered why the Club did not insist on a dress standard for its social and pennants players. My query was inspired by having observed a pennants player representing our Club wearing black shoes, black socks and a red singlet, while on the same day I noticed a social player wearing a Fremantle Dockers football jumper and no socks.

My comments were ill-informed and I had to apologise. According to rules laid down by Tennis Australia (of which I was unaware), there is no longer any enforceable dress code for Australian tennis club players. Any player can wear what he or she likes. This rule was introduced to ensure that potential tennis players were not turned-off by crusty old stuffed-shirts, like me ... the yesterday’s men of Australian sport.

I admit my age, my nostalgia and my ignorance of the rule, but there was another factor at work. This was my conditioning at the Nedlands Tennis Club in the early 1950s. I played tennis as a junior at Nedlands for several years before giving tennis away in favour of football, sailing and rowing, but my formative experiences there left their legacy. The Club Captain in those days was a superb organiser but a stern disciplinarian. He insisted on the very highest standards in court behaviour, etiquette and tennis attire. He supported and encouraged the Club’s junior members, as he saw in them the future of the Club, indeed of the game. But he demanded we meet his concept of a tennis player. He would always inspect us before the day’s play. We did not have to actually form up in parade order (although I think he would secretly have liked this, as he had been an Army officer during the recent War), but nevertheless he ran a glittering eye over each of us as we signed up for the day’s play, to see that we were properly attired.

His expectation was that we would be dressed in a neat white shirt and white shorts (or skirt), white socks and white shoes. Perhaps reflecting his army background, our footwear received special attention. Those were the days before “sneakers” and we youngsters wore thin canvas sandshoes or perhaps Dunlop Volleys, and there was a recognised routine for their cleansing and presentation. Every week after tennis, the shoes would be unlaced, boiled in the copper, pegged out to dry on the clothes line and then brushed over with a white paste (which our mothers would buy at the hardware shop, and went under the brand name of something like “Tennis White”). This would be applied to the shoes with an old toothbrush on Saturday morning and then the shoes would be put out to dry in the sun. One of my friends was so meticulous that he used to get his mother to iron his shoe laces before re-inserting them into his shoes. The unstated but clearly understood threat was that if our tennis attire was not up-to-scratch, then we wouldn’t be playing.

Did this make us better tennis players? Of course not. But it did give us a pride in our appearance, and it generated a feeling of esprit de corps within the Club. It also identified us with our tennis heroes of the day, such as Frank Sedgman, Ken McGregor, Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall. Their professional appearance matched their wonderful tennis and fine sportsmanship.

Sporting hero: Ken Rosewall, always immaculately attired

There was another element. In my day at the Nedlands Tennis Club there was an outstanding young beauty of about my age, who all the young men shyly admired. I would have ironed my socks to attract her smile, but alas, she lived in a world of her own, oblivious to her charms and beauty.

I accept that fashions and social rules in tennis simply reflect those in the wider community, and that values change over time. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that a dress code for tennis players would be a good thing, and should not necessarily be seen as draconian. The young cricketers and footballers who share our clubhouse are always meticulously turned out in smart uniforms, and the visiting tennis teams who wear a Club shirt (or in the case of the women, a matching skirt and top) appear to be making a statement about playing as a team, not as individuals, with which I roundly agree.

Thinking back to my days as a junior at the Nedlands Tennis Club brought to mind another story about sporting uniforms. My old forestry mentor Barney White once told me about a time when, in the early 1950s, the Irish women’s hockey team visited Manjimup to play a match against a combined south-west side. The Irishwomen attracted a lot of attention, especially from the men of the remote mill and forestry centres, who gathered at the ground in large numbers, most of them attending a women’s hockey match for the first time in their lives. The visitors were typical Irish beauties, with milk-white complexions, dark hair and flashing green eyes, and they played a lovely, flowing style of hockey. Their uniform, however, was extremely conservative, a throw-back almost to Edwardian times. The tunics were dark green and voluminous, buttoned to the throat and with deep almost ankle-length skirts. “The thing was,” Barney recalled, “every now and again in the heat of battle, a skirt would swirl and you could not help but get a glimpse, just the merest suggestion, of a shapely calf, a white knee or even the glimmer of a thigh. The general consensus in the pub afterwards was that these were the sexiest women we had ever seen.”

I was pretty sure that there would be little support for a proposition that uniforms like these be introduced for the ladies at the Melville-Palmyra Tennis Club, but I decided to raise it at the next committee meeting anyway. At least it gave me a chance to retell one of Barney White’s stories, always one of life’s little pleasures.

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