Thursday, December 27, 2007

Over half a century ago

Starting in 1950, Australia dominated the Davis Cup for a period of four years, first with the duo Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor. Then the young Australians Lewis Hoad and Ken Rosewall took over. In Melbourne in 1953, Hoad and Rosewall beat the US players Vic Seixas and Tony Trabert.

The 1954 finals in Sydney gave Seixas, 31, and Trabert, 24, a chance to get even with the 20-year-old tennis twins Hoad and Rosewall.

And that's exactly what they did, in the first two days, in a series of four-set matches.

Back in those final sunny days of December 1954, my paternal grandparents [Pop and Ma, as we called them] had invited me to drive down to Sydney with them to watch the finals of that Davis Cup tournament at White City Stadium. I seem to recall that we attended the doubles match, on the second day, since that was the kind of social tennis to which we were accustomed back in Grafton. For us, it was hard to imagine a game of tennis in which the server wasn't gazing in the direction of the backside of his partner (often of the opposite sex), crouched near the net. Singles matches appeared to us as unusually solemn and solitary events, in which you didn't even have somebody to chat to during the calm periods while your opponents were collecting the balls for the next stroke.

On 28 December 1954, at the splendid lawn courts between Kings Cross and Edgecliff, I got autographs from the four players.

This 1954 tennis tournament in Sydney remains in the local history books as a much-publicized event, probably because of the hero status of Hoad and Rosewall. Personally, I wasn't greatly surprised to see the young Australians defeated. Physically, they looked like young Australian sportsmen of the kind one could see anywhere. Seixas and Trabert, on the other hand, appeared to me as Martians, particularly when seen up close. They seemed to exude a mysterious mixture of power and sporting wisdom, quite unlike the naive grins of the Aussie kids. I had the impression that, for these superior Americans, tennis was not just a game; it was their business.


  1. This post reminds me of a short talk that I hadd in Sydney a few months ago.

    "What's the national sport here?" I asked my boss.
    "Footy" he replied immediately, but then he added: "Actually Astralia performs well in every sport. Whatever we do, we do it better".

    Happu new year,

  2. Thanks, Silvio, for your New Year greetings. You're so right about Australia's amazing successes in all kinds of sports. An uncle who once worked as a marketing executive for a multinational corporation stationed in Thailand told me that the national sport of that country was sex. In Australia, I'm not sure that we should even attempt to designate a national sport. It would be more realistic to talk of a national activity: sport.

    I've always considered that there are at least four fundamental reasons for Australia's extraordinary achievements in all kinds of sporting domains:

    — Genetically, the folk who got on boats to travel out to the Antipodes [I'm thinking, not so much of convicts, but of ordinary 19th-century immigrants such as my ancestors] could hardly be weaklings, for the simple reason that they would not have survived. Consequently, our genetic Australian stock [what an ugly term!] has been pretty high quality from a physical viewpoint. I find that this is particularly true, today, in the case of young Australian women of Anglo-Irish and European genealogy. In photos, I can immediately "smell out" visually the typical physical features of an Aussie girl, particularly when she's not wearing many clothes. And, believe me, the standard Aussie girl has little in common with a frail Nicole Kidman. Besides, it's not merely a physical thing. Genetically, we are the descendants of generations of so-called battlers, which is in fact a synonym for winners. That's why I've always been secretly proud to be an Australian... even though I despair of my motherland when it says it doesn't have the resources to build new bridges, railways and nuclear submarines.

    — There's so much space in Australia (once you leave the cities and suburbia) that anybody can surf and swim, run around in huge circles, play golf, etc. I seem to recall that Australia has cattle ranches that are bigger than the state of Luxembourg. So, we shouldn't brag about thrashing the national team of Luxembourg, say, in caber tossing. [I'll leave you to Google that unexpected allusion.]

    — The weather in Australia is a huge positive element as far as sports of all kinds are concerned. Years ago, when I was driving around in the north of Scotland during the preparation of my tourist guide on Great Britain, I remember seeing kids playing soccer on a playing field above the cliffs, swept by such a strong wind that it could be considered as an additional player. I realized, at that moment, that my great sunburnt country would probably never dominate international football [soccer]. And I believe I'm right, just as few young Aussies are poor and hungry enough to become outstanding toreadors.

    — The fourth and final reason for Aussie supremacy in sporting domains of all kinds is our national ethos. Sport is our credo. We believe in it, and we are perfectly justified in doing so. Sport is youth, and youth is rebirth, and rebirth is life. When an Australian applauds the achievements of a tennis player, a rugbyman, a yachtsman, a golfer, a cyclist, etc, my compatriot is singing a song of praise to life, to eternal energy. And, to my mind, that's good stuff.

    Bye, Silvio. [Would you be of Italian origins?] Best wishes for the New Year, and please continue to participate in the Antipodes blog.

  3. I didn't expect such a reply: that's a sociological essay! Really thanks for that: you did through the web exactly what your Aussie friends still down under did while I was travelling, i.e. talking and talking trying to explain me their love for Australia.

    I still remember the last Wimbledon final game. I was in SA at the time. The night manager of the Indian Pacific - I met him travelling to Perth – invited me to his farm and thus I spent the whole night in front of the Tv drinking and gambling (just a few dollars) with his family. It was really an amazing and funny experience: I haven't understood yet the reason why they decided to welcome a total stranger and share with him a sport (let's say religious) event. I do believe that we Italians are pretty friendly but still we are very far from the Australian standard.

    I explored for long the empty spaces outside the main cities. After a month and half in Sydney I indeed worked in Batchelor (100 kms south of Darwin) and in Kangaroo Island, where 4000 lonely souls live in a wild area as big as a medium size Italian region. All the locals – older included – were as fit as you said, but I was more impressed by their attitude: they could all be yoga teacher, since they quietly faced water shortages, huge distances and a long list of hard jobs. Whatever happened, after the sunset, beer time coma, and they used to get away from it all.

    I often thounght to relocate there forever. I was indeed supposed to remain for three months, while I finally gave up my Italian job and travelled for six months with my mum's great concern.... Sometimes I still miss my Aussie days – right now as well since I just received two Christmas postcards from my hosts - even though I am quite sure that every European in Australia will eventually miss its motherland: it's too far and to different to avoid a deep “soudade”. Due to the jet lag, you can hardly call back home at the proper time! Anyway, trying to spend as much time as possible in the Appenines (Italian nord inland), I am now making my Italian life pretty similar to the Aussie ones: quiet farmers, old women walking along small villages and plenty of forests to get out of the traffic jam. I am not 2000 kms far from the nearest city, but it does work well anyway.

    Well I already wrote far too much for a web standard and I am probably tiring you with my poor Latin English so I reckon I'd better to say you good bye.
    Catch you next time on the net and, who knows, we might share a beer and a barbe later on in our lifes.

    Take care and keep writing,

    P.s. Well I am not of Italian backgroung: more precisely I am fully Italian. However, I wouldn't regret to be an Australian of Italian backgroung.

    P.s. You know Nino Culotta's They're a weird mob, don't you? Well, a truly masterpiece