Reviewed by Richard Tutin
On one of the walking paths that my wife and I regularly use is a house that has a rather fine tennis court. It looks as if it is well cared for and regularly used when it comes into view. Seeing it recently reminded me of Peter Doherty’s book Empire, War, Tennis and Me. In this rather eclectic history of the game woven around the life of his extended family during the interwar period and World War II itself, Doherty seeks to tell the story of how a game born out of royal connections came, via the comradeship of those in military service, to be embraced by all levels of society in those lands that were part of the British Empire.
Doherty focuses on the family of his grandparents, Bert and Emma Byford, while weaving into the narrative both a history of the game from its roots in the medieval royal tennis to the modern game whose rules and terms still hark back to those days when only the elite had the leisure and the money to regularly play. He shows how these rules and terms were developed by those with a military background whose lives revolved around regulations and procedures that enabled armies and navies to operate in a disciplined manner.
The spread of tennis throughout the British Empire and beyond provided both a diversion for those serving in the field and a way of passing on culture to local leaders and their people. In Australia, it managed to infiltrate many levels of society especially those which could afford to buy the equipment and build playing courts.
Along the way, Doherty introduces us to many world tennis champions from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whom local amateur players sought to emulate. Australia has produced over the years some great players whose names, especially after World War II, were on everyone’s lips and are still fondly remembered for their prowess.
Doherty’s great uncle Charlie supplied the enthusiasm and drive to have a tennis court built at their home in the Brisbane suburb of Oxley in the years leading up to the beginning of World War II in 1939. As well as providing a place where Charlie and his siblings could play at their leisure, it became a small hub for the local community where young people could meet and improve their game at weekends.
World War II though changed everything for the family. Charlie and his brothers volunteered for war service and the home tennis court was left idle. Charlie though took his tennis with him and played as often as he could wherever he was stationed. His death while a prisoner of war at the hand of the Japanese army eventually spelled the death knell for the home games that were enjoyed on the Byford home court.
Doherty’s love of the game is evident and he, through this book, rejoices in the way in which tennis continues to be played especially by young people in many Australian communities. The game has certainly outgrown its royal and empirical roots to become a game of the people whose love for it continues to be fostered. During the Australian summer many will flock to courts around the country to see their favourite professional players strut their stuff. Some will be inspired to go further and see tennis as their life and profession. As Doherty says at the end of his narrative “Tennis beats War” so the line “anyone for tennis?” will continue to be said and accepted.
Peter Doherty shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for discovering the nature of the cellular immune defence. Based at the University of Melbourne, he continues to be involved in research directed at understanding and preventing the severe consequences of influenza virus infection. He has published six books for general readers, including the bestselling The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize.
Empire, War, Tennis and Me
by Peter Doherty
ISBN 978 052287 856 1