Cover of book: Empire, War, Tennis and Me

Peter Doherty
Empire, War, Tennis and Me

“The story of the first 70 years of lawn tennis (1875-1945),” the eminent immunologist and Nobel laureate Peter Doherty tells us in Empire, War, Tennis and Me, “is embedded in much bigger narratives about imperialist ambitions that led to smaller conflicts and then to both WWI and WWII.” The story of his uncles Charlie and Jack Byford, “keen tennis players” who volunteered to fight “for Australia and Empire” in World War II, prompted the writing of this hybrid of history and memoir. Charlie was taken prisoner by the Japanese in Changi, shipped to the Burma Railway and died when his POW transport ship from Burma to Japan was sunk by the Allies. Jack, too, had his share of the horrors of war, including on the Kokoda Track, but survived.

For those less familiar with the history of tennis than that of the world wars, a highlight of the book is the story of how “royal tennis” evolved to become today’s “lawn tennis”, helped along by the invention of lawn mowers and vulcanised rubber. Its noble associations and relatively simple material requirements made it an attractive sport for the aspirational middle classes, women as well as men, and it spread around the world with the British and other empires, including to Australia.

Despite our small population, by the 1920s Australia ranked among the tennis superpowers. We had good weather for outdoor sports and plenty of (stolen) land, not to mention abundant termite mounds that provided the material for “ant-bed courts” that played faster than clay but slower than grass. According to Doherty, its popularity “points to the much more democratic nature of the game here, which in turn reflects the nature of Australian society of that era”. The latter is a curious claim given Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders would have to wait some four decades before being given the vote, and the notorious “dictation test” prevented most Chinese and other residents of colour from becoming citizens. Democratic for some but not quite democratic by nature.

Given the book’s overt themes of Empire and class, it’s odd that Doherty failed to examine this idea more forensically in the Australian context. It is so up-to-date that it mentions Ukraine and how Hong Kong protesters in 2019 used tennis racquets to lob tear gas canisters back at police. It is also thorough on who-won-what-when in tennis during the first half of the 20th century. It would seem a natural follow-on to look at how Indigenous players such as Evonne Goolagong and Ash Barty conquered what was once a sport of European kings, as well as what the rise of badly behaved male champions such as Nick Kyrgios says about the changing nature of the game.

The book’s overarching theme is war. Here, too, Doherty’s aim seems slightly off. He insists, for example, that whereas “many historians” have focused on the events in Europe that led to World War I, “less well known is what was evolving in the peaceful Pacific” – a strange claim to make in an Australian context. The link between war and tennis, meanwhile, is tenuous at best. As he admits, with few exceptions – including Shakespeare’s Henry IV, who threatens the French dauphin that the English will “play a set” that “shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard” – tennis hasn’t inspired many metaphors for war. Doherty speculates that tennis may have given his uncle Charlie “a strategic sense of what he could handle” in war but offers no evidence.

The most tangible connection seems to be that an awful lot of tennis players fought in the big wars of the 20th century. So did chess players, drinkers and clerks. Doherty lobs names and facts about both tennis and war at the reader like balls from a rapid-fire tennis ball machine. Not many are as interesting as the tale of German tennis champion and military officer Otto Froitzheim, who, while travelling home after a defeat on the courts in Pittsburgh in 1914, was taken off his ship at Gibraltar and interned by the British; he later become the lover of both Leni Riefenstahl and Pola Negri. Yet even here, we’re left with not much more information than that. Doherty is a brilliant scientist but he’s not the greatest of storytellers. And if any story demanded just one more sentence it’s that of how, in 1943, a Darwin-based American bomber returning from a raid on Borneo had to make a forced landing on a Northern Territory beach. In Doherty’s version, the crew was “welcomed” by the Aboriginal people there. I learned elsewhere that the Aboriginals surrounding the plane watched the American captain trying to communicate with them in sign language for a while before asking, “What are you trying to say?”

It’s a good question. Unusually for a memoir, especially one with “me” in the title, there’s little of Doherty’s own story or how it connects to the other ones here, apart from a few anecdotes about fishing trips with Uncle Jack and clearing fallen mangoes from the family’s ant-bed court as a child. I’d have liked to know more about Jack, who never married or moved out of home after returning from war and who cut down the mango trees for fear of snipers. Despite the mountainous piles of names, dates and facts and nods to the “absolute horror” of war, in the end the book tells us little more than that it’d be a lot nicer if we competed more on the court and less on the battlefield: love-all.

MUP, 240pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 3, 2022 as "Empire, War, Tennis and Me, Peter Doherty".

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