Courting rituals in the Victorian bush

With the doors locked on the expensive big blue courts for another year, now the rest of Victoria can go back wondering how we’ll get the funding to keep our local community courts at a playable level.
Nanjing Night Net

In October, a small town near Colac claimed to have the worst tennis courts in country Victoria. From the pictures I reckon I’ve seen worse, but to be fair, Cororooke is still trying to operate an active club on its courts.

There are plenty of abandoned tennis courts around the bush – overgrown and crumbled. Sometimes these remnants of another Australia are the only evidence left that a town was ever there at all, pointing to a different time in the history of the sport, when tennis was the only game in, well, town.

My husband grew up just outside of Horsham in a time where no one in country Victoria lived more than 200 metres from a tennis court and playing was non-negotiable. His local was Remlaw. If you look for it now you’ll find a monument amid the long grass commemorating its existence. It’s even on the Monument Australia website, touchingly archived under the major theme of ”culture”, sub-theme, ”sport”.

Tennis failed to find me in suburban Ballarat, where my early labelling as a recalcitrant PE student left me hanging about in the drains of the Yarrowee Creek in my spare time instead. (Kids, don’t do this at home – I’m now a mum and understand now that this is dangerous and not even classified as an extreme sport.)

Still, from our disparate worlds we ultimately set up camp not far from the remains of the original Tarrington tennis courts in western Victoria. Thanks to a recent subdivision they now form part of someone’s front yard. No monument marks their moment in the sun, but a local group of residents did erect a sign as part of a local heritage trail.

These original courts were replaced by new courts on the Tarrington Recreation Reserve in 1980. None other than our Premier Denis Napthine became the secretary of the Rec Reserve just a few years after the opening of the courts – a position I now reluctantly hold. Still, based on the recent meteoric rise of the Premier, I’m told my long-term career prospects are good.

Thirty-four years down the track, the courts are now in such disrepair that most serious players choose to play on the nearby Hamilton Lawn Tennis Club courts instead. Some sections of our fence are missing. The surface crunches with loose screenings and ruptured asphalt. The line markings are not terribly prominent. Weeds? We’ve had a few. But this little sporting oasis is not entirely unloved. There’s a bloke on the corner you can count on to poison the weeds when they go a bit Sideshow Bob. The nets are stored inside over winter to try and prolong their life. My two elder sons have learnt to ride their bikes there. Sometimes people hit a tennis ball there.

Courts are expensive to upgrade. Committees of management, such as ours, typically have no money, and no one with the time and expertise to chase any down. Grant money is occasionally available, but it again relies on these bodies being correctly structured (in an ATO kind of way) and, most importantly, they need to be able to demonstrate demand. It’s all a bit chicken and egg of course. And we’re not short on either of those things out here, thanks.

Given the challenges it is not surprising that local government and tennis associations are moving towards a model of regionalised tennis centres. While these might be great facilities for developing players, like the loss of junior football teams, there is undoubtedly something lost. No casual hit with friends at the court down the road means no time and space in which young players of dubious talent can fall in love with the game.

And while the era of the Hamilton courts being maintained by grazing sheep are now gone, country tennis is far from dead. Indeed, out of the 15 clubs that still operate in the Southern Grampians region, most have memberships above the state average, relative to population. The junior program run by the Hamilton Lawn Tennis Club (which has synthetic courts as well) is growing in popularity, although participation rates wane around the time the kids discover the joys of teenage life.

For the country parent this could be a blessing in disguise. Certainly after the third week standing on the freezing sidelines of my five-year-old’s Auskick session, and two more sons to go, there appears many more years ahead of footy, swimming, basketball, taekwondo, soccer, music, gymnastics, little aths, and junior campdrafting (that’s cow herding, people). But not so much tennis.

I don’t really care what sport my boys get into as long as they understand early on it will be the same one for all of them. Football, netball and basketball clubs are all part of regional leagues and for those clever enough to have given birth to girls as well as boys, they can often expect to be driving one child 100 kilometres in one direction for netball, while the other parent gets to ferry the other to the footy in the opposite direction.

Quite frankly, by the time the new year comes around, it’s a known fact that many of Hamilton’s sporting parents are so catatonic they spend all of January cowering in an annexe at the Port Fairy caravan park, tethered to a barrel of semillon, while the kids go all Cadel with their summer tribe. That’s when they’re not playing tennis on the beach. You know, just for fun.

Tarrington’s Naomi Turner is a freelance writer with a good backhand.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.