The Woman Behind the Trophy

A new biography of Daphne Akhurst sheds light on Australia’s first international female tennis star

Posted 1/31/21

Margaret Court hoisted it 11 times, Serena Williams lifted it 7 times, and Naomi Osaka displayed it proudly in a beautiful ocean setting.

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The Woman Behind the Trophy

A new biography of Daphne Akhurst sheds light on Australia’s first international female tennis star

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Margaret Court hoisted it 11 times, Serena Williams lifted it 7 times, and Naomi Osaka displayed it proudly in a beautiful ocean setting. What these women held in their hands was the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, a large silver trophy that has been awarded to the Ladies’ Singles Champion of the Australian Open every year since 1934. But who was Daphne Akhurst?

Richard Naughton is author of  a newly-released  biography of Daphne Akhurst, Australia’s leading tennis player of the 1920s. Akhurst won the Australian Open 5 times and was a semi-finalist at Wimbledon. Her contribution to the grand slam event and to her nation’s standing in tennis was recognized in the form of an annual trophy bearing her name. In an era when few women competed in sport, the champion from Down Under reached the #3 world ranking and was her country’s first international female tennis star.

“Daphne Akhurst: The Woman Behind the Trophy” goes beyond the protagonist’s personal story. It touches on the development of tennis and women’s sport during her playing days. Tennis and swimming were the first sports that Australian women competed in the early 20th century and Akhurst, along with swimmer Fanny Durack, an Olympic gold medalist in 1912, were legitimate global stars.

Naughton recounts the experience of two female tennis teams that traveled abroad in 1925 and 1928, an historical episode that hasn’t been fully explored. Besides Akhurst, there were five or six other Australian women capable of competing at an international level. It was an extraordinary decade in the world of tennis with stars like Suzanne Lenglen, Bill Tilden, Jean Borotra, and Helen Wills.

On her second trip overseas, Daphne beat the best South African player Bobbie Heine, the top Englishwoman Eileen Bennett, and two future Wimbledon champions – Cilly Aussem (Germany), and Helen Jacobs (USA). Though nicknamed “The Shy Lady of Wimbledon”, she was part of a group of female trailblazers who became more aggressive in their style of play, with their on-court clothing radically altered to reflect that they were serious athletes rather than delicate ladies.

Daphne was also a gifted pianist who was trained at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, a schoolteacher, and a newspaper columnist. Offering a window into the past, one enjoyable part of the book is Daphne's lively observations of the crowd at Wimbledon and  her description of New York, which she penned back to the Australian public during her 1925 tennis journey.

At Wimbledon:

“The keenness of the public is remarkable. Seats are booked up months in advance. People are in queues from early morning and even then, only get standing room around the centre court. I shall never forget the day Miss Ryan played Suzanne Lenglen – 15,000 people watching, the King and Queen in the Royal Box, and hardly a sound heard during the rallies, everyone so intent on the match. Suzanne lost the first two games, and then won twelve in succession. She was marvelous that day. … (I)t is my opinion that Wimbledon will always hold its popularity and attract players from all over the world, just because it is Wimbledon.”

Daphne was mesmerized by the Frenchwoman, Lenglen, who had added movie star glamour to the sport.

“Suzanne Lenglen, not content with setting the style in tennis, seems to have decided to become also the leader of Wimbledon’s fashion. Her frocks are silk, short cut, and sleeveless, and the skirt is box pleated. But her colour scheme of bandeau, sweater and scarf to match are as unique as some of her shots. She never appears in the same colour two days running. Even while watching a match from the gallery, she has been known to run down to the dressing room and change her dress. Once while playing in France, Suzanne suddenly left the court before her match and rushed to the dressing room. Mrs Utz saw her and asked the matter. “My dear”, she said, “I have just seen someone in the same colour bandeau as myself”. It is impossible because she is so fat. The same colour bandeau as mine - and oh, so fat! Voila!”

Her impressions of New York:

“My first glimpse of America was Long Island – it seemed to stretch for miles – then Coney Island, the famous amusement place, and in the distance the skyscrapers. A very impressive sight is the Statue of Liberty at the entrance of the Harbour. It seems to greet you as you come in, and looks very stately (needless to say, there was a rush of cameras to the side of the boat). The height of the buildings simply amazed me, the tall Woolworths, with its 56 floors, standing out. More cameras for snaps, and my delight at the approach of the city was greatly appreciated by the Americans on board who had been telling me all about it.

Arrangements had been made us to stay at the Vanderbilt Hotel, where nearly all the sporting visitors stay, and our ride up Fifth Avenue to get there was an eye-opener. Lovely, wide streets – huge buildings either side, and beautiful shops had me gazing everywhere. What fascinated me very much was the way the traffic was regulated with lights automatically changing from red to green for the traffic to stop or move on.
We had opportunities of seeing some theatres in New York, and never missed a night going somewhere, except before our match, even if it were just to walk along Broadway and see the bright lights. It is a wonderful sight at nights, just one blaze of coloured lights.”

Tragically, Daphne’s death at the age of 29 was sudden and unexpected. On January 9, 1933, she died of ectopic pregnancy, leaving behind a husband, a son, and a bereaved tennis world. A year later, the New South Wales Lawn Tennis Association donated the grand slam trophy in her memory.

“Daphne Akhurst: The Woman behind the Trophy” by Richard Naughton is available for sale on our website below.

SPORTS HISTORY MAGAZINE in DIGITAL

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