On Australia Day, 26 January 2006, diminutive tennis champion Daphne Akhurst was inducted into the Australian Tennis Hall of Fame at a ceremony held at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne. Akhurst was one of Australia’s greatest tennis champions of the 1920s and 1930s but her life was tragically cut short at age 29.
First cousin of my Grandmother Phyllis Dean, Daphne was an extraordinary world ranking tennis player. She was born 22 April 1903 at Ashfield Sydney, the second daughter of Oscar James Akhurst a lithographer and his wife Jessie Florence (nee Smith). She showed promise as a pianist and won prizes at eisteddfods as a child. After schooling at Miss E Tildesley’s, Normanhurst until 1920 and at the State Conservatorium of Music (DSCM 1922) she became a music teacher and performed at concerts and music clubs.
At school Daphne had shown natural ability at tennis. Although self taught she won the New South Wales schoolgirls singles championship in 1917-1920. Her first major win in the County of Cumberland ladies singles in 1923 was the beginning of a long series of victories at State and national levels. In 1925 she defeated her Victorian rival Miss E F Boyd in the Australasian Championships: women’s matched were not usually popular, but her determined play in the final brought cheers which delayed the men’s championship event on an adjoining court. Daphne dominated this event for the next five years winning in 1926, 1928, 1929 and 1930 when she retained permanently the Anthony Wilding Memorial Cup.
She also won the Australasian Ladies doubles title five times and mixed doubles four times partnered in 1928 by Frenchman Jean Borotra.
Although described as shy and self-effacing, Daphne Akhurst was a keen competitor with a temperament that treated tennis as purely a game. Her consistency in match play was no doubt developed in practice with local players Norman Peach, Jack Crawford and J O Anderson at her home club, the Western Suburbs Association in Pratten Park.
In 1925 the NSW Lawn Tennis Association had financed the first overseas tour by an Australian women’s team. They succeeded against Wales, Scotland Ireland and Holland but could not match the experience of England and the United States of America. Akhurst, rated as an outsider in the All England Lawn Tennis Club championships at Wimbledon, reached the quarter finals of the ladies singles, losing to English player Miss J Fry 6-2, 4-6, 3-6. The Times noted her effort against a hard-hitting opponent by recalling ‘those early Australian stonewallers who seemed to have no strokes but never got out’ (referring to cricket). Another Australian women’s team was sent overseas in 1928; this time they won all thirteen matches. At Wimbledon Akhurst outdid her previous success by reaching the singles and doubles semi-finals and, partnered by Crawford, the mixed doubles final. She performed better than any of the Australian men and was ranked by Ayres’ Almanac third in the world after Helen Wills and Senorita E. de Alvarez. The Referee, more generously, claimed she was the best all-round player in the world.
Her capacity to retrieve and ability to run about like a gazelle untiringly had been responsible for her success and for an Australian-title record that lasted until broken by Nancy Bolton in 1951.
Daphne retired from serious competition soon after winning the Australian ladies’ doubles championship in 1931.
On 26th February 1930 at St. Philip’s Church of England, Sydney, Daphne Akhurst married Roysten Stuckey Cozens, a tobacco manufacturer. They had one son, Donald Arthur James born in 1932. Daphne died of an ectopic pregnancy on 9 January 1933. She was cremated after a service at St. Anne’s Strathfield.
Silence and sorrow
In a long minute of deep silence at the tennis tournament on Thursday, the minds of all Australians who prize clean courage in a sweet nature, found themselves beset with the conflicting emotions of pride in a memory and sorrow in a loss.
The impulse from that silent crowd around the courts must have swept out to scores of thousands throughout the Commonwealth, to whom the name of Daphne Akhurst had enriched and endeared itself.
The ceremony was unique in our tennis history, as the occasion was mournfully without parallel for never had there been such a “darling of the people” in the highest sense of the phrase, as a brilliant tennis player and beloved personality of which Australia “Full of years and honours” in an athletic sense she may have been, but the cruel blow to those near and dear to her came at a time when she was commencing a less observed but nobler life. None doubted that she would have adorned it with the sunny unselfishness which had already enshrined her so warmly in the general affection of her land.
Greeting and Farewell; Frenchman and shy little Daphne
Excited Frenchmen waved tricolour streamers and shouted greetings in their native tongue as the steamer bearing Borotra and Brugnon to Sydney in 1928 pulled up to the wharf. Members of the Council of the Lawn Tennis Association and a large assemblage of players of both sexes raised a cheer.
But the first to be greeted by the Frenchman was Daphne Akhurst. She stood there, a dainty figure in white, smiling acknowledgement. Borotra walked forward hat in hand and said in French: “Daphne, you are still very beautiful.” Noting her blushes, Brugnon chimed in: “Ah – don’t forget that she is still very shy.” Dr. George McElhone, who remembered the “shy little lady of Wimbledon” since she was a girl in a pinafore interpreted what Borotra had said. “How foolish” she said reddening. Someone added: “A nice compliment Daphne; but don’t forget that Borotra is a man.” “And a Frenchman,” said a girl nearby chuckling.
In the gaiety of that little gathering none could have foreseen the tragedy of last week; but “Life is mingled joy and pain, made up of greeting and farewell.”
The Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup was donated by the NSW Lawn Tennis Association and first used by the Australian Tennis Open in 1934. This trophy is presented to the winner of the Australian women’s singles each year. At the 2006 Hall of Fame Ceremony a bronze bust of Akhurst was unveiled. It will be installed alongside other tennis champions in Garden Square in Melbourne.
15 February 2010
Daphne Jessie AKHURST
(22 April 1903 – 9 January 1933)