In the last decade the words Australian and amateur tennis have become virtually synonymous. So much so that it requires an effort of mind to realize that up to now when people talked about Australian tennis players they were talking exclusively about men. "I've often been asked," says the wife of famed Australian Davis Cup Captain Harry Hopman, "how it is that we have such wonderful men players and no women. I guess the answer is that in the opinion of Australia's men nobody wants to watch a mere girl on the center court at Wimbledon."
During the next couple of weeks, however, whether they like it or not, Australia's men and the rest of the world as well are likely to see not one but two or even three or four Aussie girls on Wimbledon's famed center court and, thanks in great part to indomitable Nell Hop-man, one of them—perhaps leggy, 18-year-old Margaret Smith of New South Wales—may end up as the new British champion. With Maria Bueno ill in Paris and Darlene Hard staying behind to nurse her, Smith is seeded No. 2 in the Wimbledon women's singles behind South Africa's Sandra Reynolds. Her teammate, 18-year-old Lesley Turner of Sydney, is seeded No. 4. Both, together with 16-year-old Robyn Ebbern, 19-year-old Jan Lehane and the veteran Mary Reitano, are members of the first Aussie women's tennis team to tour the world tournaments since 1955 and only the fifth in the history of the game. Known to Nell Hopman as "my chicks," this traveling brood was hatched and fledged by her practically unassisted.
Nell Hopman's determination to wrest equal rights for Australian women on the world's championship tennis courts probably was born in the early 1930s, soon after Harry Hopman first saw her playing tennis and swore to a friend, "I'm going to marry that girl." As wife of the Australian Davis Cup captain, "that girl" soon found that when her husband left her to take his team abroad she could not even travel with him. One-sided local tennis association rules practically forbade her even to follow him. They didn't affect her love for Harry, but they made Nell Hopman a determined "tennis suffragette," as she calls herself.
It was as the traveling chaperone of an American rather than an Australian player that Nell, who is also a pianist of concert caliber, picked up the practical experience that made her dream of equal tennis suffrage seem possible of realization. Nell first met Maureen Connolly at Wimbledon in 1952 at a time when the older girls in the tennis set were giving Little Mo the cold shoulder. Nell opened her motherly wing, and the two soon became so close that at Maureen's request the USLTA asked Nell to travel with the American champion. When Doris Hart had to have an eye operation Nell even stepped into her shoes and helped win the women's doubles as Little Mo's partner in Paris.
July 2, 1961
Such an emergency is not likely to occur on Nell's present tour, but there are plenty of other demands on her talents. She has to keep a watchdog eye on a limited budget and the seemingly limitless appetites of her charges (daily weighing sessions are now a must on the tour). And she must provide an endless supply of spiritual fodder for hungry young minds as well. "The questions they ask, you've no idea!" moans Nell. "We lead her on all the time," admits Margaret Smith, then she tells how Nell helped time and again to improve her game.
"Without Mrs. Hop," says Lesley Turner, "we'd all be lost. She does our worrying while we play tennis."