Port Elizabeth of Yore: Lawn Tennis

Sporting-wise, Port Elizabeth has achieved a number of firsts as many of the sporting codes have their roots in St George’s Park. Amongst the firsts were the first international cricket test between South Africa and England, South Africa’s first rugby test and South Africa’s first cricket tournament.

Of all the firsts that Port Elizabeth failed to achieve was being the first tennis club to be formed in South Africa but it only missed this honour narrowly.

Main picture: SA Lawn Tennis Championships, 1893. Court No. 1 – Port Elizabeth Lawn Tennis Club.

Even though the PE Lawn Tennis Club [PELTC] narrowly missed being South Africa’s first tennis club, it can lay claim to being the oldest club in South Africa still playing on the same ground since its inception. The club played in the first inter-city tennis match in South Africa which was hosted in Grahamstown in 1884, and in December1885 the first documented tennis Open Tournament was staged at the PELTC.

The word ‘lawn’ in the title does not necessarily mean that it is played on grass. Lawn tennis is the precursor of the parent game of ‘real tennis’. Real tennis was played on specially built courts with a roof and side walls while lawn tennis was a game for men and women played outdoors on grass. Real tennis was ostensibly for men.

Lawn tennis was played regularly on private courts in Port Elizabeth and around the country, but it was due to the enthusiasm of a group of highly committed sports people that the PELTC was

formed on the 1st September 1879 at the Grey Institute building on Belmont Terrace. According to Jean Coulter, “The PELTC has never moved from its original spot in the park,”. Court number one is documented to be a heritage site, so at no time can it be move or changed from its position. During the early years, and later, the club played an important role in the social life of Port Elizabeth. By 1881 a sportswriter described the PELTC as the leading club in the country.

Competitors, SA Championships, 1893

The first South African Championships were played at the PELTC every year from 1891 to 1903 over the Easter weekend. The competition ran like a “miniature Wimbledon tournament”. Later it was taken over by the SA Lawn Tennis Union (Saltu), founded in 1903. The president of the PELTC became the first president of Saltu.

Th e Eastern Province Championships Tournament was run in Port Elizabeth for many years until it too was cancelled. Players from all over the world visited the club, not only in the large tournaments, but also as visiting invitation teams.

Cliff Drysdale at Wimbledon

According to Coulter, all the top players in South Africa played on the courts at some point, including the likes of past Springbok tennis greats Cliff Drysdale and Greta Delport, from the 1960s, and IJ Richardson, from the 1920s.

Port Elizabeth’s notorious floods have also had an impact upon tennis. A visit by a team from the All England Tennis Club participating in a tournament commenced playing on the 14th November 1908. Little did the organisers realise that the final on the 16th would coincide with the 1908 flood. With deft footwork, they switched the matches to the Feather Market Hall from a sodden St George’s Park, thereby averting disaster. Switching venues probably meant that they were playing under the  code of ‘real tennis’ but who would object.

Sources

PE Lawn Tennis Club Jewel in Crown of Bay’s Sporting Firsts from the Weekend Post of Saturday 3rd October 2009

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

http://www.stgeorgespark.nmmu.ac.za/content/tennis/displayarticle.asp?artid=tennis_002

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