The first tennis player to be awarded a Knighthood was Norman Brookes – who started out playing Australian rules football until he discovered his true vocation. Always impeccably turned out on court, in long trousers and immaculate shoes, he was the first overseas winner of the Wimbledon men’s singles tournament.
During a long career that lasted for more than two decades, he won Wimbledon in 1907 and 1914 and the Australasian Championships in 1911. He was a member of the Australasian Davis Cup team who won the championship six times.
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He became president of the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia after his playing career finished, helping to develop the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club and stadium in Melbourne, the former home of the Australian Open. The Norman Brookes Challenge Cup singles trophy was named in his honour and he was made a Knight Bachelor in 1939 for his services to tennis.
Early life and career
Brookes was born in St Kilda, Melbourne, in November 1877. His father was English immigrant William Brookes, who became wealthy from gold mining in the Bendigo area since arriving in Australia in 1852.
In his youth, Norman was a keen Australian rules football player for Melbourne Grammar School. He also excelled in cricket and played tennis all the time at his family’s private courts at their home in Queens Road, Melbourne.
He started taking tennis more seriously and began playing at Lorne Street courts, where he studied the tactics and strokes of the leading players. After being coached by Wilberforce Eaves, he became a regular player at Royal South Yarra Tennis Club when he was 19, enjoying success at local tournaments.
Brookes’ international career took off in the early 20th century. He became the first non-Brit (and the first left-handed player) to win the hallowed men’s singles at the Wimbledon lawn tennis championship in 1907, at the age of 30. He beat 39-year-old Arthur Gore in straight sets in the final.
Sadly, he had to take a career break from international tennis between 1908 and 1914. He stayed in Australia due to his father’s ill-health in February 1908 and cancelled his return trip to Wimbledon that summer to defend his title. Then, following his father’s death in 1910, Brookes was needed to run the family firm, Australian Paper Mills.
It was seven years before Brookes was able to return to Wimbledon in 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War. He won the singles title a second time, beating the reigning champion, Anthony Wilding, in the final.
Coincidentally, Brookes and Wilding were former doubles partners and had won the Wimbledon men’s doubles title together in 1907. They teamed up again in 1914 and won it a second time. Brookes also won the Australasian Championship in 1911, beating Horace Rice in the final.
He often played in local tournaments, such as the Davis Cup, winning in 1907, 1908, 1909, 1914 and 1919. He played 39 Davis Cup matches between 1905 and 1920. If the commitment of his late father’s business hadn’t overshadowed his tennis career, he would probably have won a lot more!
In May 1914, Brookes won the Surrey Lawn Championships’ men’s singles title in Surbiton, beating Gordon Lowe in a thrilling five-set final. This was his final tournament before the war, when he became a member of the Australian Red Cross in Egypt.
Brookes didn’t play tennis again until 1919, when he was a member of the winning Davis Cup team. The same year, he won the US Open doubles title with Gerald Patterson. He won the Australian Open men’s doubles with James Anderson in 1924, at the age of 46. This was his final trophy.
One of the most memorable games was his victory at Wimbledon in 1907, when he proved totally invincible – he was at the peak of his career. He was pushed to five sets in the second round by New Zealander, Wilding, his greatest rival in the pre-war years. Rising to the challenge, he won the gruelling match, going on to win Wimbledon for the first time.
After more than 20 years playing in tournaments, he retired, although he remained active in the world of tennis for the rest of his life. He was knighted for his services to tennis, including working behind the scenes to raise the profile of the Australian Open.
For 28 years, he was president of the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia and president of the Lawn Tennis Association of Victoria for 12 years. In 1977, Brookes was posthumously inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, following his death at the age of 90 in September 1968.
In 1981, he was further honoured when he was pictured on an Australian postage stamp in an image drawn by Tony Rafty. In 1996, he was inducted into the Australian Tennis Hall of Fame.
The 5ft 11ins player was recognised as one of the greatest left-handers of all time, playing a powerful one-handed backhand shot. He is remembered as one of the great pioneers of Australian tennis – an inspiration to thousands of young players who have followed in his footsteps.
Today, Brookes has been recognised as an exponent of the serve and volley game that supposedly originated after the Second World War – a style favoured by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the 21st century.
Brookes was already playing that kind of game back in 1914, but he had a lot more in his armoury, including ground strokes played with a minimum of back-swing. His big serve (a massive asset), together with his volley methods , were unorthodox at the time.
To date, the only other tennis player to have been knighted is British player Andy Murray in May 2017.
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