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Empire, War, Tennis and Me


Peter Doherty

Carlton, VIC: Melbourne University Press, 2022

Paperback   272pp   RRP $32.99


Reviewer: Bruce Brown, July 2023


Peter Doherty is well known to many Australians as the joint 1996 Nobel Laureate for Medicine and Physiology. What is less known is his love of tennis and interest in the impact which the game has had, not only on his own family but also local community and national life. Furthermore, in this unique book - a combination of history and family memoir – he places the story of tennis in the context of world events and its evolution from a game limited to the social elite to a popular sport particularly in places that were part of the British Empire.

His accounts of people and events provide fascinating insights into various eras such as pre-World War I Europe.  When, for example: ‘Upper-class American Elizabeth Ryan won the women’s singles at the 1914 imperial Russian Lawn Tennis Championships the last ever played. The ball boys wore footman’s uniforms and handed the ball back on silver platters’, and Norman Brookes is described as an ‘upper-middle-class-colonial’ whose tennis success ‘led him to being adopted by an aristocratic wealth and power set that coalesced in summer to swim, play tennis and various other amusements around Monte Carlo and Cannes.’

Doherty explains how the rules and terms of tennis evolved through the influence of people with a military background. Their lives revolved around regulations and procedures that enabled armies and navies to operate in a disciplined manner.

His own family narrative is placed in the context of world events. His great uncle Charlie Byford supplied the enthusiasm and drive to have a tennis court built at the Byford  family home in the Brisbane suburb of Oxley in the years leading up to the beginning of World War II in 1939.  Following the outbreak of war, Charlie and his brothers volunteered for war service. Charlie died while a prisoner of war at the hand of the Japanese army.

Jack Byford enlisted in the 2nd AIF on 8 February 1941. His initial deployment that year was in Palestine and Syria. Then with the bombing of Pearl Harbour the focus of his war experiences shifted to Southeast Asia. By the time he was discharged in early 1946, he had spent 828 days in Australia and 808 days overseas, which Doherty writes was not unusual for WWII with soldiers staying with their units for a period after the end of hostilities.

Having explored tennis and the post-World War II era, the book end on a positive note: ‘What has changed for the better since 1945 is that our chosen tennis gladiator can be a man or woman, gay or straight: black, brown or white: Caucasian, African or Asian ….and apart from cheering our own local heroes, we don’t really care.’

This is a most enjoyable, informative and readable book which will satisfy readers with an interest in military and/or sporting history.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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