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Quad, set and match: our hidden tennis past

10 July 2015
120-year-old images reveal a forgotten side of the Quadrangle

One of Sydney's most iconic buildings - the University of Sydney Quadrangle - has an unlikely past: as a tennis court.

As all eyes turn to Wimbledon for this weekend's finals, a University of Sydney historian is asking Sydney-siders to consider this forgotten slice of local tennis lore.

Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Sherington from the Faculty of Education and Social Work is co-author of the book Sydney University Sport 1852-2007: More than a Club.

His research explores the history of one of Sydney's oldest tennis courts, located in the grounds of the University's Quadrangle. Long before the first Australian Open in 1905, young athletes were honing their skills on the Quadrangle grounds from the early 1890s.

People would find it very strange these days that you could actually use the Quad as a space to play tennis in
Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Sherington

"But at the time it provided a vital forum for males and females to meet without direct supervision. It developed out of this notion that tennis was a game of gentility, where males and females could play together in mixed doubles," Emeritus Professor Sherington said.

"Students used this intimate space in the heart of the University to encourage that interaction between male and female undergraduates, just a few short years after women students were first admitted to the University in the 1880s."

Soon after the courts opened, women students asserted their independence by forming a ladies tennis club, leading to two clubhouses being built at either end of the Quad.

The courts were established at a time when many Sydney residents could only access tennis courts located on private property, said Emeritus Professor Sherington. Unlike the grand slam tournaments of today, tennis in the Quad would have been considered as more of a carnival affair, with Edwardian era undergraduates and professors' wives alike hitting the grass for some socially sanctioned mingling.

"The images remaining today are a picture of relaxed life within the University rather than what we'd see today as a tightly competitive game," said Emeritus Professor Sherington.

"Women wouldn't have been encouraged to run and they were of course still playing in long dresses. But playing tennis was regarded as an appropriate form of exercise for the female body."

The tennis courts were eventually moved to their current location near Physics Road in the 1920s, and remain one of the few grass tennis courts left in Sydney.

And as for rumours there are still tennis balls lodged in the Quadrangle's turrets, Emeritus Professor Sherington said: "I dare say they probably are; tennis balls are difficult to fish out of drains."

Emily Jones

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