Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Tennis: Clock winds back for one great Kiwi

With Marina Erakovic enjoying a good run at Wimbledon, Michael Burgess looks back more than 50 years at the unlikely tale of the last New Zealand woman to advance to the last 16 and beyond.

Ruia Morrison, New Zealand tennis player in action.
Ruia Morrison, New Zealand tennis player in action.

The last New Zealand woman to progress into the second week at Wimbledon slept on friends' couches in London, met Sir Winston Churchill and a 30-year-old Queen Elizabeth II and rubbed shoulders with West End star Julie Andrews at the height of her fame.

It was 1957 when the 20-year-old Ruia Morrison (now Morrison-Davy) arrived in London for the first time. A native of Rotorua, Morrison had an early love for tennis, practising for hours with a wooden bat against the side of her weatherboard home. She had natural talent, and after winning numerous regional and Maori championships, was crowned national champion by the age of 19.

Overseas beckoned. The late John Watiti, who was mentor to Morrison and many other Maori sportspeople, organised a nationwide appeal, coordinated through the Maori tribes, to send Morrison to Wimbledon. It eventually raised £2000, though the offer of a £25 donation from the New Zealand Lawn Tennis Association was politely declined, as they had been of little help throughout the process.

Morrison admits she was "spellbound" upon arrival, both by the splendour of Wimbledon and the regal nature of London.

"Everything was absolutely magnificent," Morrison recalled. "It was so different from my life at home.You had to be careful not to get hooked into it as it would detract from [the] focus of what you [were] there for."

Morrison stayed in the south London suburb of Putney, bunking down on the couch of friends, who were working in England as teachers and nurses. Despite the massive effort to get her to SW19, Morrison insists she didn't feel the pressure of expectation.

"I had no expectations on myself and there was nothing put on me."

The diminutive Morrison stood only 1.54m but was blessed with superb anticipation and reflexes. A fine reader of the game, her main weapons were an accurate forehand and a devastating volley.

Morrison, the first New Zealand woman and first Maori to play at what was the world's premier tournament, had a superb debut.

In her first match she beat Marion Craig-Smith before getting past another Englishwoman Joan Curry in the next round. She then faced Georgie Woodgate; Morrison lost the first set 6-2 but came back to take the next two 6-3 6-1 and the match.

"To get through the first round I was surprised," remembers Morrison. "To get through the second round I earned the right and won. The third round I was absolutely stoked and played the best tennis that I was able to play."

Morrison, who turned 21 during the tournament, then faced American Betty Pratt, who had reached the semifinals three years earlier. The veteran American prevailed in an epic match, winning the second set 11-9. The encounter sparked a lifelong bond between the two and the American, who ran a tennis tournament in Montego Bay and was a long time director of the Caribbean tennis circuit, later invited Morrison to compete in North America. Morrison took up the offer, which was the precursor to an international circuit.

The episode was typical of Morrison's experiences in London, as doors seemed to open where ever she went. In 1958 she was guest at the Commonwealth Garden Party on the lawns of Buckingham Palace. She was charmed by Queen Elisabeth II, then just five years into her reign, then lined up to meet all the Prime Ministers from around the region. Including the legendary Churchill.

"He was just so diminutive I couldn't get over it," remembers Morrison of the wartime Prime Minister. "I just opened my mouth and it never shut."

There was no need for conversation though. "You were just lucky to be in the line," laughed Morrison. "You just shake the hands and you go down the line halfway through to the next paddock."

On another Wimbledon trip (she made four appearances) a fellow player Sonia Cox took her along to see My Fair Lady on her birthday, starring Andrews and Rex Harrison at the height of their fame. Morrison was entranced by the show but was surprised to spot the acting duo at Wimbledon the next day, sitting in the grandstand close to the players' area. As she nervously approached them for an autograph, they were looking through the Wimbledon programme and happened to be on a page showcasing the New Zealander.

"We would be absolutely delighted," Andrews responded to an overawed Morrison.

Morrison reached the third round in 1958 and 1960 and in 1959 went all the way to the fourth round, where she faced the splendidly named Maria Bueno. Bueno, from Brazil, won 6-1 7-5 and went on to win the tournament, the first of four Wimbledon final appearances (winning two).

Morrison also played in the Australian Open, won several British regional tournaments and 13 national titles. She also played in South Africa, which was a challenging experience. She was honoured with an MBE in 1960.

"Every time I think of [my experiences] in depth it just blows my mind again," says Morrison, the third of nine children. "It was absolutely wonderful ... unbelievable . I think I did the best I could. Maybe the odd time I lost when I shouldn't have but generally speaking I did the best I could."

In a wonderful piece of timing, Morrison has had the chance to witness Erakovic's exploits first hand this year, as she made her first visit to Wimbledon since 1960. Fundraising efforts co-ordinated by the Aotearoa Maori Tennis Association raised over $25,000 and Morrison, sister Whiti Baker and association president Dick Garrett, have been in London over the past week.

Morrison has been accorded the royal treatment, over half a century after her exploits on the famous grass, even being inducted into the exclusive "Last 8 club". Players who have reached the quarterfinals of the singles (or the semifinals of the doubles or mixed doubles final) are invited into the club. Members are entitled to a tournament pass for the entire fortnight, as well as daily match tickets to the number one and centre court. They also receive a guest pass, have use of a private hospitality suite and can attend a cocktail party held on the second Tuesday of the iconic event.

"It has been mind boggling beyond belief to be back here," says Morrison, who lamented the early exits of Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal."Everyone has been wonderful and I have met up with so many people from the past - it's like time has stood still. It's been a bit overpowering as well; When you come back here after 54 years you realise how much the place has changed."

- Herald on Sunday

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