Telling a friend we were off to chat with Ruia Morrison-Davy he insisted we ask her about Hatupatu. No, not the fleeing fellow of Maori mythology but the strap he was convinced his one-time teacher kept at the ready.

The former Wimbledon tennis star and rep netballer roars with laughter. That was, she says, a myth in itself.

"What I did tell the kids was I had a pretty good forehand and an even better backhand that I'd honed on a 4x2 patu [club] so they could take their choice but as a strap he never actually existed."

Our friend and a legion of Morrison-Davy's former pupils will be relieved to learn that.


So with that fable laid to rest it's Wimbledon and her time at the top of the international tennis circuit that we attempt to chat to Ruia about, but with so much already written about her star-studded years she's adamant that chapter's closed.

What she does want to talk about is how it all began and acknowledge the help whanau and supporters, both Maori and Pakeha, gave her to play at tennis' holy of holies. Marae around the country fundraised to get her there in the 1950's and this month she'll be back at the All England Club, at the instigation of the Aotearoa Maori Tennis Association.

Ruia's always had a hankering to return but never dreamed she would, however she's quietly thrilled so many others are insisting she makes the pilgrimage.

"They're making a lot more of a song and dance about it than I am."

Suggest this is because they consider the child of Te Arawa who became the face of Maori tennis internationally worthy of honouring and the stern, teacher side of her surfaces.

"That's a stupid thing to say," she snaps.

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But she does allow that tennis has been her God-given gift.

"Everybody's got gifts, it's the passion with which you use them that counts."

Morrison-Davy's gift had humble beginnings, born as she walked through Koutu paddocks to Rotorua Primary.

"For some reason I always carried a stick, hitting the tress along the way, and at home it was my job to mow the grass with a hand sickle so I guess both these taught me good hand-eye co-ordination."

They did give her a great advantage as a marble player. "I was pretty deadly with those marbles . . . able to beat the boys, they didn't like that much."

Ruia was around 8 when "Daddy" (as she always refers to her father, Hingawaka "Waki" Morrison) became a prime mover to build tennis courts in Koutu.

"Us kids hovered around making a nuisance of ourselves, so Daddy made me a bat out of an old board, it was okay for patting balls but not much else."

Ruia continued to haunt the Koutu courts.

"I followed Daddy around like a leech on two legs, I'd get the occasional whack in and that's when he realised I had potential because it was almost as if I could see the ball coming back before I hit it, there was something about what I was dong that was different."

"Daddy" was sufficiently impressed to take her to Frank Lord's sports shop and ask how much a racquet cost.

"Frank said he'd give me a junior racquet, it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen, I took it to bed with me, but the second time I played with it the head went one way, the handle the other, I dissolved in tears saying 'I didn't break it, it just broke, it just broke'."

Lord accepted her word for it, giving her a "proper" replacement racquet, "It came to Wimbledon with me."

Her father built her a volley board. "Daddy taught me the science of the game . . . how to play proper tennis, how to place the ball, I think he was a natural too. We only had two balls so I was never allowed to lose them."

As her court skills progressed the young Ruia impressed Aucklander, Flo Mowbray, whose holiday home was close to the Koutu courts.

"I was about 11 or 12 when she asked my parents if she could take me to her house in Milford. It was wonderful, I literally lived in a glass case, all I had to do was cut kindling for her Aga stove."

Flo Mowbray introduced her to the Eden-Epsom Tennis Club.

"I got into their junior team pretty early on, then the senior team, everything happened so fast after that it's all a bit blurry now."

Leaving school, she enrolled at Auckland Teachers' College, her study frequently interrupted by major tennis tournaments.

The suggestion that she go to Wimbledon bemused her. "I said where's Wimbledon? I'd absolutely no idea."

When she makes her return visit it will be as an honoured guest.

"I have so many mixed emotions about this, elation and disbelief that so many people have worked so hard to get me there. It's going to be very different from when I slept on teaching friends' couches like I did in my playing days."

Ruia Morrison-Davy
Born: Rotorua, 1936

Education: Rotokawa and Rotorua Primaries, Rotorua High and Grammar School, Te Puke High (briefly), Queen Victoria School, Auckland (as boarder)

Family: Two sons, one moko (granddaughter), large extended whanau

Interests: Whanau, "being a kuia" (grandmother), "supporting our marae", kapa haka (member of Ngati Whakaue group that performed at this year's Matatini festival)

Official recognition: MBE for services to tennis and Maoridom; life member Aotearoa Maori Tennis Association

On herself: "What you see is what you get."

Personal philosophy: "Give of your best"