Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hopman, Eleanor Mary (Nell) (1909–1968)

by Judith Smart

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Nell Hopman, Royal King's Park Tennis Club, 1947

Nell Hopman, Royal King's Park Tennis Club, 1947

State Library of Western Australia, 58984933

Eleanor Mary (Nell) Hopman (1909-1968), tennis player and administrator, was born on 9 March 1909 at Coogee, Sydney, only daughter and second of three children of native-born parents Charles Ernest Hall, clerk, and his wife Mabel Gertrude, née Tipper. Educated at Claremont College, Randwick, where she excelled at tennis and music, Nell was brought up strictly, in accordance with middle-class, Protestant conventions, and developed strong views about young people's need for discipline. Her own self-discipline was evident in six-hours daily practice at the piano. Studying under J. Hugh McMenamin, she obtained the licentiate and teaching diploma of the Royal College of Music, London, and won a scholarship to go abroad in 1928, but chose instead a tennis career. Music remained an important part of her life, and she regularly played for enjoyment and relaxation.

Nell was 'spotted' by Davis Cup player, Harry Hopman and, when she came to Melbourne in 1930 with the New South Wales junior team, he partnered her in the Australian senior mixed doubles, which they won. She also won the women's doubles title that year and again in 1933. Nell married Harry on 19 March 1934 at St Philip's Anglican Church, Sydney, and moved to Melbourne where he worked (1933-56) as a sports journalist for the Herald and Weekly Times. They spent their honeymoon in the Orford with the Davis Cup team en route to England. On returning to Melbourne, Nell resumed her own tennis career, becoming captain of the Victorian interstate team which remained undefeated for five years.

In 1935 Nell again accompanied Harry to England where he reported on Wimbledon and she wrote occasional pieces for the Australian Women's Weekly. They entered the mixed doubles; although unseeded, they reached the finals. The thrill of playing on centre court in her only Wimbledon final remained a highpoint in her life. The Hopmans won the Australian mixed doubles in 1936, and in 1937 when Nell also won Victorian women's doubles titles. Victory in the Victorian singles in 1938 and in the South Australian singles next year raised her national ranking to equal first with Emily Westacott, who defeated her in the Australian championships in 1939. Nell and Harry won the Australian mixed doubles for the fourth time in 1939.

Her confidence had grown with international experience as captain of the Australian women's touring team, which spent nine months in Europe, Britain and the United States of America during 1938. It was only the second time that the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia had sponsored a trip for women, and, since there was no women's equivalent of the Davis Cup, Australia's leading female players had few chances to compete abroad. Hopman took her responsibilities earnestly, demanding discipline and correct dress and behaviour. Yet, Nancye Wynne recalled that she 'was very fair if you did the right thing', and remembered her 'vibrant personality' and the 'great affection' she evoked. Further opportunities for travel were halted by World War II, but the tour had fired Nell's determination to make the L.T.A.A. take seriously international competition for women.

In 1940 Hopman won her only Australian singles title—the hardcourts championship—and also took out the doubles title. Thereafter, wartime work as secretary to the chief of the British liaison staff and as a volunteer at Red Cross House limited her playing to pennant competition. In 1945, however, she won the State doubles title and was again runner-up in the Australian singles in 1947. She and Nancye Wynne (Bolton) then toured Europe and America, Nell paying her way by writing for American, British and Australian magazines. The experience confirmed her determination to open up L.T.A.A.-sponsored coaching and travel opportunities for the next generation of Australian women players. At 37 she was nearing the end of her playing career, though she was to win the South Australian singles again in 1949-50 and the Victorian doubles in 1951. Never having been coached, her style was awkward and unorthodox, and she used the same grip and the same side of the racquet for forehand and backhand. None knew better the need for systematic training of the up-and-coming women players. Election as the first woman councillor of the Lawn Tennis Association of Victoria in 1947 launched her career as a tennis administrator.

Hopman persuaded the L.T.A.A. to invite the reigning Wimbledon champion Louise Brough and another leading player Doris Hart to tour Australia in the summer of 1949-50. She arranged, too, for the new champion Maureen ('Little Mo') Connolly and the American junior title holder Julie Sampson to play in Australia in the summer of 1952-53, as a result of which the L.T.A.A. set up a committee to discuss ways and means of improving the 'poor standards of Australian women's tennis'. Other tennis writers threw their weight behind Nell's campaign, accusing the L.T.A.A. of a 'parochial attitude to women players'. In 1955 the L.T.A.A. did at last send a women's team abroad, under the management of Adrian Quist, but no plans for further tours were forthcoming.

In 1950 Hopman had managed Victoria's Wilson Cup team. Once more, players recollected her stress on discipline—'the girls were fined for leaving a hairbrush out on the dressing table'—but also her sense of fun, her fairness and her enthusiasm. In 1952-54 she was employed by the United States and South Californian Lawn Tennis associations to act as companion-chaperon to Maureen Connolly, then at the peak of her career. It was a successful relationship, Nell approving of Maureen's 'manner and demeanour', and she partnered Connolly to victory in the French doubles in 1954.

In the following years young tennis players began to assert the right to independent travel. A dedicated team-player and amateur herself, Hopman was openly critical of 'private trips overseas'; for her, the game and the team were always more important than the individual. With no children of her own, she failed to understand that younger players' expectations of teachers, coaches and team managers were changing. Moreover, the fact that, at 51, Nell was too far removed in age to be a fun-loving friend as well as a manager lay at the root of the difficulties encountered when she took a team of Australian women players overseas for the L.T.A.A. in 1961. She had guaranteed that the tour would not make a loss; it made a profit of £2500. Margaret Smith, Lesley Turner and Mary Reitano believed that, in consequence, they were overworked, their accommodation and diet were inadequate, and Mrs Hopman behaved like a martinet. When Smith refused to go with the 1962 official L.T.A.A. team under Hopman's management, Nell attributed her attitude to the influence of her trainer Frank Sedgman, her employer Bob Mitchell and the regrettable modern trend towards private tours.

Important though the tours of 1961-62 were in promoting Australian women's tennis, the pinnacle was reached in 1962 when Hopman persuaded the L.T.A.A. and the International Lawn Tennis Federation to support a women's international team-competition similar to the Davis Cup. The first Federation Cup competition was played in London in 1963 and Hopman won for Kooyong the right to stage the cup in Australia in 1965. In addition, she raised £15,000 to sponsor teams from ten nations. Australia won the cup and made a profit of £16,000. In 1962 Hopman was appointed O.B.E. She became the first woman life member of the L.T.A.V. in 1965. About this time she began to suffer severe headaches; in 1966 she underwent surgery for a brain tumour. Although she resumed her administrative work, including the organization of the Country Week championship for which she had been responsible since 1947, she did not recover her previous robust health. Survived by her husband, she died of an intercranial tumour on 10 January 1968 at Hawthorn and was cremated. Her portrait by (Sir) William Dargie is held at the Kooyong clubhouse.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Smith, The Margaret Smith Story, D. Lawrence compiler (Lond, 1965)
  • R. Yallop, Royal South Yarra Lawn Tennis Club (Melb, 1984)
  • M. Lake and F. Kelly (eds), Double Time (Melb, 1985)
  • Lawn Tennis in Australia, 15 Mar, 15 Oct 1937
  • Australian Tennis, 4, no 8, Mar-Apr 1953, p 18, 5, no 5, Sept 1953, p 12, 6, no 4, Apr 1954, p 27
  • Herald (Melbourne), 20 Mar, 2 June 1962, 28 Nov 1964, 21 July 1965, 10 Jan 1968
  • Age (Melbourne), 2, 3 Mar, 2 June 1962, 6 Jan 1965, 11 Jan 1968, 20 Apr 1970
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 28 Feb 1934, 17 Dec 1947, 2, 3, 8 Mar 1962, 2 Apr 1962, 11 Jan 1968
  • Australian, 11 Jan 1968.

Citation details

Judith Smart, 'Hopman, Eleanor Mary (Nell) (1909–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hopman-eleanor-mary-nell-10543/text18721, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 19 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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