Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hopman, Henry Christian (Harry) (1906–1985)

by Harry Gordon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Henry Christian (Harry) Hopman (1906-1985), sportsman and tennis coach, was born on 12 August 1906 at Glebe, Sydney, third child of New South Wales-born parents John Henry Hopman, schoolteacher, and his wife Jennie Siberteen, née Glad. At 13 Harry turned to tennis from a first enthusiasm for soccer, and—playing barefoot—won an open singles tournament on a court levelled into the playground of Rosehill Public School, where his father was headmaster. His successes continued during secondary schooling at Parramatta and Fort Street Boys’ high schools; at 17 he represented New South Wales in the Linton Cup national junior teams’ competition.

After leaving school, Hopman worked as a salesman for a Sydney sports goods retailer, who allowed him generous time to play and practise. In 1925 he teamed up with Jack Crawford, and they won—for three years in a row—the Australian junior doubles championship, and then the Australian senior doubles championships (1929, 1930). Crawford, a tall and stylish baseline stroke-player, was always the better player; Hopman, nimble and energetic with a busy volleying game, lost to him in twenty-seven finals and was runner-up to him in the Australian singles titles of 1931 and 1932. Their contrasting styles meshed ideally in doubles.

In 1933 Hopman joined the staff of the Melbourne Herald as a sportswriter. The arrangement suited both parties: his hours were flexible, so long as his copy met deadlines, and he was allowed leave when selected to play Davis Cup tennis overseas; the paper gained exclusive use of his comments, which were then sometimes syndicated. On 19 March 1934 at St Philip’s Church of England, Sydney, he married Nell Hall, whom he had met during a junior tennis competition and with whom he formed a successful mixed doubles combination. They won four Australian titles and in 1935 became the first husband-and-wife team to reach the final at Wimbledon.

The Hopmans settled in a modest, rented house at Hawthorn: Harry—a fitness fanatic who often ran to the Herald office in the city—won the Australian amateur squash title in 1933, 1934 and 1936. He was a playing member of the unsuccessful Australian Davis Cup tennis teams of 1928, 1930 and 1932, and in 1938 captained the team. For the first time in fourteen years, Australia reached the Challenge Round final, going down 3-2 to the United States of America. In September 1939, again under his captaincy, Australia won the Cup 3-2 after Adrian Quist and John Bromwich both won their final singles matches.

When the Davis Cup competition tournaments resumed in 1946 after World War II, Hopman—who had also revived his private coaching sessions—was overlooked as captain; he watched as Australia was crushed by the American players Jack Kramer and Ted Schroeder, both exponents of the serve-volley power game. After four such losses, Hopman was recalled; his second stint, as non-playing captain-coach (1950-69), became known as the Hopman era.

Hopman was respected as the architect of Australia’s postwar tennis supremacy. From 1950 to 1967 Australia won the Davis Cup fifteen times, and, as successive waves of young champions disqualified themselves from the competition by succumbing to the lure of professionalism, he cultivated replacements. He first developed the outstanding juniors Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor into two of the finest players in the world. When Sedgman was left out of the 1948 squad, Hopman persuaded the Herald to raise funds to send the youngster abroad and to support his own coverage of both the Olympic Games and Wimbledon—enabling him to manage Sedgman’s tour. When his 1950-51-52 winners, Sedgman and McGregor, turned professional, he held the Cup with the teenage newcomers Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall. When they in turn became professionals, he brought on Ashley Cooper, Neale Fraser, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Mal Anderson, following them in the late 1960s with John Newcombe, Fred Stolle and Tony Roche. This process was seen by some in Britain and the USA as an assembly line; its results, however, were undeniable. Among the players who came to prominence under Hopman’s care, the following won at Wimbledon: Sedgman, Hoad (twice), Cooper, Fraser, Emerson (twice), Laver (four times) and Newcombe (three times).

Primarily a strategist, conditioner and motivator, Hopman once remarked: `I don’t teach people, I stretch them’. Alrick Man, the non-playing captain of the 1947 American Davis Cup team, quipped that Hopman’s presence on the sidelines was worth fifteen points a game to Australia. Tony Trabert, who with Vic Seixas went down to Hoad and Rosewall in the 1953 Challenge Round, said that they were `beaten by two babies and a fox’—alluding to one of the gentler of Hopman’s many nicknames, `the Old Fox’, which he liked. Once, after hearing a weather report that Sydney was to have a rainy day, he flew his entire squad to Brisbane to gain the advantage of an extra day’s practice. On the eve of a Wimbledon final he arranged for Mal Anderson to win at poker, to give him confidence for the match ahead. When Hoad fell on wet turf during his 1953 five-setter against Trabert, and sprawled there, apparently drained emotionally and physically, Hopman walked across and threw a towel in his face. The mood broken, Hoad got up, went back and won the match.

Hopman was appointed OBE (1951) and CBE (1956). In 1955 he was presented with nearly £6000 contributed to a testimonial fund that relieved for a time the strains of living on a modest journalistic wage. For all his success, however, he was not universally admired. Childless, he was often accused of treating his young international players as children. On tours he used a much-ridiculed fining system to discipline his `boys’ for misdemeanours including poor table manners and breaches of curfew. He was not beyond using his newspaper column to highlight (for the benefit of umpires) an opposing player’s tendency to foot-fault. Among his many public disputes was a war of words with Jaroslav Drobny, who beat Rosewall at Wimbledon in 1954, and, in 1962, criticism of Margaret Smith, who disliked travelling under the management of his wife.

Vigorously campaigning against the professional game that plundered his talent, in 1961 Hopman won £20,000 damages after Mirror Newspapers were found to have defamed him in 1958 by claiming he had been paid for coaching in South Africa. The case was settled after appeal on undisclosed terms. In defending the amateur system he was effectively propping up the `shamateur’ practices that saw players rewarded with under-the-table payments. As president of the Lawn Tennis Association of Victoria (1964-69) and an aspiring leader of the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia (selector 1962-69), he was often caught up in the bitter internal politics of tennis. His book Aces and Places (1957) gave an anecdotal account of his experiences in that world.

A wiry, nut-brown man of middle height whose weight of 10 stone (63.5 kg) rarely varied, Hopman suffered from deafness for much of his career, and wore a hearing aid installed in horn-rimmed glasses. He had left daily journalism in 1956, first undertaking public relations work and then becoming an investment adviser. In 1962 he purchased a seat on the Melbourne Stock Exchange for £10,000, but neglected to disclose that he had borrowed the money. Legal action commenced when, in 1965, he failed to repay the full debt; he soon resigned the seat. An inveterate punter, he would sometimes ask Ian Occleshaw, whose task it was to telephone his hand-written copy to the Herald news desk, to drive him to Caulfield racecourse—`You get better odds at the course’—between matches at Kooyong. It was not uncommon for him to bet £500 on a favourite. Ever since a string of wins at the Monte Carlo casino in 1928 convinced him that five was his lucky number, Hopman arose each day at 5.55 precisely, took comfort in the knowledge that he had five sisters, and that Davis Cup tennis was played over five matches.

In 1970 Hopman left for the USA to conduct a series of tennis camps: some said he sensed the end of the game’s golden age in Australia. Nell had died in 1968; on 2 February 1971 he married Lucy Pope Fox, a divorcee, at Port Washington, Long Island, where he was running a tennis academy. His early American protégés included John McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis. By the mid-1970s Harry Hopman’s International Tennis camp was run from a vast complex of fifty-five courts at Largo, Florida. Innately generous, he had never been financially secure in Australia—even while seeing his young players grow wealthy; in the USA he prospered, embracing professionalism and investing in real estate, oil and gas. On 27 December 1985 Harry Hopman died at Seminole, Florida, survived by his wife; he was cremated. The annual Hopman Cup, a men’s and women’s team competition founded in 1989, commemorates his contribution to Australian tennis.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hetherington, Australians (1960)
  • H. Gordon, Young Men in a Hurry (1961)
  • N. Fraser, Power Tennis (1962)
  • R. Yallop, A Serve to Authority (1992)
  • A. Trengove, Australia and the Davis Cup (2000)
  • Bulletin, 5 Dec 1964, p 26
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 30 Dec 1985, p 25
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Harry Gordon, 'Hopman, Henry Christian (Harry) (1906–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hopman-henry-christian-harry-12656/text22807, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 27 May 2017.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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