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Daphne Jessie Akhurst (1903–1933)

by Kerry Regan

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Daphne Akhurst, Fairfax photo, c.1928

Daphne Akhurst, Fairfax photo, c.1928

National Library of Australia, 51892865

Daphne Jessie Akhurst (1903-1933), tennis-player, was born on 22 April 1903 at Ashfield, Sydney, second daughter of Oscar James Akhurst, lithographer, and his wife Jessie Florence, née Smith. She showed promise as a pianist and won prizes at eisteddfods as a child. After schooling at Miss E. Tildesley's Normanhurst until 1920 and at the State Conservatorium of Music (D.S.C.M., 1922), she became a music teacher and performed at concerts and music clubs.

At school Daphne had shown natural ability at tennis. Although self-taught, she won the New South Wales schoolgirls' singles championship in 1917-20. Her first major win in the County of Cumberland ladies' singles in 1923 was the beginning of a long series of victories at State and national levels. In 1925 she defeated her Victorian rival Miss E. F. Boyd in the Australasian championships; women's matches were not usually popular, but her determined play in the final brought cheers which delayed the men's championship event on an adjoining court. She dominated this event for the next five years, winning in 1926, 1928, 1929 and 1930, when she retained permanently the Anthony Wilding Memorial Cup. She won the Australasian ladies' doubles title five times and the mixed doubles four times, partnered in 1928 by the Frenchman Jean Borotra.

Although described as shy and self-effacing, Daphne Akhurst was a keen competitor with a 'temperament that treats tennis as purely a game'. Her consistency in match play was no doubt developed in practice with local players Norman Peach, Jack Crawford and J. O. Anderson at her home club, The Western Suburbs Association, Pratten Park.

In 1925 the New South Wales Lawn Tennis Association had financed the first overseas tour by an Australian women's team. They succeeded against Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Holland but could not match the experience of England and the United States of America. Akhurst, rated as an outsider at the All England Lawn Tennis Club championships at Wimbledon, reached the quarter-finals of the ladies' singles, losing to English player Miss J. Fry 6-2, 4-6, 3-6. The Times noted her effort against a hard-hitting opponent by recalling 'those early Australian stonewallers who seemed to have no strokes, but who never got out'. Another Australian women's team was sent overseas in 1928; this time they won all thirteen matches. At Wimbledon, Akhurst outdid her previous success and reached the singles and doubles semi-finals and, partnered by Crawford, the mixed doubles final. She performed better than any of the Australian men and was ranked by Ayres' Almanac third in the world after Helen Wills and Senorita E. dé Alvarez. The Referee, more generous, claimed she was the best all-round player in the world.

On 26 February 1930 at St Philip's Church of England, Sydney, Daphne Akhurst married Royston Stuckey Cozens, a tobacco manufacturer, and retired from serious competition soon after winning the Australian ladies' doubles championship in 1931. They had one son. She died on 9 January 1933 of an ectopic pregnancy and, after a service at St Anne's, Strathfield, was cremated.

Her capacity to retrieve and 'ability to run about like a gazelle untiringly' had been responsible for her success and for an Australian-title record that lasted until broken by Nancy Bolton in 1951.

The Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup has been awarded to the winner of the women’s singles at the Australian Open since 1934. She was inducted into the Australian Tennis Hall of Fame in 2006 and the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2013.

Select Bibliography

  • New South Wales Lawn Tennis Assn, Tennis Handbook (Syd, 1933)
  • New South Wales State Conservatorium, Prospectus (Syd, 1963)
  • J. Pollard, Ampol's Australian Sporting Records, 2nd ed (Syd, 1969)
  • Woman's World, 1 Mar 1926
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 Feb 1925
  • 'Lawn Tennis: The Championships', Times (London), 30 June 1925, p 6, and 5 July 1928, p 7
  • Referee (Sydney), 1 Feb 1928
  • private information.

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Citation details

Kerry Regan, 'Akhurst, Daphne Jessie (1903–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 16 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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