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Thursday, 22 January 2015

DAPHNE AKHURST - THE FIRST LADY OF AUSTRALIAN TENNIS

Daphne Akhurst and Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup presented to ladies singles winner at the Australia Open

There was a girl, a lady who stormed her way onto the tennis field, won many of her battles and stormed away from the scene - forever. Those 29 years of which the last decade she captured many a hearts by her domination in Australian women's tennis. A five-time singles and doubles winners - and add four mixed titles to her name, this was Daphne Jessie Akhurst's achievements at the Australian Open. If not for a complication during her pregnancy, who knows, what destiny had in store for this talented New South Wales player after whom the ladies singles title of Australian Open is named after.

MUSIC AND TENNIS
Daphne Akhurst was just a year old (b. 1903) when the national association of tennis in Australia was formed. Little did she know that one day she would have a long lasting connection with that sport. With a strong liking for music, she finished her studies in music and went to perform in few of the clubs and at concerts - and taught music.

While music was an integral part growing up - as a school girl she did participate in few of the locally held tennis competitions. A self-taught player, her natural ability towards the game was in display when she won the state schoolgirl's championships three years in a row (1917-1920). She balanced both music and tennis perfectly and went on to participate in many of the state and national level competitions. After winning her major title at the County of Cumberland in 1923, there was no stopping for this twenty-year old.

TOOK TO TENNIS JUST LIKE FISH IN THE WATERS
The year 1922 was a landmark one for women's tennis in Australia - as for the first time ladies competitions were added to the existing men's competition.

Though there was no shortage of talent, Daphne Akhurst however did lack in experience of playing big games. At her debut Grand Slam appearance in Australia, she reached the final four and lost to the eventual runner-up. However, her doubles play had no such problems as she took both the ladies doubles and mixed doubles title. Not bad for a 20-year old!

Next year, she took the title defeating Esna Boyd coming from one set down. She completed the trio of victories as she successfully defended doubles and mixed doubles title.

The same year, New South Wales tennis association sponsored the first overseas trip by the Australian women's team. It was to the tour of Europe. Overall the team achieved some great wins over Wales, Holland, Ireland and Scotland - while beaten by England and United States. At the Wimbledon, Daphne did well to reach till the quarter-finals.

Back in Australia for the 1926 season, her only success was at the singles title and was a runner-up at both the doubles event. In 1927, she suffered with an injury and hence did not take further part in the Australian Open.

The injury and the time away from tennis only strengthened her play as she came back to her dominating best in the following season. As expected, she won all the three titles and was ready for her second overseas trip.

THE SHY GIRL OF WIMBLEDON
A second tour to Europe would be a game changer for Daphne. While victories came regularly at home, it is often the overseas performances that adds merit to one's overall success. Her team defeated England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Holland, France, Germany, Belgium, Hungary and South Africa.  

At Wimbledon, she enthralled the audience and the members of the press with her stroke play. She reached the semi-finals at the both the singles and doubles event; went one better in mixed doubles by reaching the finals. She could not achieve the highest peaks at Wimbledon, however it was hardly a debate that she was the best tennis player Australia had sent that season. Her charming and attractive personality along with extreme modesty, earned her the nickname 'The Shy Girl of Wimbledon'.

MARRYING HER CHILDHOOD SWEETHEART
She went on to win Australian Championships titles in 1929 and 1930; the same year in February, Daphne Akhurst married her childhood sweetheart Royston Stuckey Cozens, a tobacco businessman and a well-known Western Suburbs cricketer. She retired from the game after winning the ladies doubles the following year. Between 1924 to 1931 - she had won five singles titles, five doubles titles and four mixed doubles.

UNTIMELY DEATH AND IMMORTALITY
After having delivered her first child in 1932, Daphne Akhurst now known as Mrs. Cozens played a match with her friend and former doubles winning partner, Louie Bickerton at a local event in Pratten Park in January 1933.  A few days later, she was admitted to a private hospital and underwent an anaesthetic surgery for ectopic pregnancy. She passed away in the hospital leaving behind her husband and her five-month old son. The entire nation went silent and mourned for this tragic loss.

Later that year in 1933, the New South Wales Tennis Association presented a cup to the Australian Tennis Association for the winner of the Australian ladies singles championships. Since then, the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup is presented to the winners of the Australian Open. Unlike the previous years where Daphne Akhurst retained permanently the Anthony Wilding Memorial Shield (for winning 5 Australian Open singles title), the Daphne Akhurst memorial cup will be held by the respective winners annually. Later in 1935, her good friend and doubles partner Louie Bickerton married Royston Stuckey Cozens (Daphne's husband) and they remained a married couple for 63 years until the time of her death in 1998.

LEGACY
Daphne Akhurst
What went away with her are nothing but those memories in many a people's minds and hearts. With time those souls who witnessed her play on the court too have withered away. Her athletic grace, perfect footwork, a consistent player who defeated her opponents through her rallies than brilliance, a clever finisher of a point, demeanour of great charm attributed to the truest of sportswoman of that era - her stoic expressions at winning or losing the games never came in the way of the fact that she enjoyed playing each game against her opponents. 


Her playing skills, her splendid nature unspoiled by all the adulations showered on her made her an extremely loveable person. At the time of her death, few questioned when she was held in the same breath as the most famous Australian cricketer Victor Trumper (before Bradman).