Thursday, January 29, 1998

Tennis - Helen Wills Moody and Athy

Lawn tennis is a popular game and one which has a history in Athy stretching back into the last century. I have yet to pin-point the exact date when the aficionados of the sport came together to form a lawn tennis club in the town but it has been suggested to me that the relevant date was 1885. If this is true then it was only eight years after a lawn tennis championship was first staged at the Wimbledon Club in London. That tennis had a strong following in Ireland in the latter part of the 19th century is borne out by the success of Irish players in the Wimbledon All-English Championships during the period 1890 - 1896. In 1890 the Mens Single Championship was won by the Monasterevin born Willoby Hamilton who was then twenty-six years old. A keen sportsman, Hamilton had won Irish tennis championships in each of the preceding four years and in addition was an Irish/Soccer International.

In the same year as Hamilton’s single title win the mens double winners were also Irish, as was the lady singles winner. Indeed Irish players figured in many of the Wimbledon finals in the 1890’s with Dr. Joshua Pim emerging as singles champion in 1892 and 1894. Another Irishman Harold Mahony won the mens singles in 1896. He was the last of the Irish winners at Wimbledon.

A second Lawn Tennis Club was started in Athy in 1934. Called the “Geraldine Tennis Club” it acquired grounds in Chanterlands on the Carlow Road. Some of the Members of the Clubs first committee included Joe Hickey, James Tierney, Edward Dooley, Philip Gunn, Tommy Mulhall and William Keyes. From this Tennis Club there was later to develop the Social Club which occupied the former legion hall in St. John’s Lane.

I was reminded of all this when reading of the death of Helen Wills Moody, an American player and eight times winner of Wimbledon who passed away recently in California at the age of ninety-two years. Her lists of successes as a singles player on the tennis circuits of the world were considerable. Seven American Championships between 1923 and 1931, eight English titles between 1927 and 1938 and four successive French titles from 1927 onwards.

Described as a player of unerring accuracy and control she always remained composed on the tennis court. As a baseline player she could drive the tennis ball with more pace and depth off the ground than any of her rivals. As her recent obituary stated “she dominated her matches with both power and precision, cutting down her opponents by directing the ball rhythmically and relentlessly from corner to corner forcing her opponents into mistakes by virtue of her extraordinary command of the court”.

Married in 1929 to American stockbroker Frederick Moody she divorced him in 1937 and two years later married Aidan Roark, an International polo player from Co. Wexford. Aidan was one of two brothers of Violet Roark who was married to David Telford of Barrowford, Athy. David’s father was Stephen Telford who on marrying an Anderson purchased Barrowford House. He was the proprietor of the Athy Tile and Brick Company which operated at Barrowford.

Private lawn tennis parties were an important part of the social scene at the big houses in rural Ireland in the earlier part of the century. This was a tradition which continued until more recent years, and indeed is becoming fashionable yet again. Helen Wills Moody, the most famous tennis player of her day and regarded by many as the best woman player of all time, visited her sister-in-law in Barrowford House in the early 1940’s with her second husband Aidan Roark. Just a few years following her last success in the Wimbledon Finals of 1938 she played on the tennis court at Barrowford in what was her one and only visit to Ireland.

The American tennis star was feted wherever she went, but I have not yet come across any references to her visit to Athy. She was a lady to whom all doors were open. On the continent she partnered the King of Norway in a tennis match, while in England she was presented at Buckingham Palace. She sat for the artist Augustus John, while George Bernard Shaw presented her with a signed copy of
“St. Joan”. She was herself an artist of some merit and in 1929 held an exhibition in London of her own still life’s with sketches of her contemporaries while a similar exhibition in New York was a sell-out.

When Reggie Hannon, now of Dublin whose family has strong ties with Ardreigh, first drew my attention to Helen Wills Moody’s visit to Athy, I knew nothing of the former tennis star. Within weeks I came across a copy of her 1928 book on Tennis which the authoress and Tennis Champion had illustrated herself. Her recent death deprives Athy of its tenuous connection with the world of first class tennis. The heady days of Willoughby Hamilton and his peers are long gone but nevertheless, Lawn Tennis remains a popular club sport in Athy more than 100 years after the first club was started in the town.

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