New Zealand Courts Tennis Fever

The conventional wisdom is that Australia is a tennis-mad country, but who would have guessed New Zealand?

Here are some symptoms of a mild tennis mania observed in recent days in the land of Middle Earth:

The country awoke one morning last week to find The New Zealand Herald complaining that Television New Zealand had failed to broadcast enough tennis from the Heineken Open, an international men's tournament which drew dozens of talented competitors to Auckland. The event is a warm-up to the Australian Open, which opened Monday in Melbourne.

On its front page, The Herald reported complaints by viewers eager to watch Brazil's Gustavo Kuertan's attempt to repeat his 2001 French Open final victory over Spain's Alex Corretja.

Kuertan, cheered from the stands by dozens of young Brazilian tennis fans living in New Zealand, squeaked past Corretja, in three long sets. The Herald called it a "classic" match and harrumphed that viewers had been denied the opportunity to see it live because of poor scheduling by television programmers.

Last week, readers of The Truth, encountered a giant headline on newsstands: "Vice Girls Dress as Tennis Babes." In breathless tones, the tabloid newspaper reported that Auckland prostitutes had begun wearing skimpy tennis skirts to attract customers who were attending the ASB Bank Open, the international women's tournament which also precedes the Australian Open.

The facts presented by The Truth, which is similar in appearance to America's National Enquirer, seemed as skimpy as the skirts they allegedly discovered. (This reporter found many comments but no one who would be identified by name).

Still, it demonstrated that an admittedly sensationalist newspaper found tennis worthy of scandal, believing it would sell extra copies.

Dreams of Backyard Tennis

New Zealand's passions for sport run more deeply to rugby and yacht racing. The country's All Blacks form one of the world's premier rugby organizations. Team New Zealand is the nation's racing phenomenon, an athletic and marketing juggernaut which grew out of its success in winning the Americas Cup.

But love of tennis still runs deep in the soul of at least one Kiwi encountered recently by a visiting American couple. (Kiwi is the term New Zealanders affectionately apply to themselves in honor of their national bird).

Attending Sunday church services in the city of Tauranga, population 90,000, the Americans found themselves invited to lunch by a fellow churchgoer, Bruce Kitchingman. When he learned that the American husband (your reporter) was a tennis player and fan, he smiled: "I've got a grass court," he said, "You must come and play."

Arriving at his rural home, which is surrounded by flowing wild grasses, vivid flowers and shrubs, and trees bearing grapefruit, oranges, and avocados, Kitchingman wheeled an aging lawnmower under a trellis and into the back yard.

Within 10 minutes, the lanky, bearded New Zealand homeowner had cleared a court-sized space, dragged a badminton-sized net into place at the appropriate height, and pronounced Centre Court ready for play.

Despite the absence of chalk lines (for which the host apologized), the two competitors spent nearly an hour in spirited rallies, stopping only to retrieve errant tennis balls, which skipped occasionally into surrounding flower beds and an orchard.

When they joined their wives for lunch in the house, Kitchingman recalled his visit to Wimbledon 25 years ago while he and his wife, Brenda, were working in London. Then, about 14 years ago, he said, long after their return to New Zealand, the couple negotiated a compromise.

"She said I could put in a court," Kitchingman said, "as long as I did not build fences."

That way, he explained, it left room for her to plant flowers in a garden. And in return, it gave him the delight of a grass court on which to play his beloved sport of tennis.