Harry Hopman built great Aussie tennis teams of 1950s and '60s

Harry Hopman's rigid style of discipline, which he used to whip Australia to 15 Davis Cup championships in the 1950s and '60s, probably wouldn't go with today's players. But back in that era no one was about to question his authority -- especially when his teams dominated the game so completely. It was as though Hopman had his own military academy, only his soldiers carried tennis rackets, not guns. Never did the seemingly bottomless pit of upcoming young Aussie hopefuls that Hopman discovered ever wonder who was boss. And those players Harry did not think had the proper attitude or inner toughness usually either found themselves in another sport or simply disappeared from the mainstream of world tennis.

The players jokingly called him Captain Bligh (out of earshot), and indeed, Hopman's discipline frequently stretched well beyond the court. He had gag rules and curfews. He would fine players for picking up the wrong fork at dinner or failing to wear a jacket to a reception. Manners and protocol were big with Harry, and his players were always among the best behaved in the world.

The ones he eventually picked to represent Australia in Davis Cup competition nearly always confirmed his judgment. They were all tough physically and mentally, and so fundamentally sound that team mistakes were cut not only to the bone but to the marrow.

And the results are there in the record books for all to see. From 1950 through 1968 Australia played in the Davis Cup challenge round 19 consecutive years, losing only to the United States on four scattered occasions.

Hopman, who passed on recently at his home in Florida, where he ran a tennis camp for young people, had one piece of advice that he used so often his players could hear it in their sleep. ``Relax,'' Harry would say, ``and hit for the lines.''

Hopman's idea behind this simple statement was to remind his players not just to get the ball back, but to make their opponents stretch in order to make a return. Hopman liked to have his players create pressure on the other side of the net, either by hitting everything deep or crosscourt. It was no accident, either, when Australia's Davis Cup teams played just as hard in the fifth set (if indeed a fifth set was necessary) as they had in the first.

Talk to any of the famous players Harry developed (Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Frank Sedgman, Fred Stolle, Neale Fraser, Ken Rosewall, Mal Anderson, John Newcombe, Tony Roche, etc.), and they'll all tell you the same thing: Harry Hopman's strategy may not have been better than anyone else's, but when it came to matching up winning personalities and styles, he knew exactly what he was doing.

Still vividly remembered is a conversation I had with Laver back in the early '70s about Hopman.

``I didn't discover Harry Hopman,'' Laver told me, ``he discovered me. I was 15 and attending a tennis clinic. Harry was there and he talked to me afterward. I don't remember what he said exactly, but of course I had heard of him and was aware of his reputation.''

Pressed as to what the Hopman teaching magic later did for his game, Laver replied that it was Harry who taught him the value of fundamentals and always keeping his emotions under control.

``Hopman also showed me how important it is to know how much of a game you've got and how to use it,'' Rod continued. ``In other words, he wanted you to learn how not to force your game beyond a certain point. Otherwise, you'd lose control and probably the match.

``When I was on his Davis Cup squads, he always made sure everyone worked hard in practice. And although practice was never a bore for me, it was for some players. Harry always seemed to know who was loafing and who wasn't. Playing sufaces were more varied then, too, which was another thing Hopman would take into consideration when getting us ready for international competition.''

Hopman, who was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1978, won the Australian mixed doubles championship with Nell Hall in 1930. After they were married, they won it three more times in 1936, '37, and '39. Harry teamed with Jack Crawford to capture the Australian men's doubles title in 1929 and '30. Then in 1939, he and Alice Marble won the US mixed doubles crown.

For those too young to remember Hopman, he was as legendary a figure in his sport as Casey Stengel in baseball, Vince Lombardi in football, or Red Auerbach in basketball.

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