Harry Hopman, the Australian wizard

Jan 23, 2014, 12:00:00 AM

To restore his players’ self-confidence, Gary Hopman, the greatest Australian coach in tennis history had a technique of his own, based on card games. A method to discover in the portrait of the week.

Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Fred Stolle and Tony Roche. All these Australian champions have one thing in common: Harry Hopman, also known as “the wizard”, has trained them all at some point in their life. A tennis coach famous for being rigid, obsessive, paternalistic, both journalist and gambler, who sent, wave after wave, his protégés dominate world tennis. Portrait.


"One day, I really got tired of seeing the Americans getting all the trophies, drink the best champagne and kiss the prettiest girls." On the other side of the ocean, in Australia, a man is preparing a response. It’s 1948 and Harry Hopman tennis coach and journalist decides to find local tennis hopes able to destroy once and for all, the overwhelming dominance of post-war America. In his quest, a new talent catch his eye: Frank Sedgman, just 19 years old. This tall curly blond with a baby face impresses him with his regularity and incredible physical condition at the time. By his side, Hopman finds a formidable doubles partner, just as precocious and complementary. Ken McGregor, in his early twenties, taller, stronger and more powerful than his sidekick, is a real spider on the net. "If you must remember only one thing, remember that the doubles is a little like marriage: nothing will destroy your union more than a lack of communication," repeated their instructor to them before each match.


Together, the two beautiful babies quickly took off, and managed, in 1951, to complete the first - and so far only - doubles Grand Slam in the history of tennis. Australia, this small country of 10 million inhabitants, was for the first time sovereign in an individual sport. The Davis Cup by PNB Paribas became his kingdom between 1950 and 1967; the "kangaroo" junior class won fifteen times the royal competition of the sport. A feat owed to the old master. "It all started in the early 50s with two magnificent champions that were Franck Sedgman and Ken McGregor. We built a team around them. This team wasn't there just to play the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas. They remained together all year round, remembers Harry Hopman in an interview with French newspaper L'Equipe in 1978. Don’t forget that we, Australians, come a long way, that ten out of twelve month we have to play far from our borders. When you live in a group, the distance is easier to bear, and above all, it allows an extraordinary stimulation." After Sedgman McGregor and Lewis Hoad, Ken Rosewall joined the colony, and quickly rose to the top of the world rankings. In their wake, Neale Fraser, Roy Emerson Rod Laver, and a few years later, John Newcombe and Tony Roche. According to Harry, "this cascade system was extraordinary. Probably the best generation that Australia has ever known. We had a well oiled-machine; I was just there to add a little oil in the wheels once in a while. "


Lucky number and strip clubs


Because of his great modesty, Harry Hopman was always embarrassed by the influence he had on his players and then on the other coaches. "You really have to forget that I was the coach and don't imagine that I’m responsible for all the successes of Australian tennis at the time. With the same players and with the same conditions, another coach would probably have obtained comparable results." However, almost fifty years later, people still talk about the “Hopman training", the "Hopman method", or the "Hopman mentality". A comprehensive philosophy that Lewis Hoad summarized, still for L'Equipe: "He was a man who looked after everything, he says. For example, on my first trip around the world in his team in 1952, I had to work on my fitness more than the others. So regularly he took me for an extra jogging at nightfall while the other players were at the hotel. He also watched over our education and had instituted a system of fines for any misconduct, such as bad table manners, or forgetting our tie..." His demands and rigor sometimes verged paternalism. Lewis Road experienced it: "Regularly he asked me for how long I had not written to my parents and told me that if I delayed, he would stay with me until I finished my letter." Before admitting: "But if he thought that our behaviour was good, he rewarded us. So after my first Roland Garros, he took us to a strip-club in Pigalle for a memorable evening."


During these trips, Hopman usually selected five or six senior players and two or three juniors. For the youngest ones, it was a golden opportunity to live and play with some of the best in the world. Motivation and hard work therefore came naturally. For the older ones, it was a different story: "When he saw that we weren’t in our tournament, he used to organize big poker games where he was letting us win to give us confidence, says Rod Laver. Anyway, he had no idea how to play." Yet, Harry was an inveterate gambler. In 1928, a series of good moves at the Monte Carlo's casino convinced him that his lucky number was the number 5. Obsessive, Harry therefore woke up every day at 5:55, got married five times, had 5 pied-à-terre around the world all acquired through his gambling earnings. During the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas matches, he was even encouraging his protégés to push the confrontation to the fifth game, if not each match to the fifth set. "I'm sick and the money is starting to ruin my life, he admitted in one of his columns for the Australian press. But money will mess the future of tennis even more, you'll see. And I will never get over that."


"No more team life, serious training, solidarity"


In the late 60s, the beginning of the Open era and the professionalization of tennis started to undermine the Hopman's tennis style and therefore all Australian tennis. He explained: "What was possible to achieve when there was no money in tennis has ceased to be from the time the sport has became pro. In 1968, it started to be 'every man for himself'. Players started to go to as many tournaments as possible, trying to earn as much money as possible. The team life, serious training, solidarity, it was all over." Great supporter of the amateur system, he took advantage of his journalistic activities to expose how some amateur players we paid, with bribes and kickbacks. Ironic, when you know that Harry, tired from his long years travelling and also attracted by the prospect of making a good living, left the Australian Federation to go to the U.S. in 1971. Why? To cash out on his coach's talents by opening different tennis academies, such as Port Washington where started a certain John McEnroe: "He's not that impetuous but he's not easy to deal with either. He's just a New Yorker," said his instructor. Harry finally died of a heart attack in Florida in 1985. A few days before his death, one of his former journalists colleagues remembers one of their last discussion. Around the table, Harry was saying that his rigidity and taste for discipline would never have worked with the current generation of players. But his sidekick to remind him: "Don't worry, you shaped the greatest generation of soldiers, not armed with guns but but with racquets. I can tell you that you have knocked down the Americans, and God knows that these people love war."


By Victor Le Grand