First Maori woman at Big W looks back on a path-breaking career

Ruia Morrison reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in 1957.

Ruia Morrison remembers the silence, and the noise, in London when she became the first Maori woman to grace the Wimbledon grass in 1957. “I was a lonely little petunia in a big onion patch, and the silence suffocated me,” she says. At 83, her voice creaks, there are long pauses between words and nostalgia warms a small corner in New Zealand. The silence was from the English crowd, a cultural contrast from the cheery hand-clapping Auckland tennis fans, and the noise was the bustle in the streets of the British capital, a far cry from the serenity that pervaded at home.

‘Lonely little petunia’ is an idiom that had bloomed from a 1946 melancholic song with the same lyrics. Ruia’s London sojourn was to turn around, rather she turned it around with pluck, hope, skill, and a cheerful attitude that has seen her rise above race and perception battles to live a full and cherished life.“In Auckland, they would keep cheering and clapping even when the game is in progress. I like to feed off the crowd’s support. Here you could only hear the sound of the racquet on the ball. Back then, the racquets never made as much sound as they do these days. Just a swish, and I don’t remember anyone grunting,” she says.

There are long pauses between words, but Ruia’s memory is clear and loud. London marvelled her so deeply that the memories are still fresh — beautiful buildings and streets, lovely cafes and art galleries, the trams and trains, but the bustle dazed her. “I see people literally running on the street. Everyone’s so busy. I think I saw more people in London that week than the whole of my life in Auckland and Rotorua.”

Auckland was where she learnt tennis, and Rotorua was where she was born and now resides.

Back to the Wimbledon grass, it took Ruia little time to wow the crowd, both with her game and charm. More charm than game, she asserts: “My game, frankly, was average. I was not powerful as say Serena (Williams) or as graceful as Steffi (Graf), but I would fight for each and every point. I was a small little girl. But I would put my life on it. But then I always kept smiling, whether I lost or won a point. I would greet the crowd in the traditional Maori way. I wanted to get them involved in my game,” she says.

But Dick Garrat, her biographer and president of the Rotorua Tennis Association, differs. “She had an amazing all-round game. Her forehand was lightning fast, it would explode off the grass, and she had a terrific serve. The courts back then were faster too. Her game would have won her a lot of matches in the current era too,” he says.

Ruia strolled into the quarterfinals, where she stumbled to American Betty Pratt. then world No 4. But not without a fight in the second set which Pratt won 11-9. “I made a lot of basic mistakes, but after the match she came and told me, ‘thank you for letting me win.’ I was in tears. I was obviously devastated at losing, but most importantly I was proud to be there, as an ambassador of my country and the Maori community. I didn’t let either down,” she says.

Three more trips to Wimbledon didn’t yield a better result, but how she reached there is a more fascinating story. There were two hurdles: money and race. Despite winning junior titles, she never got a ticket to the national championship, the winners of which got Grand Slam tickets. “I was always omitted, citing some reason or the other. Once they even claimed I was injured. I wasn’t. I knew the implication. It only motivated me more to fight and earn my rights,” Ruia says.

But in 1956, a couple of Auckland-based coaches protested her exclusion and persuaded the selectors to pick her for the national championship. Ironically, she picked a toe injury but played with it to win the tournament and earn her Wimbledon entry. “After I won the championship, I became nervous and started developing cold feet. How can I play on that stage?”

Music bands raised funds

Another bigger worry was finance. The funding from the New Zealand Tennis Association was negligible and she wouldn’t get sponsors. “Who would sponsor a small little Maori girl?” she asks. But then some of her well-wishers, including her mentor Hoani Waititi, a young teacher at St Stephen’s School in Auckland, and a local tennis umpire, decided to fund-raise her trip through a concert of Maori bands from around the country. “The support was overwhelming. Hundreds of them turned out,” she recollects.

They helped her raise around 3000 New Zealand dollars and she was on her way to London. “It was the first time I ever saw a plane, let alone travel in one. I didn’t even know anyone (from her community) who had been on a flight. I had to arrange a passport too. And the thought of a small girl in a big city worried me,” she remembers, laughing out loudly.

Then she goes philosophical: “Destiny is strange. It takes you to places you’d never imagined. I had never thought of going outside Rotorua. Not even Auckland.”

The first twist of destiny was her father meeting a rich white lady called Mrs Mowbray, who was vacationing in Rotorua, an adventure tourist destination. In a casual conversation, he told her that his daughter liked tennis. “We had a strong tennis culture. I don’t know how we got it, but there used to be inter-town tournaments among Maoris. And I was good at it. I also used to knock it around with my father, with worn-out tennis balls and home-made wooden racquets, which were quite heavy. Since I was the youngest at home, I didn’t have much work at home either,” Ruia recalls.

So the lady invited her to a match and the young Morrison impressed her. “She was like ‘why don’t you come over to Auckland? I will enrol you in a club, where you’ll proper training.’ I was scared and told I wouldn’t go. I had never been out of Rotorua. No one in our locality had,” she says.

But persuaded by her father, she packed her bags for Auckland. Naturally athletic and supple, she made an instant impression at the Eden-Epsom Tennis Club. And because she had nothing else to do, she ended up playing tennis all the time.

“I would even play against boys and men. I would lose a lot of games, but I became a tougher player,” she says. It’s there she met Waititi, a teacher, umpire and Maori activist, who turned out to be her godfather. He got her into the Queen Victoria School for Maori Girls, and made arrangements for her free schooling. He provided her with racquets and other equipment. “He took care of me like a brother, convinced me that I had the potential to win national championships and told me not to worry about money for training and going to tournaments,” she recollects. Her world, even without her realisation, began revolving around tennis.

Beating the great Court

In 1960, the New Zealand national championship became the New Zealand Open. There was a publicity drive and famous players from outside the country were invited for the first time. The biggest among them was Margaret Court, who had just exploded onto the circuit with her Australian Open triumph. The bets were on a Morrison-Court final. Court was 18 and Morrison 24. “The build-up was crazy and, as expected, both of us reached the final. It wouldn’t get bigger than a Kiwi-Aussie final.”

Morrison was so enamoured by Court’s game that she stood frozen for the first 15 minutes of the match. Then she woke up to the piercing sound of claps. “I can’t let my country down,” she whispered to herself. In the next hour and a half, she played perhaps her best game ever, beating Court in straight sets. “I felt like I was in a trance,” she says. But it was also the start of a warm friendship.

Thereafter, though, her career plummeted. She continued her hegemony in the New Zealand Open, but was never the same again. At 32, she retired, after which she decided to start teaching at a local school. “I got several offers to start an academy or do coaching. But once my career was over, I didn’t want to continue in the game. I thought I will go back home and pass on my knowledge to the kids in Rotorua,” she reflects.

But whenever nostalgia clutches her, she feels her hands through the old wooden racquet she had preciously preserved from her match against Pratt. And then she would again feel like a lonely little petunia in a big onion patch. And get transported to a beautiful world of cafes and streets, art galleries and pristine green courts.

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