He’s one of those familiar faces you see at Rovers games. Always good for a bit of a yarn about footy, he knows the game inside out, this old fellah.
We discuss the team’s prospects and agree that…’if the big guns can fire today, we’re in with a show’. He bemoans the fact that they’re turning the ball over a bit….” but a lot of those kids are still learning and they’ll be all right eventually”.
I ask him whether he’d watched Wimbledon on the telly. ”Till all hours”, he says” It cost me a bit of sleep, but I really enjoyed it”.
What a stupid question, I reflect later – this bloke’s a legend. He won a Wimbledon doubles title 50 years ago and was a star when Australia was the finest tennis nation in the world….
Rex Hartwig grew up with the love of the land in his blood. As a student in Culcairn, he was his father’s right-hand man on the farm during the week and his tennis partner at the Culcairn club on Saturday afternoons.
The search for tennis opportunity lured him to Albury, then to Melbourne, where he joined the Spalding company and honed his game against quality players.
He caused people to sit up and take notice in 1952 when he took out the South Australian singles title. His hard-hitting groundstrokes and strong volleying game soon earned him the name of ‘Wrecker’. The plaudits of tennis officianados came his way on his first overseas tour.
Hartwig matched up with Mervyn Rose and the pairing clicked, as they reached the final of the Wimbledon doubles in 1953 and won the title in 1954.
Playing with Lew Hoad in 1955 he added another Wimbledon crown to his expanding ‘CV’. Rex had been a member of Davis Cup teams in the previous two years, but possibly his greatest triumph came in the Challenge Round at Forest Hills in 1955.
He and Hoad clinched the Cup for Australia by beating Americans Tony Trabert and Vic Seixas in a doubles match still rated by some as the greatest ever seen in the celebrated history of Davis Cup tennis.
The report of the match said: “…..it was fitting that Hartwig, the player of the match, made the final point, volleying past Trabert, who sprawled on the court. Hartwig in his elation, threw his racquet high in the air and danced across the court to throw his arms around Hoad”.
Rex represented Australia from 1953-’55, playing 6 Singles and 7 Doubles matches. He was twice a member of winning Davis Cup teams and played in one losing Challenge Round.
He turned pro in December 1955 and, in a six-month period, played 101 matches as a member of Jack Kramer’s troupe. They flew 17,500 miles and drove 37,500 miles,playing on all manner of courts and in sometimes deplorable conditions.
But he held his own against Pancho Gonzales, Pancho Segura and Tony Trabert and later, against Frank Sedgman on the European leg of the tour.
When Hoad, then Ken Rosewall, turned pro, Hartwig was their opponent on Australasian tours.
In 1958 Rex and his wife Madge invested in a farm at Greta and a couple of years later, settled there for good with their growing family, realising a dream to return to the land.
Tennis and its glamorous sidelights became a distant memory. In those days, when amateur-professional wrangling was rife in tennis, the stigma of being a ‘pro’ meant that he was unable to play locally, even if he so desired.
He eventually sought re-instatement as an amateur and was able to play alongside some of his six kids.
Then came a ‘phone call in the mid-70’s requesting him to join the Grand Masters tour. Despite being a little ‘rusty’ he returned to the touring life for 5 years, playing in front of packed houses in resorts around the world.
It was made more enjoyable because he was able to travel with his wife Madge.
Then it was back to a life of relative obscurity, as he followed his kids’ sporting progress and satisfied his competitive urges by playing local squash and table tennis, in which he was well-nigh unbeatable.
Rex received an unexpected honour 20 years ago when he and Madge accepted an invitation to be guests of the All-England Tennis Club at Wimbledon.
It was a ‘Thank You’ for his services to Wimbledon.The Hartwigs were feted like true celebrities. They were greeted at Heathrow Airport by a stretch limousine and provided with ‘Five-Star accommodation, with all expenses paid.
It was a pleasant break from the daily routine of trudging around the farm at Greta and tending to the prized Poll Dorset sheep which populate its ample paddocks.
Rex started following the Rovers in 1972, when his son Leigh came in from Greta. He saw most of his 252 senior games and delighted in the 5 premiership teams in which Leigh was involved.
And now he and the family watch grandson Tyson, the Rovers skipper and the Ovens and Murray League’s premier full back, as he grapples weekly with the ‘Glamazon’ spearheads of the current era.
It’s a long way from Wimbledon and Forest Hills, but the sporting atmosphere still gives the old warrior a kick, even if he is just ‘one of the crowd.