“THE KATAMATITE FARMER…….A COUNTRY SPORTING LEGEND…….”

Wangaratta’s Annual Australia Day Tennis Tournament has become a local institution since it first kicked off 96 years ago.

Some of the legendary names in the sport have trodden the grass courts of Merriwa Park in late January……..including Davis Cup luminaries Neale Fraser, Frank Sedgman, Rex Hartwig and George Worthington……..

A shy, prodigiously talented 13 year-old from Albury, Margaret Smith, once swept through the tournament to win the C-Grade Singles…………Five years later she collected the first of seven Australian Singles championships, en-route to taking out 24 Grand Slam Titles……..Of course, as Margaret Court she remains a celebrated ( somewhat controversial ) figure in the game.

Countless other talented visiting stars strutted their stuff…….. like Wayne Reid, Bob and Daryl Mark, cunning left-hander Jimmy Matthews, Brian Tobin….and Albury’s Wurtz brothers ( Ken and Rod ) who chalked up a staggering 16 Singles titles between them…….

There were a couple of other regular attendees who, in my growing-up years of the fifties, epitomised the strength of regional tennis – and rank highly among the North-East’s best-ever players……..

Bert Kearney hailed from Murchison; his great mate Pat O’Kane was Katamatite born-and-bred…………

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O’Kane, who passed away recently, was a fixture in the tiny town of Katamatite ( population just over 430 ) for all of his 96 years…….He is acclaimed as one of its greatest products.

Like most of his eight siblings, he was taught the rudiments of Tennis by his dad Maurice, on the town’s hard courts.

Honing his talent by belting thousands of tennis balls against a wall at the club, he was encouraged by Maurice to utilise both hands.

The ambidextrous O’Kane style sometimes disconcerted opponents as he began to rise through junior ranks………..they were unable to exploit a possible backhand weakness, as he would simply swap the racquet from right to left hand and play with equal proficiency.

Pat’s first foray to the Wangaratta tournament began in the late forties……..His cousin Gerald, the licensee of the Criterion Hotel ( a then-prominent establishment at the southern end of Murphy Street ) followed in his father’s footsteps by being heavily involved with the local club……He’d been a three-time Singles Champ…….

Pat, nine years his junior, relished the prospect of tangling with Gerald during the tournament……

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Pat O’Kane and Bert Kearney were the face of country tennis. The pair were fierce singles rivals and dominated Country Week during the post-war era. They met in many memorable matches, and formed a dynamic Doubles partnership.

One encounter – a Final at Kooyong – had been affected by rain and O’Kane convinced himself that the fluffed-up balls were suiting Kearney’s steady, baseline game…..

He approached the umpire, Mrs.Nell Hopman, for new balls, but when she answered in the negative, he belted them out of the court….and over the nearby railway line……

Mrs.Hopman had no option but to produce a new tin of balls…..Satisfied that he had triumphed in this ‘battle of wits’ , O’Kane went back to receive serve, only to notice Kearney dipping the new balls under a nearby tap…….

Pat O’Kane won eight Country Week singles titles, six inter-regional championships, and was seeded fifth in the Australian Hardcourt titles of 1952.

He played against many of the greats – including Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Neale Fraser – and reflected that he produced some of the best tennis of his career whilst lowering his colours to these champs.

Former Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman once wrote that O’Kane could have taken his game to another level had he been prepared to forego the farm and concentrate on tennis full-time…….But the pull of Katamatite was too strong for the dyed-in-the-wool cockie………

He toured overseas with Kearney and Mervyn Rose in 1958, contesting Wimbledon and the US, French and Italian Opens, besides several other tournaments in Europe and Ireland.

It was on this tour that he turned in what he regarded as one of his finest performances…….against one-time World Number One Neale Fraser, just five days after the left-hander had played off in the Wimbledon Final.

He took Fraser to three sets in Ireland’s Limerick Open, highlighted by Pat taking out a marathon second set, 11 games to 9……..As some consolation, he and Kearney were successful in the Doubles Championship.

O’Kane and the left-handed showman Mervyn Rose were first opposed in an Under 21 event at Bendigo. Rated Australia’s outstanding junior behind Frank Sedgman at the time, Rose was unperturbed when Pat accused him of cheating…..

He had shouted ‘Bad Luck’ a couple of times, after Pat passed him with seemingly obvious winners, which persuaded the umpire to call the points in Rose’s favour……

“You’ll never make the Davis Cup team by cheating, Merv,” O’Kane blurted……..”You want to bet ? “ was the reply….

The pair eventually became great friends, and Pat was on the sidelines, riding every shot, when Merv Rose took out the 1958 French Open.

O’Kane’s strong relationship with many of the top-ranking players resulted in him inviting some of them to compete in exhibition matches in regional areas.

A leather skipping rope remained his constant companion when playing tennis. It was one of his keep-fit exercises when playing, and he still continued to skip into his late eighties

In the latter part of his career, he contracted ‘tennis elbow’, which prompted him to curtail his tennis commitments, before a spinal injury, incurred whilst hay-carting in 1963, hastened his retirement from the game.

His contribution to tennis was acknowledged in 2000 when he received an Australian Sports Medal…….

O’Kane’s association with the Yarrawonga Football Club began when he was recruited from Tungamah.

A strong, high-marking forward, he later transferred to Numurkah for four years, where he played a key role in two premierships, before moving over to the Benalla-Tungamah League club Burramine, which his brother Brendan (‘Curly’) was coaching.

Another two flags followed, with O’Kane proving irresistible in front of the big sticks, once booting 31 goals in three games.

Melbourne invited him to play a handful of Reserves games at the time he was playing pennant tennis in the city…….But again, farm commitments were the barrier to him taking up the offer………

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Pat’s fascination with the ‘Sport of Kings’ began when he started pencilling for bookmaker Don McLean……….His keen eye for the punt was illustrated when he declared that 20/1 outsider Lord Fury would win the 1961 Melbourne Cup, despite having finished last in its lead-up race, the MacKinnon Stakes……… Lord Fury led from start to finish, and the winnings went towards building a new shearing shed at the O’Kane farm.

On the other side of the coin, his horse Little Princess was retired after beating just one horse home in 11 winless starts.

He did have particular success, as a part-owner of pacer Murray Mack which won more than 20 races, including a Sire’s Produce at the Melbourne Showgrounds.. ……..

Cycling was another of his great interests. One of his heroes was the legendary Sid Patterson, and he keenly followed the fortunes of his brother-in-law John Holgate, whose major success came when he won two Melbourne to Yarrawonga road races ……..

As a pro-athletics enthusiast, he rendered lengthy service to the iconic Burramine Gift program, and was bestowed Life Membership of the Sports Club………He was also on the Board of Directors of the Victorian Athletic League for a decade….

His annual pilgrimage to the Stawell Gift continued until his mid-eighties…….There was no one prouder at Central Park when Katamatite’s own Glenn Crawford greeted the judge in 1995.

Crawford won his Gift heat in convincing fashion, but had to survive an agonising five hours of deliberation after a protest was lodged by the stewards…….. O’Kane and John Carr (Pat’s best-man, and the 1957 Gift winner) represented the race-favourite at his appeal, culminating in the disqualification being overturned……Instead, a fine was handed down.

Crawford swept to an emphatic win in the Final the next day in a blistering 11.79 seconds ( still the fastest time ever recorded )……..

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Pat O’Kane maintained a deep connection to the Australian Labour Party and the Collingwood Football Club……….

He knew only too well that the local Federal seat of Nicholls was far beyond the reach of the ALP, but nevertheless, was always a keen observer of the result. He kept an eye on the voting in Katamatite one year, and ascertained that there should be 8 guaranteed ALP votes – 6 O’Kane’s and 2 McDermott’s……..Alas, the figures showed only 7 votes……

He was unable to fathom it out…… couldn’t believe that someone in the family had crossed the party line…….until…..much to his relief, he worked out that one of the O’Kane’s had recently moved to Bendigo and changed electorates………

Likewise, he took his role as a lifelong supporter of Collingwood seriously…….

When his son Brian asked him to name his six greatest Magpies he grabbed a pen and began to scribble down the names……..In order, Albert Collier (1), Nathan Buckley (2), Bobby Rose (3), Des Fothergill (4), Jack Regan (5), Ron Todd (6)…..

The result was that he endured a restless night, and at 7 o’clock the next morning Brian received a surprise call from his dad…….The list just didn’t seem right……”I want to change it,” he said. “Bobby Rose has to go in front of Buckley…….Write it down, Brian…..That’s for history’s sake…..”

Long-time friend Danny Russell says that Pat wrote many other lists for his scrap-book, including the greatest tennis-players of all-time…..

“Pat said: ‘I was lucky to have seen the great American Jack Kramer play at his best…..I rank him ahead of Pancho Gonzales and Lew Hoad as the best player I have seen….’ In later years he loved Nadal….”

Danny added that, in 2015 he was asked to rank the 10 greatest racehorses in an article for the Herald-Sun……..” I haven’t told anyone ‘til now… but that was Pat’s list……It had to be……”

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Pat O’Kane, champion sportsman, brilliant raconteur, outstanding citizen, maintained that he was the only person to have shorn 200 sheep in a day…….and competed at Wimbledon……

He is survived by his wife of 55 years, Edna, and children Anne Maree and Brian. He was the father-in-law of Brennan and Cheryl and Grandfather of Patrick, Billy, Gus and Piper……….

P.S: With special thanks to Anne Maree O’Kane and Danny Russell.

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