In one of the ever-changing phases of our youth, a few of my school-mates became obsessed with high-jumping.
It was in the aftermath of the Melbourne Olympics, when a wiry Aussie, by the name of Charles ‘Chilla’ Porter, rose from obscurity to almost pinch the Gold Medal from American negro Charlie Dumas.
‘Chilla’ jumped almost two inches higher than his previous best, to stretch Dumas (the red-hot favourite ) to the limit, in a contest that was finally settled at sunset on a balmy late-November afternoon.
Inspired by his deeds, we would hare off after school, get changed and head to one of the hastily-constructed high jump pits, set up at each of our homes.
We were a mixed bunch, and our passion for all sports certainly surpassed the effort we put into school-work. In winter the emphasis was on football, then our attention turned to cricket and tennis once the final siren had sounded.
Our high-jumping aspirations faded, and so, in truth, did most of our sporting careers. Except for one kid, who began to shine in his chosen sport and proceeded, over the next half-century, to live out his dream……………
Dick Hiskins was the Rovers Property steward in the mid-fifties and his son Ken, and I, were two of the Hawks’ keenest young fans.
At one stage we formed the ‘Teddy Reaks Fan Club’. Ours was a sympathetic attempt to support a much-maligned, lumbering former Collingwood Thirds player, who was copping it from Rovers fans for his inability to live up to expectations.
My devotion to the Hawks never wavered, but Ken’s became compromised when his dad, who was also the curator of the Wangaratta Tennis Club, handed him a brand-new racquet.
From then on, the die was cast.
He became arguably Wangaratta’s finest-ever home-grown tennis player, and strutted his stuff on courts around the world. In an exciting era, during which tennis underwent massive change, he was to rub shoulders with the greats of the game……………..
A travelling tennis coach, Tony Caplice spotted the talented Hiskins during his regular visits to Champagnat College. He suggested extra lessons of a Saturday morning. “Tell your parents not to worry, it’ll be free of charge,” he said.
He jumped at the opportunity. From there, Ken would have a bite to eat, then head down to his beloved Lawn courts, where he began to hone his skills against the likes of local stars Keith Lipshut, Laurie and Cliff Flanigan, Des Stone, Ron Beazley, and Rex Hartwig.
Hartwig, one of the king-pins of a golden era in Australian tennis, had invested in a Poll Dorset stud sheep farm at Greta in the late fifties and loved playing at Merriwa Park whenever he got the opportunity.
” Rex had an enormous influence on me,” Ken said. “He’s a genius. What he doesn’t know about the game isn’t worth knowing.”
Whilst still a teen-ager, Hiskins won a club championship and a regional singles title. He twice took out the coveted ANA singles crown – the first local to achieve the feat.
And when he won a Victorian Country Junior title, he caught the eye of Australia’s Davis Cup coach Harry Hopman.
At Hopman’s invitation, and following a visit from another former champ Neale Fraser, he spent two years in Melbourne, working at Spalding. He trained with ‘Hoppy’s’ elite squad and was subjected to the intense discipline that was the trademark of the legend’s coaching.
By then he felt he was ready to test himself overseas and, thanks to the 100 pounds that his dad had scrounged together and handed to him, set off on a boat to Europe in 1966.
Ken played mixed doubles at the last amateur Wimbledon championships in 1967 and was part of the mixed doubles and singles draw at the first open Wimbledon in 1968. His win against highly-rated Frenchman Jean Francheau in the first round of the ’68 qualifiers pitted him against Lance Lumsden. The unpredictable Jamaican outlasted him in a tight four-set battle.
He also participated in the world’s first-ever open tournament, the British Hardcourt titles at Bournemouth. The singles event was won by Rod Laver, but the youngster was proud to reach the mixed doubles quarter-finals.
Ken’s most important wins came in Geneva and Kitzbul in 1967, and at Bordeaux in 1968. The Bordeaux championship, which was worth a dozen bottles of wine and about $100 to him at the time, now boasts prizemoney of half-a-million dollars.
He returned to Australia in 1970, to boost his chances of obtaining a ranking, but was forced to put his tennis ambitions on hold when he was called up to National Service. He was headed to Vietnam, but someone in officialdom heard of his tennis prowess and he was re-posted to Puckapunyal as a physical training instructor.
” Conscription put a real dampener on my tennis career, and after my army service was finished, I decided to pursue professional coaching, combined with playing a few tournaments,” he said.
“Tennis Australia gave me a couple of wild-cards to the Open, and I qualified and played singles and doubles in 1973 and ’74.”
With little money, no ranking, and a family to support, Ken became a full-time coach in 1974 and headed overseas with his wife Lorraine and their three kids, to coaching stints in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and America.
He coached Israel’s Davis Cup squad in the mid-70’s and, in 1980, landed the plum job as Head Coach at Germany’s Rot Weiss Tennis and Hockey Club.
It proved to be a life-changing appointment, particularly for the kids, Jeremy, Justine and Rachel, who loved the environment, became adept at the language and developed a deep affinity with the sport of hockey.
Jeremy became a Commonwealth Games Gold Medallist and a dual Champions Trophy silver medallist with the Kookaburras ; Justine also represented Australia, and Rachel was twice named an All-American.
On his return to Australia, Ken was appointed Head Coach at the Booroondarra Tennis Centre, then coached at a centre in Plenty, in Melbourne’s Diamond Valley.
With his coaching reputation highly-recognised, he was sought-after by several rising stars, and spent the next 10 years touring the world and being very much a part of the international circuit.
He had four Swiss boys in his charge at one stage, when a fellow coach, Aussie Peter Carter, asked if one of his boys could work under him for a few days.
“Just run the rule over him if you will, Ken,” said Carter. “He’s a hot-headed bugger, but he’s got loads of talent and I think he’ll be something special. Let me know what you think of him.”
It was Roger Federer.
There were heaps of sacrifices involved in touring globally, particularly being away from his family. “For instance, I’ll always regret missing two of the kids making their hockey debuts for Australia,” he says.
“I was sitting in my hotel room one night, reflecting. I thought to myself: ‘What the hell am I doing here ?”
So he knew it was time to resume a normal life, and he and Lorraine settled in Launceston in 1996, where he took up a job at the local Indoor Sports Centre.
But, instead of slowing down, he found himself as the Tasmanian coach and then head of the Launceston Tennis Academy.
He finally pulled the pin on his marathon tennis journey in 2011, when he retired from the Academy.
He had overseen the development of thousands of youngsters in his 40-odd years as a coach, and knew tennis like the back of his hand.
It had certainly been a dream run for the boy from Phillipson Street…….