Pioneering tennis champion and trailblazer for Māori in sport
Ruia Morrison laughs with delight when she remembers Wimbledon.
“I loved the grass,” she says. “I was very, very comfortable on grass.”
Now aged 82, Morrison was just a teenager when she started making waves on the New Zealand tennis circuit.
Born and raised in Rotorua, Morrison began playing tennis as a child, after her father Hingawaka built two tennis courts for the community to share.
Morrison recalls she used to follow her father everywhere and was only interested in tennis because her dad was a keen player.
But soon she was hooked.
“All I wanted to do was be on a tennis court and hit the ball,” she says.
In 1953, she moved to Auckland and continued to hone her game, going on to win her first national singles title in 1956. She would go on to win the title six times — along with seven national doubles titles — before retiring in 1962.
John Waititi, a tennis umpire and respected Māori leader, saw Morrison play and recognised her potential.
“He saw with his own two eyes, here’s this outstanding young talent coming forward, we need to take her places. He said: ‘She’s got to go to Wimbledon.’ Because Wimbledon was the mecca of tennis,” explains Morrison’s biographer Dick Garratt.
Together with her father, Waititi called on the Māori community to fundraise for Morrison’s Wimbledon campaign. The effort was so successful, the team raised enough funds to cover the next four years of tournaments for Morrison.
In 1957, Morrison touched down in London, becoming the first Māori ever to compete at Wimbledon. She acquitted herself admirably, reaching the fourth round of competition before losing to the fourth seed, America’s Betty Pratt.
Morrison’s easy charm and warm personality made her a popular addition to the circuit and she was known for her killer forehand and stop volley.
Morrison went on to play Wimbledon a total of four times, reaching the fourth round again in 1960.
But her greatest moment, according to the sprightly kuia, was beating Margaret Court — who had just won the Australian Open — to win the New Zealand championship in 1960. Court, who remains the most successful female tennis champion of all time, remembers Morrison fondly.
“I always got on very well with Ruia,” she said in 2015.
“I was only very young, and she was well into her tennis career. I remember that she loved tennis and was a wonderful ambassador for her country.”
Fellow Kiwi tennis champ and former doubles partner Lew Gerrard remembers Morrison’s determination on court.
“Ruia was a fighter from the very first point to the last, she never gave up,” he said in 2015.
“Ruia was a wonderful friend and never had a bad word for anyone. Plus her naughty little laugh during good times always amused me, I can still hear it.”