by Stephen Vagg

For a nation with such a proud tennis history, it’s hard to think of too many Australian-influenced cultural works. Is there the great Australian tennis novel? TV series? Painting? Film?

In fairness, tennis doesn’t seem to inspire that much on-screen drama. Off the top of my head, I can only think of a few tennis movies: Players, Wimbledon, Hard, Fast and Beautiful, the Burt Convy classic Raquet.. plus some biopics (Little Mo, Second Serve, The Battle of the Sexes)… Tennis has never enjoyed the on-screen popularity of, say, basketball, baseball or boxing.  I think it’s just that harder to film and/or make exciting.

Still, at least the Americans have made some. But the Aussies… have there been any local tennis movies or TV shows? Will Ferrell joked in 2018 that he was going to make one. We have dramatised cricket, Aussie Rules, soccer, swimming, horse racing, rugby league, running, lawn bowls, cross country skiing, iron men, car racing, sailing, whatever that game is in Salute of the Jugger… but tennis? There have been a lot of docos, but for drama, my mind’s a blank apart from The Beautiful Lie (2015). Oh, and I guess James Reyne was a tennis player in Return to Eden (1983). Maybe readers can suggest others. There’s probably a Homicide episode or two set at a tennis court.

So, it’s very cool that in 1960, the ABC made a television play with a tennis background. This, of course, was during the Golden Era of tennis in this country, when our players won Grand Slam after Grand Slam to such a degree that I don’t think we have ever really gotten over it.

Who Killed Kovali? began as radio play, Who Killed Rikhjovic? It was written by Rex Rienits, an Australian who worked in London for many years, and about whom I have written in the past, particularly for his achievement with Stormy Petrel.

The play was done first on British radio, in 1954, before being produced twice on Australian radio the following year – in Melbourne and Sydney. Rienits then adapted it into a television script, retitled Who Killed Kovali? (presumably, on the grounds that it was easier to pronounce) which aired as an episode of ITV Playhouse in 1957.

In 1960, the ABC filmed the script in Melbourne as part of a series of ten Australian written television plays they did that year. This was inspired in part by Rienits working at the ABC as drama editor from 1959-61, during which the ABC filmed several of his scripts: Bodgie, Stormy Petrel, The Outcasts, Close to the Roof, and Kovali.

The plot starts with Hungarian tennis player Ivor Kovali (Bryan Edwards) playing in a semi-final at Wimbledon against Australian player Tony Hargreaves (Mark Kelly). Kovali, who is winning the game, is chewing sweets then dies suddenly of arsenic poisoning.

A Scotland Yard inspector, Carson (Keith Eden), looks into the murder with the help of his assistant, Sgt Scott (Charles Sinclair). Suspects include Kovali’s widow Maria (Penelope Shelton), who hated her husband’s cruelty; Maria’s lover Dimitri (Edward Brayshaw); Tony Hargreaves, who stood to win a thousand pounds if he won the game; another Australian player, Jeff Willis (Alan Hopgood), who Kovali accused of cheating; American player Pedro Moreno (David Moreno) who was going to face Kovali in the final.

William Sterling directed and the production was mostly filmed at the ABC’s studios in Melbourne, with some location work done at Kooyong Tennis Courts standing in for Wimbledon. John Cooper, brother of Ashley Cooper, played a ballboy. The voice of Kenrick Hudson, a real tennis umpire, was used as an umpire’s voice. A bitchy contemporary review is here.

I haven’t seen a copy of the production – I don’t think one exists (the tape was probably wiped). But I read a copy of the script at the NAA and enjoyed it enormously. It’s a really solid, strong murder mystery, a tight hour. Some plays I’ve read/seen and think “that could be a feature”, like The Grey Nurse Said Nothing or Burst of Summer. But, this is a perfect hour.  The only real debit is the play has a prejudice towards foreigners – Kovali was an “excitable” player, a cheat – but I loved how there were two Aussie tennis players and an Aussie love interest. This could have been set in Melbourne during the Australian Open, but it was written by an Australian and has a number of Australian characters and it’s great that it was made (even if the Brits did it first). Now for that Ash Barty biopic…


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