23 September 2022

Canberra's gentleman of tennis Reg 'Blackie' Bennett honoured on walk of fame

| Katrina Condie
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Colleen Handley, 80, of Wanniassa, at the Tennis ACT Walk of Fame plaque unveiling commemorating her late uncle, Reg ‘Blackie’ Bennett. Photo: Graham Tidy.

Almost a century after Reg Bennett won Canberra’s first ever junior championship in 1926, at the age of 10, the tennis legend has been inducted into the Tennis ACT Walk of Fame.

‘Blackie’ as he was known to his mates due to his jet black hair, moved from Yowrie on the South Coast to a hut in the Molonglo worker’s camp in 1922 with his family during the Great Depression. The camp’s small pressed earth tennis court was where the then seven-year-old and his brothers taught themselves to play.

As a youngster, he fine-tuned his game by hitting a ball against a paling fence, a habit that would lead to a life-long passion for tennis and produced one of Canberra’s greatest sportsmen.

Tennis ACT Walk of Fame Committee chair Colin Adrian said, in the booming tennis years of the 1930s, Reg dominated tennis in the Canberra and Queanbeyan region, winning the Queanbeyan Park Singles in 1933, 1934 and 1935, and in 1936 won his first ACT Residents men’s singles title and the doubles with his brother Jim.

In 1937 Reg was the ACT Resident Champion in singles and doubles, and also won the mixed division with the top pre-WWII female player Joan Shumack. In the same year he won the singles, doubles, handicap and mixed in the ACT Open – a unique achievement.

Despite the loss of playing opportunities during the war years, Reg’s record of 22 ACT Resident titles, four Broinowski (public service) Cups and nine ACT Open titles is unmatched. His ACT representative career in Country Week and inter-city competitions over the same period is unsurpassed.

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Reg continued to carve up the court as a veteran until his retirement in the mid-1960s and his love of tennis was unwavering until his passing in 2012 aged 96 years.

Mr Adrian said a few of Canberra’s older tennis players who were coached by Reg as juniors in the 1950s and 60s remember him as a very popular and highly respected player and a real gentleman.

“They speak of him with such reverence and respect that he had not only in Canberra, but Queanbeyan and the surrounding region,” he said.

“His family is well known throughout Canberra and, in the early years during the development of the city, Reg was often invited to play against visiting dignitaries and ambassadors from around the world.

“He made a point of mentoring and playing with some of the up-and-coming juniors including Pat Bridgeman, and Heather McKay who switched courts and went on to become a world champion squash player.”

Reg’s niece Colleen Handley, from Wanniassa, said she was very proud and “a bit overwhelmed” when a memorial plaque was unveiled on the walk of fame at the Canberra Tennis Centre on Saturday 17 September.

She described her uncle, who was one of six brothers, as a thoroughly respectful person on and off the court.

“Not long before my dad (Reg’s brother) passed away, he said Reg was a magnificent person – and that’s a wonderful description of him. He was a thorough gentleman and liked by everybody,” Mrs Handley said.

Born in 1915, Reg spent his teenage years in Canberra before gaining a contract to play tennis in Sydney. But his dreams of going pro were cut short when competitions were cancelled during WWII and facilities used as munitions factories.

Mr Adrian believes Reg could have become a household name if he’d had the opportunity.

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“During his prime tennis playing years of his twenties and early thirties, there was the Great Depression and of course the war, so he lost a lot of years in that period,” he said.

“I believe he could have been one of the country’s top tennis players. It’s hard for us to understand the dynamics in that period and the impact it had on sporting competitions and life in general.”

Reg remained in Canberra and worked in the public service as a paymaster during the war.

The Tennis ACT Walk of Fame was established in 2016 and honours those whose exceptional contributions have brought recognition and esteem to them and to tennis in the Territory.

Reg will join previous inductees Wally Masur, Keith Carnall, Ken Willis, Alison Ide, Ros Balodis, Thomas Charles Boag, Bruce Larkham, Peter Roberts, Graham Bartlett and Annabel Ellwood.

The Tennis ACT annual awards were held on 17 September, with the honour roll including Player of the Year, Nick Kyrgios.

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