THERE was an episode in my life when I was an international tennis player, which at the time I didn’t consider remarkable because I was a teacher. My priorities at the time were my teaching, my studies (I had started a BA at Melbourne Uni) and then the tennis. The fact that I got to Wimbledon, and how that turned out for me was … a dream; it wasn’t anything that I’d actually planned, it just happened that way.
EVA de Jong-Duldig is a person of diverging interests, many of which were inherited from her parents. Eva’s father Karl was an eminent sculptor as well as a sportsman, and from him she took his sporting prowess (he played international soccer for Hakoah Wien in the 1920s and was later one of Austria’s top tennis players). Her mother Slawa, who invented the modern foldable umbrella in 1929, often formed a bedrock in the family’s sometimes fraught journey from Vienna to Australia. Her father’s passion for tennis was more than partly responsible for the family’s eventual survival. After the Anschluss of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938 he left for Switzerland under the pretext of playing a tournament, later persuading an official to enable his family to “visit” him there, thus evading the Holocaust that decimated so many Jewish families.
Eva’s introduction to tennis began during the family’s wartime internment in Tatura (180 kilometres north of Melbourne). Karl cut down one of the wooden racquets he had brought with him for three-year-old Eva and soon she was trying to hit the balls he threw. The “lessons” continued when in 1942 they moved to Melbourne. Eva remembers hitting lots of “air” balls at first, but soon her hand-eye coordination improved and she connected more than she missed. Practising at home also required the development of ball control, for to avoid a neighbour’s wrath Eva quickly learnt to half-volley and volley the balls “… to stop them escaping onto the garden behind me. Coping with these difficulties quickened my reflexes and maybe that was why the half volley and volley later became strengths in my game.”
She continued to develop her tennis skills at school (Korowa). When playing most lunch times with her friends, she remembers, “As I had trouble finishing my thick brown bread cheese sandwiches quickly, I would play with a sandwich in one hand and a racquet in the other”. As she improved, Karl invented drills to help her. They would keep the ball in play as long as possible and occasionally play games. For a long time she hardly won any games; then one day, when she was 15, she excitedly told her mother that she had “beaten Daddy 6–4”. It was a turning point and she never lost another set to her father.
The family had by now moved to Glen Iris, not far from the Kooyong courts. It was a tennis-rich environment for Eva. With his tennis pedigree Karl was able to ask Harry Hopman, captain of the Australian Davis Cup team, for advice about training Eva. By 1954 Eva had won the singles events in the under-17 age groups in junior tournaments at Glen Iris, Elsternwick and Kooyong. She was soon included in Victorian state junior and open teams and began to travel to interstate tournaments. However, heeding advice that there was no future for women’s tennis in Australia, Eva began a diploma of Physical Education at the University of Melbourne, although tennis remained important to her. Indeed, in June 1955 she reached the semi-finals of the Victorian hardcourt championships, attracting enthusiastic coverage in The Argus. “Eva from Austria shocks the stars”.
In 1956 she was the Victorian Schoolgirl Champion and together with Elizabeth (Libby) Court won the Doubles. Yet her life continued in divergent directions: her tennis training was focused on competing in the 1957 Maccabiah Games in Israel (where she won the women’s singles without losing a set), whilst in the same year she became the physical education teacher at Mount Scopus College.
For the next few years tennis took a back seat to her teaching career. “I thoroughly enjoyed the work and had an excellent rapport with my students, but it was physically and mentally demanding and I often returned home utterly drained”, Eva remembered in her award winning book Driftwood. Even so, she continued to play for Victoria in interstate matches, arranging time off from teaching to compete. “Wimbledon lived up to all my expectations”
In 1961 Eva took six months unpaid leave to fulfil her dream of playing at Wimbledon. She remembers a car flying the purple-and-green Wimbledon flag picking her up from her host family on the first day. People stared into the car as if she were royalty, and once inside the courts she was besieged by schoolgirl autograph hunters. Her first round opponent was Renata Ostermann, a top-ranking German player. “I was playing for my country, my family and my heritage,” she recalls in Driftwood, “I ran through the first set comfortably. A small group of other German players had gathered at courtside and at every change of end they gave my opponent advice. After losing the second set, and at 1–0 to me in the third, I decided to put an end to their interference. As we changed ends, I walked over to the group and in German said, ‘Wir spielen diesen Satz ohne Hilfe, bitte’ (‘We’ll play this set without help, please.’). Their mouths dropped open and there was not a murmur for the rest of the match. My opponent was thoroughly unnerved, as much by my German language skills as by my tennis, and I ended up winning the third set comfortably. Buoyed by this win, I also won the next match. Meantime she and her South African doubles partner, Marlene Gerson, reached the quarter-finals of the doubles.
“The quarter-final was played on Stadium Court One, where the applause from the adjacent centre court was clearly audible. If we won, we would play the semi-final on this hallowed court. It never happened. On day 10, I was out of the tournament, having achieved far more than I had ever expected and with lots of impressive newspaper clippings to add to my scrapbook.” Other tournaments were scheduled for Eva’s overseas trip, the last of which was to defend her title at the 6th Maccabiah Games in Israel where a life-changing surprise awaited her. She was introduced to Henri de Jong, a member of the Dutch team. Five days later she and Henri were engaged!
Married on 28 February 1962 at the St Kilda Hebrew Congregation synagogue, the couple departed to live in Holland, where in 1962 Eva became tennis champion of The Netherlands. Again in 1962 and 1963 she competed at Wimbledon, and was also No.1 player for The Netherlands in the first Federation Cup held at Queen’s Club in 1963, playing against Billie Jean Moffitt (King) in the quarter-final. After the birth of her first child the young family returned to Melbourne in 1965, and following the arrival of two more children Eva found it difficult to keep up her tennis.
Gradually new interests and passions took over her time: she completed a BA at Melbourne University and worked as a recreation consultant, writer and a designer of children’s play spaces. In 2002 she founded the Duldig Studio (see article in March 2018 issue #148), a not-for-profit public museum and art gallery in the former family home in East Malvern, which displays the work and legacy of Karl and Slawa Duldig (www.duldig.org.au).
In 2017 her family biography Driftwood was published, telling the story of three generations of her family, their escape from Nazi Europe and final settlement in Melbourne. To write it was a compulsion, says Eva. The intention was to complement the museum and to put on record the achievements of her parents. The Duldig Studio and Driftwood, and the causes that Eva has and continues actively to support into her eighth decade, are testament to her tireless nature, which perhaps is her mother’s abiding legacy to her. ♦
Interview with Eva De Jong-Duldig, June 2018
Eva De Jong-Duldig Driftwood – Escape and survival through art Arcadia, 2017
Ashley Browne and Dashiel Lawrence, People of the Boot, Judith Buckridge, The Art of Tennis 2018
Driftwood can be purchased through bookstores, or from the Duldig Studio: duldig.org.au/store