“I call it Norman,” Roger Federer told The New York Times. “I’ve had dinner with Norman, spent a lot of time with Norman.”

Who is Federer’s new friend? “Norman,” in reality, is the replica of the Australian Open champion’s trophy that he won earlier this year, and which he has turned into a regular traveling companion. Norman accompanied Federer on a trip to a mountain chalet in Switzerland, and appeared with him in a GQ spread. “I know it’s super cheesy,” Federer said to the Times, “but the fans just love it.”

Federer has obviously reveled in his first Grand Slam title in nearly five years. But the fact that he has done it with this particular piece of hardware may be more appropriate than he realizes. The Australian Open men’s singles trophy is officially known as the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup. Its namesake wasn’t just the first great Aussie tennis champion, he was, in many ways, the Federer of his day.

A native of Melbourne, Brookes had tennis in his blood. He was born in 1877, the same year that Wimbledon began hosting an annual tennis tournament. Known as The Wizard, Brookes could, as his friend and Davis Cup teammate Tony Wilding said, “Make the ball talk.”

“As a left-hander possessed of consummate concentration, a tenacious will to win, uncanny anticipation and a deft touch at net,” tennis historian E. Digby Baltzell wrote of Brookes in 1994, “he was apparently quite like our own John McEnroe.”

If Baltzell were writing today, he might have compared Brookes to “our own Roger Federer” instead. And he might have noted one more similarity between the two men: Their remarkable longevity.


Who was Norman? Federer has much in common with his trophy’s namesake

Who was Norman? Federer has much in common with his trophy’s namesake

Norman Brookes and his wife, Mabel. (By Bains news service (publisher), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Brookes was born into Melbourne’s wealthy upper crust, and he played tennis long before there was any money in it. A sickly child, he nonetheless excelled at every sport he tried, and he supported his sporting activities by working at his father’s paper mill, where he eventually became chairman. Far from Europe and the United States, he lacked international training and competition.

“In his early days at Melbourne,” Wilding said of Brookes, “virtually his only opponent was his brother.”

This may help explain why Brookes didn’t win his first Wimbledon title until he was 30, in 1907. Even with that delay, he was the first player from Australia—or any country other than Great Britain—to win the tournament. He also won the doubles, with Wilding, and the mixed doubles. Nine days later, Brookes and Wilding broke Britain’s lock on the Davis Cup and took the trophy Down Under for the first time. Those twin victories were an early sign of tennis’ oncoming globalization, a process that hasn’t ceased to this day.

It looked for a time as if that would be Brookes’ main claim to tennis fame. He helped Australia—or Australasia, as the team was called then (it included New Zealand)—defend the Davis Cup in 1908 and 1909, and won the Australian Open, which he had helped establish, in 1911. But it wasn’t until 1914, at age 37, that Brookes recorded his two most legendary victories.

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The first stirrings of World War I were in the air in Europe that year, and Brookes could feel them as he trained on the Riviera in the spring. He didn’t know it when he arrived at the All England Club in June, but Wimbledon, like the Davis Cup, wouldn’t be held again until 1919. Brookes made the most of his chance, beating Germany’s Otto Froitzheim 8-6 in the fifth set in a final-round classic that would be compared to the iconic 1980 final between Bjorn Borg and McEnroe. In 1914, though, the tournament winner also had to beat the previous year’s winner in the Challenge Round. Brookes did that by knocking off Wilding in straight sets.

From England, Brookes and Wilding sailed to the U.S. and that year’s Davis Cup competition—or, at it was known then, The International Lawn Tennis Challenge. Rather than heading all the way back to Australia, the two-man team played its ties on neutral ground in the States. The U.S. was the defending champion, and the Challenge Round was scheduled for Forest Hills in August. Australia began with a 5-0 win over Canada in Illinois, then traveled east to the Allegheny County Club—home to Pittsburgh’s steel barons—for a semifinal against Germany.

The day before the tie began, on July 29, 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia. The German team announced that it would stop play if its leaders joined the war. The fans in Pittsburgh cheered wildly for the Germans, and against the “limeys” from Australia, but Brookes and Wilding swept to a 5-0 win. At some point on the final day, the news arrived that Germany had declared war on Russia.

“As the last ball way played,” Baltzell wrote, “a megaphone announced the sad news to a silent crowd. The German team hurried to board a ship for home.”

War had broken out in Europe, but Brookes and Wilding still had a Cup to win in the States. At Longwood Cricket Club outside Boston, they beat Great Britain easily in the final, before traveling on to New York for the Challenge Round. This would be the first major event held at the West Side Tennis Club in the New York City village of Forest Hills.


Who was Norman? Federer has much in common with his trophy’s namesake

Who was Norman? Federer has much in common with his trophy’s namesake

Forest Hills, 1914, during the International Lawn Tennis Challenge between Australasia and the United States. (By J. Parmley Paret - Methods and Players of Modern Lawn Tennis, 1915, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)

The West Side’s Tudor Clubhouse was new, the grass courts were freshly sown, and the temporary stands held an overflow crowd of 12,000, the largest ever to watch a tennis match to that point. Cheering, jeering, smoking, drinking, shouting in the middle of points and occasionally rolling a bottle or two on court, it was also the most mainstream—i.e., raucous—crowd ever to watch a tennis match. The fans would have felt right at home during a night match at Flushing Meadows, or at a Mets game, today.

Many of them had come to see the first great national hero of U.S. tennis, Maurice McLoughlin.

“There was played one of the most celebrated contests of sports history, the match in which McLoughlin, American, defeated Norman Brookes, Australian,” Al Laney of Times wrote. “This match may be said to have been the first truly ‘big’ tennis occasion in this country.”

According to Laney, over the course of that high summer weekend in Queens, “The game burst into bloom as a genuine spectator sport.”

Known as the California Comet, McLoughlin was the inventor of the “cannonball” serve. He was also the first champion to learn the game on California’s public hard courts, rather than on grass courts at a private club back East. In that sense, the brash, 24-year-old McLoughlin’s opening rubber against the gentlemanly, 37-year-old Brookes pitted the game’s future against its past, and the brilliant play reflected the stakes.

“McLoughlin’s shirt was open at the neck and his sleeves were cut off at the elbow,” Laney wrote. “Altogether he was a most satisfactory-looking hero...[Yet] Brookes gave the impression he would never yield, no many thunderbolts our man might hurl at him.”

Brookes fended off Mcloughlin’s thunderbolts for 31 games in the first set, before finally yielding 17-15; after that, he had little left, and the Californian won the last two 6-3, 6-3. But the wily Wizard would have the last laugh against the Comet and boisterous supporters. The next day, Brookes and Wilding beat McLoughlin and his partner, Thomas Bundy, in doubles in straight sets. On the final day, Brookes held off Titanic survivor and U.S. National champion Dick Williams, as well as a storm of boos from the Forest Hills crowd, to clinch the Cup in four tumultuous sets.

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Brookes and his wife quickly sailed back to war-torn Europe on the Mauritania, while the Davis Cup was left behind for safety’s sake. Tony Wilding went to England to enlist. The two tennis giants met for the final time in Boulogne, France. Brookes’s wife, Mabel, described the scene in her memoir.

“Tony was leaving at dawn...and after a while bade a speechless, shoulder-holding farewell to Norman, for they were very close.” In May 1915, Wilding, one of the sport’s early giants, was killed at age 32 in a trench in Belgium.

Even at 37, though, Brookes wasn’t finished with tennis. In 1919, after the war was over, he reached the Wimbledon singles final, helped Australasia defend the Davis Cup, and won the U.S. National doubles title at Forest Hills, all at age 41. In 1924, at 46, he won the doubles at the Australian Nationals. He was the head of Australia’s tennis federation for 29 years, and was knighted in 1939. Born the same year as Wimbledon, in 1877, Brookes died the same year that the amateur era ended, in 1968.

The real Norman, one thinks, would have made an even more inspiring friend to Federer than the replica he carries with him today. The Wizard and the Maestro would have had a lot to talk about.


Who was Norman? Federer has much in common with his trophy’s namesake

Who was Norman? Federer has much in common with his trophy’s namesake

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