'Nobody wants to be near you' - Dame Ruia Morrison’s experience as first Māori at Wimbledon

By Jessica Tyson

Photo and Dame Ruia footage courtesy of Hex Work Productions.

Dame Ruia Morrison was the first New Zealand woman and first Māori to play at Wimbledon in 1957.  When she made the quarter finals at the competition, she was told that her competitors were intimidated by her.

“One of the American girls said to me, ‘You have no idea. Nobody wants to be near you.' And it was the first two or three rounds. I said ‘Well what for?’ Obviously, they felt they could get beaten before they get through. And I said, ‘Oh, well, I do my best to oblige’.”

However, Morrison was not set on winning and just wanted “to do the very best I could do,” she says.

“I didn't realise the enormity, the pleasure of it, the status of playing at Wimbledon. All I wanted to do was just to be on a court and hit the ball, hopefully where the other person wasn't and that's all. There was no thought of succeeding, just playing. I came just to play.”

Back in Aotearoa, the Te Arawa sportswoman was a 13-time national champion and her fellow competitors wanted her to go easy on them.

Modern tennis too hard

“As I won more tournaments, they just said ‘Pleased for you. Let me win one game or at least two’. And I said, ‘but I can't do that. You got to win them’. ‘Yeah. But I don’t win any.’ ‘Well, that’s tough. Sorry about that. Maybe you can buy me a Fanta if I let you win, a bottle of Fanta.’ ‘Oh yeah. I can get you two, if you want. That's just amongst us ae.’ It was a lovely companionship.”

In 2021, her sporting achievement was acknowledged when she was made a dame for her services to tennis.

“I didn't quite understand it to be quite honest. I had to read the paper over and over again. It wasn't for three days before the reality set. I just couldn't settle … the honour of being a dame. I've been a lot of things in my life but not a dame.”

Morrison, 85, resides in her home town, Rotorua. She says times have changed and she would not want to be a professional tennis player today.

“The big dollar talks now. Professionalism is tightly governed and, to be quite honest, I wouldn't have liked to be playing at this time. I probably wouldn't anyway, because, one, you have a lot of money. Two you have to support your entourage to keep you going. What they go through now is "ginormous", she says.

“Now they've got to have a whole new psych. You’ve definitely got to be strong. The pace they hit that ball, I'd hate to be playing now. I would have thrown my racket up and run away at the pace. It is moving. If you got hit with one of those, you'd have a bruise for a few weeks.”

Dame Ruia appeared on the special TE NGĀKAU TAPATAHI, a show profiling our Maori Dames and Knights.

The new series from the Māori Television newsroom premieres weekdays from Monday 17 January at 12.00 PM. The first five episodes will be available on Māori+ from Sunday 16 January and the full series available from Sunday 23 January.