By Jackson Russell
Eric Salter was an accomplished junior player before moving to the area and joining the Kilmore Tennis Club, where he has served as president and is a life member of the club.
Growing up in Coburg, Salter started playing tennis in 1952 at the age of 11 under the tutelage of Arthur Sedgman, father of world number one Frank Sedgman, whose eponymous courts were located over Salter’s back fence.
“My sister had three of her girlfriends out on court six, which is our back fence and we must have had a disagreement prior to that so I went out on the clay court and I picked up handfuls of clay and threw them at her so she went then ran inside to tell Mum,” he said.
“While she ran inside, I picked up her racket and started whacking the ball around. I didn’t have runners on, I had gum boots, then Mum came out and I got hauled off inside.
“The following day, there was a knock on the front door and I answered the door and it was Arthur Sedgman.
“He asked Mum if it was her young bloke whacking the ball around yesterday and Mum said it was but I’d been punished for that and he said, ‘well, I don’t know about that but I wonder if you’ll allow me to coach him to play tennis’.”
From his introduction to the game, Salter was quickly entered into schoolboy tournaments, finishing in the semi-finals of his first tournament and winning the under 13 doubles in his second year, taking home a leather-bound copy of Gulliver’s Travels for his troubles.
Teaming up with an opponent of his, Salter won the boys’ doubles at every schoolboy tournament for the next four years.
He also won the Victorian schoolboys championship at Kooyong in the under 15s, which led to a sponsorship from Dunlop.
Dunlop helped Salter attend various country tournaments throughout the year, organising his travel and accommodation.
Hosting future champions
Soon, Dunlop asked Salter’s mother if she wouldn’t mind putting up a player for a few days during the Victorian state championships.
“Mum got a phone call from Dunlop and they said, ‘Look, we’ve looked after your young fella and sent him away to tournaments and put him up in accommodation. Would you mind if we billeted a player in your house for the coming Victorian state championships?’” Salter said.
“Dunlop said he’d just come back from playing junior Davis Cup in America. Mum asked what his name was and Dunlop said his name’s Rod Laver and he comes from Rockhampton.
“I just thought, ‘Who the hell is Rod Laver?’”
After a few days, legendary Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman stepped in and insisted Laver stay somewhere closer to Kooyong than Coburg.
It wasn’t Salter’s last encounter with Hopman, as he was soon selected for the Victorian Linton Cup squad and began to train at Kooyong throughout the year.
One day, when it was too wet to train on the grass courts, the team ventured out to the clay courts where Hopman was watching training.
“This particular day, Harry Hopman was there and I hit a high backhand volley and that’s one of the hardest shots you can hit,” Salter said.
“Harry turns up and he’s got a Channel 2 television team with him. This was winter 1958 and they filmed six or eight blokes all training, then I had to give a demo of the high backhand volley then it appeared on television the next Tuesday night.
“Mum and Dad didn’t have a television set so I didn’t see much of it.”
Meeting the stars
Earlier in his tennis journey, Salter was lucky enough to be a ball boy for an international professional tour featuring Jack Kramer, Frank Sedgman, Ken McGregor, Pancho Segura and Pancho Gonzales at the Essendon Board Track in Strathmore.
While he was paid a crate of Coca-Cola for his four days’ work, he won a competition among the ball boys, winning a tennis racket and hit with world champion Segura and McGregor.
“They took lots of photographs of this and they finished in the middle pages of The Sun News-Pictorial on the Monday along with Hopalong Cassidy,” Salter said.
Salter left school in 1957 and played his doubles partner Will Coughlin in the state under 17 schoolboys final, losing in three sets but winning the doubles with Coughlin.
Coughlin carried on with school and tennis, winning the national under 19 title and playing overseas.
Salter said he often wondered if he would’ve been able to do the same.
“Whether I would have ever been good enough to do what they did, I don’t know because I never found out but that’s a what if,” he said.
“I think you should know your own capabilities and I was very fortunate to be blessed with a little bit of natural ability but you’ve got to have it mentally, and if you haven’t got it up there, no matter what sport you’re in, you can only reach a certain standard.
“That was my biggest problem, I wasn’t strong enough up here. I was, but not all the time.”
Late in his junior career, Salter began training at the St Kilda Road mansion of Bob Mitchell, along with half a dozen other players.
“At one stage, there was a young girl who came down from Albury and she trained with him and stayed with him throughout the year and she became the greatest women’s tennis player in the world. Her name was Margaret Court,” he said.
Salter stopped playing tennis in the mid-60s because he was working weekends and had other commitments.
But the Kilmore businessman’s love for the game was reignited after moving to Wallan when his wife Jeanette started playing at Kilmore Tennis Club and suggested he start coaching their children Kristine, Caroline, Duncan and Cameron.
“All the girls and the two boys are playing tennis and I got talked into playing one night in the early 80s,” Salter said.
“The following year, Jerry Clancy asked me if I had ever thought of becoming president of the Kilmore Tennis Club… so next thing you know I was president of the Kilmore Tennis Club so I got involved in playing tennis again.”
One of Salter’s proudest achievements during his time at Kilmore Tennis Club was improving its annual Easter tournament.
“I made a few phone calls to people in Melbourne and said I want to improve the Easter tournament and make it a worthwhile tournament,” he said.
“We did and we had a tournament with prize money. If you won the men’s singles, it was $1500 which is big money and all the money and the trophies were donated by local businessmen.
“Ray Drummond, the local Ford dealer, virtually demanded that we allow him to buy the trophy for the men’s A grade singles. He didn’t buy a trophy worth $2.50 from Coles, he bought a set of crystal glasses.”
During his time playing with Kilmore, the club won three A Grade premierships and had three more runner-up finishes.
On multiple occasions, Kilmore met Lancefield in the grand final, which created quite a rivalry between the two teams.
“I’ve never struck so much dislike in my life as what I struck when I played Lancefield,” Salter said.
“A lot of the vitriol was directed at me, especially off the court, not so much on the court. It was like old Carlton-Collingwood footy matches.”
Salter said the best player he played against locally came from Lancefield, Jimmy Cusack.
The two met at Country Week in early 1985 before Cusack passed away later that year.
“He was an accomplished player, he also played pennant tennis at Grace Park, which is one of the oldest metropolitan clubs in Melbourne,” he said.
“He was a bit smart too, Jimmy. You’d feel like smacking him in the mouth sometimes, which he wanted you to do because he knew he got under your skin.”
After finishing his junior tennis career, Salter became involved in football and was named a life member of Carlton Football Club in 2001.
Through the club, he made long-standing friendships with Alex Jesulenko and David Parkin, the latter of whom Salter helped bring to Kilmore to talk to Assumption College’s footballers.
“The presentation night was on the Friday and David got the sack from Carlton on the Monday from John Elliott,” Salter said.
“We got in the car to come in with David and I and he said, ‘Well, what do I talk about?’
“I said, ‘Buggered if I know, you’re the coach’. Within five minutes, his veins were sticking out and the kids were speechless.”