Thursday, February 29, 2024

Tennis-mad Li builds collection

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James Li, left, and Pakuranga Tennis Club’s Paul Tibbutt of the Centenary Celebrations Committee. Photo Nick Krause

Some people collect stamps, some coins or teaspoons or cars. James Li’s passion is tennis rackets, lots of them.

Li, of Bucklands Beach, has been a member of the Pakuranga Tennis Club since 2004. He’s pretty handy too on the court – he plays in the Tennis Auckland Senior Interclub doubles Ferrier Cup grade (mixed doubles and doubles).

His penchant for all things tennis, notably rackets, began a decade ago.

“I became interested in collecting tennis rackets 10 years ago but my focus changed when I met some collectors before the (Covid-19) pandemic began (2020) from Mission Bay and another from the North Shore,” said Li.

“I learned from them and I started a serious collection journey.

“I know a lot of collectors from around the world. Some have websites and there are Facebook groups. I buy some items from them.

“Now I pay more attention to collecting tennis items related to New Zealand with historical and cultural significance.”

His racket collection features around 800 rackets and span a century from the 1870s through to the 1970s.

His newfound path has inspired much admiration for forgotten Kiwi tennis stars.

“The most important pieces in my collection are the pieces related to New Zealand legend Anthony Wilding –  tennis stuff like his book, rackets, photos…he’s a New Zealander everyone should know,” said Li.

“I have many rackets named after him and one racket is exactly the model he used in 1910.

“I wish more New Zealanders, especially young tennis players, knew about these tennis legends.”

Wilding won tennis fame because of his eight Wimbledon titles – four singles and four doubles and a brilliant record in Davis Cup. He earned Olympic honours, too, winning bronze in 1912 in Stockholm.

In December 1909, Wilding became the NZ Lawn Tennis Champion in Hawera, Taranaki. Right after this event he went to London and won the title in Wimbledon in June 1910. Wilding won the Wimbledon championship in four consecutive years from 1910-1913, Wilding died in 1915 in France in WWI.

His name was engraved on the NZ Lawn Tennis Champion trophy in 1909. The 2020 and 2021 champion is young Pakuranga star Diego Kim whose name now features on the trophy.

“I think this is a kind of heritage, it is amazing,” said Li.

As a tribute to Pakuranga Tennis Club which this year celebrates its 100th anniversary, Li provided numerous rackets from his collection for display at the Half Moon Bay club house.

Among them were rackets as used by Bill Tilden (World Amateur Champion 1920 – 25 and World No 1 Professional 1931 – 3) and Steffi Graf, one of the greatest champions of all time, and numerous Wilding rackets too.

As to value, Li said it’s not about the cost but more about history.

He’s picked up bargains on Trade Me and Ebay for an average $20. Better quality rackets might go for $100.

“I collect all kinds of tennis memorabilia – rackets, balls, trophies, postcards, figurines and even an old racket press – anything related to tennis,” he said.

“What I want to mention here is that tennis is not just a sport but also a kind of fashion,” said Li.

“My tennis collection will bring back nice memories for many. They can also be viewed as works of art.”

One of his missions is to push for a national exhibition location.

“New Zealand has many kinds of museums, but no dedicated tennis museums. I saw only a small tennis corner at the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in Dunedin,” said Li.

Something smaller may have to do in the meantime. “We hope one day we can have a place or full-size feature wall to be our tennis gallery when our club moves to Lloyd Elsmore park’s new site [no date fixed as yet].”

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