Ask anyone who played at South Hawthorn in the 50’s and 60’s about Neil Maher and their response is instant, “Oh Neil is the best player to ever represent South Hawthorn”.

Ask Neil Maher what sort of player he was and he is modest about his ability. ” I had a relatively weak backhand, ordinary serve and smash, but I was a competitor and quick around the court”.

Neil grew up in Yarraville, but while on holiday at Healesville he met South Hawthorn members Beryl Archbold and Norma Richards.

That meeting led to Neil’s greatest partnership when he married Beryl. They moved to Burwood and Neil joined South Hawthorn in 1954.

Neil made an immediate impression as a quality player at the club. He won the Championship in his first year.

He remembers many of the Men’s singles finals he competed in.

One year he took on Keith “Tiger” Young in the final. “Keith was a good player and a fierce competitor”. Neil’s strength however, was his focus and determination and he was able to win the match.

In another year he took on Ray O’Connor. Ray was favoured to win, as he played B grade pennant for East Malvern, while Neil had played C Special for a PMG team. Neil ran everything down and managed to wear Ray out. It was a special victory for Neil.

The club had a mixed championship each year, named the MacCleery Cup after R.L.MacCleery (president 1928-33). Teams were given a handicap determined by the selection committee. Neil won the event a couple of times with Beryl and with Lola Young. In some matches his handicap meant he and his partner started each game at 0-40.

Neil recalls playing with Marion Smylie ( Women’s champion in 1957 ), a very good left hand player.

He also played against Billie White “a gracious lady” but not as fierce a competitor as Lola Young. Billie was Barry Humphrie’s Aunt.

Meanwhile, Beryl won the Women’s club championship in 1961 and played in a pennant winning team in B grade ( the highest level achieved by any team from South Hawthorn ).

Her achievement in winning in B grade, when Neil’s highest achievements were in C Special grade, is sometimes mentioned in the Maher household.

At the time South Hawthorn entered teams in the Eastern Suburban Tennis Association. The ESTA entered teams in the Metropolitan Week, playing against other regions. Neil was selected in the ESTA team one year and played with Audrey O’Toole, wife of the great axe man Jack O’Toole. They played the finals on centre court at Kooyong, with linesmen and umpires.

Their victory helped secure a win for ESTA.

Neil remembers watching the Davis Cup on the same court at Kooyong and greats like Jack Kramer, Dinny Pails and John Bromwich.

Despite all these achievements, Neil & Beryl’s fondest memories of South Hawthorn are of the friendships they made at the club.

From their early days there, Neil appreciated the influence of older members like Bill Cathie. Bill was one of the leaders around the club and if you ever had an idea or suggestion, you would always run it by him.

Ernie Johns was another mentor and was always keen to help out other members.

Solicitor, Norma Riley (nee Jenkins) was helpful to the club especially in legal matters. (Norma played on Thursdays with Lola Young for over 50 years)

The tennis highlight for the Mahers each year, were the Easter country tournaments. Neil and Beryl played in various towns with many friends from South Hawthorn.

They travelled to Benalla with George Ray and played with Keith and Lola Young, Ron and Ruth Rosman, Neil and Julie McDonald and sisters Pat and Sue Robertson (Sue later married Col Waldon). They would meet at South Hawthorn and travel together to the venue where they stayed in on site caravans.

They played at Yarrawonga with the Curnicks, Rosman’s and the McDonalds. Early rounds were played on the football oval, with the finals being played at the tennis club. Neil and Ron Rosman took on Collingwood footballer Thorold Merrett one year and enjoyed playing him. He was a good sport and they had a good win against he and his partner.

At a tournament at Bacchus Marsh, Neil teamed up with Lafe Broadhead (secretary 1951-52) and took on former tennis Australia President Brian Tobin. Lafe worked at the Tivoli in the city, a live Vaudeville theatre. Lafe was a very popular guy around the club and would often provide free tickets to shows at the Tiv. Neil remembers one of the Marx brothers performing there and comedians, singers, dancers and other international performers.

Neil served on the committee, selection committee and was President from 1958-59.

He remembers discussion at committee about allowing members to wear coloured tennis clothing. He was keen for the club to move forward and allow a more modern approach, but it took a while for more conservative committee members to agree.

He also remembers coming to an agreement with the RSL club which ran the bowling club to allow members to use each others facilities.

He was club Champion in 1954,55,56,57,58,60,63,67,68 and 1969. 10 times in all.

In 1994 the club struck a perpetual trophy in Neil’s name.

In a letter to Neil, the committee explained that “In naming this trophy we chose to recognise the performances of arguably the Club’s greatest Men’s singles champion. We also acknowledge the contribution to club administration as President, Committee Member and selector over a period of years. Hence the trophy will be known as the ‘Neil Maher Men’s Singles Championship Trophy’ “.

In 2010 the club welcomed Neil and Beryl back to South Hawthorn, to present the trophies for the Men’s Singles and Doubles.