Memorial Service Address by DMN
St Mary’s, Hayling Island – 10th December 2021
Geoffrey Atkins… we shall not see his like again! How blessed we are who witnessed him in action. He is widely regarded as one of, if not the, greatest Rackets players ever, having held the World Rackets Championship title for an extraordinary, indeed unique, 18 years (1954-1971), before retiring, undefeated. He was a majestic mover, a gliding Njinksy of the Rackets Court, exceptional eye/hand ball co-ordination and yet amazingly rarely came off the court with a hair out of place or a bead of sweat on his face. A true athlete and, for insurance, he kept a small comb in his pocket. In all, an elevating phenomenon.
And, it wasn’t just Rackets. He was an excellent Squash player, representing England twice. He also won the British Amateur Real Tennis Singles Championships title three times and, in the opinion of William Surtees, himself World Champion, could well have won the World Tennis Championships from Johnson or Knox if time had allowed.
Howard Angus, himself World Champion of Tennis and Rackets (so wanting to be with us today), observed poignantly to me, “One word encapsulates Geoffrey: ‘CONTROL’ – it was phenomenal and the ball often moving at well over 100 mph and at obtuse angles. I tried to concentrate on doing ‘An Atkins’, i.e. put the ball away where the opponent isn’t.” He was the ultimate ‘Master’ and so elegant in his execution with consummate efficiency. Although an ‘Amateur’, his commitment to practice and fitness was as professional as any modern player in the mould of Male or Billings, or earlier those Titans Prenn and Boone.
However, there was a further chilling dimension to his preparation as evidenced to me by Charles Swallow, one of his two brilliant but unsuccessful challengers in the 1960s.
“To hear Geoffrey knocking up on his own before a match could indeed be a chilling experience – to hear through the back wall his superb ball control on the court, on his own, at first 5 yards from the front wall, then 10, always keeping it in play, deadly composed with metronomic regularity, was truly nerve-wracking. This ability to terrorise one orally belied his nature as a human being: always kind, always decent.”
Geoffrey’s advice to William Surtees: “In World Championships, every point matters. Play each one as if it was Match Point.” And he did, with laser concentration and the most beautiful balanced volleying.
Let me leave you with a revealing vignette given to me by Roddy Bloomfield, author and first Open Foster Cup Champion 1954:
“In the 1960s, the celebrated Dan Maskell, England’s First Junior Professional Rackets Champion and then British Professional Lawn Tennis multiple Champion and winning Davis Cup Coach of the 1930s with Fred Perry etc (and BBC Commentator “Oh I say…” on the Borg/McEnroe 1980 most famous tie-breaker 18/16), Dan was at Queen’s Club with the Davis Cup Squad and he entered the Rackets Gallery and saw Geoffrey playing – he quickly summoned the Davis Cup players from the adjacent Tennis Courts, declaring “You must watch this man Atkins – he is the most perfectly balanced player at any ballgame sport I’ve ever seen. Watch him and learn.”
In conclusion, I would like to suggest to you that Geoffrey Atkins was actually the quintessence, indeed the fusion, of Rod Laver and Roger Federer of Lawn Tennis fame; he was their forerunner in the 1960s in the world’s fastest, most exhilarating racket and ball game. In addition to which Geoffrey was always the paragon of sportsmanship and behaviour in victory (frequent) and defeat (rare indeed) on and off the court. Some beacon! His ‘Mantra’ for victory in the Rackets Court, learned I suspect from Jim Dear… ‘Let the Ball hit the Racket, NOT the Racket hit the Ball’.
I will not see his like again. It was near perfection, to be cherished forever.