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by Ian Stennard

(Note:  This article appeared in the Souvenir Booklet of the 48th Annual Open Tasmanian Table Tennis Championships, August, 1987. It is reprinted with permission of the author.)

Fifty year ago in August, 1937, Hobart solicitor, Mr P R (Reg) Seager was engaged in preparing for an event which was to  be very significant in the development of table tennis in Tasmania. Reg Seager had been associated with table tennis since the Ping Pong craze that gripped Hobart at the turn of the century and was President of the fledgling Tasmanian Association which had adopted its constitution only the previous year. The event so eagerly awaited by Mr Seager and the enthusiastic table tennis players of Hobart was the forthcoming visit of the Hungarian International players, Miklos Szabados and Istvan Kelen.

In those pre-television days the sport in Hobart was growing steadily in popularity but with the variety of grips and bats in use it was developing in an haphazard fashion. The penholder grip in its various guises was used almost exclusively and the tennis system of scoring was optional for pennant and championship play. Many of the top players of the day dressed in tennis “whites”. Hard wooden bats were in vogue, usually covered with pimpled rubber or sand paper.

Officials in Tasmania and indeed throughout the world, were striving to establish table tennis as a recognised sport. However they were facing a difficult task in completely eradicating the lingering images left by the sedate Ping Pong players.


‘Michael” Szabados and ‘Steven’ Kelen arrived in Australia in August, 1937, and completely captivated audiences wherever they played. Their spectacular exhibitions and professionalism went a long way towards laying the foundations for public acceptance of table tennis as a demanding athletic pursuit, rather than a drawing room pastime. The Hungarians had played to large audiences in the major cities of New Zealand and had remarkable successes on their tour of mainland Australia. In Melbourne five thousand people packed Wirth’s Olympia to see their magic brand of table tennis.

Szabados and Kelen were invited to tour Australia by the then governing body of table tennis, the Australian Board of Control. The Board had affiliated with the International Table Tennis Federation in 1936 and the following year reconstituted as the Australian Table Tennis Association. In his memoirs Szabados acknowledged the valuable assistance given him by English table tennis promoter and lover of the game, Mr H N Smith, without whose help he said he would have been unable to visit Australia and New Zealand.

This was the first official visit to Australia by international table tennis players and the Hungarians faced little opposition in their matches against the National and State teams. Twenty-five year old Szabados captured the 1937 men’s singles crown in Sydney in  September, defeating his compatriot in a spectacular final, 21-17, 21-17, 21-16.


The charming visitors were outstanding ambassadors for both their country and the emerging sport of table tennis. At twenty-five, Kelen had strong views on the superiority of table tennis over all other sports declaring it required more intelligence and concentration than any other. He had started playing at school at the age of twelve and first represented Hungary in 1928. He was a journalist by profession having written five novels, one of which ‘The Girl from London’ was awarded a literary prize. He was also the author of an instructional book on table tennis which had run to four editions. As a player, Kelen had two world mixed doubles titles to his credit and an array of national singles and doubles titles including the Austrian singles title.

Despite Kelen’s many accomplishments, it was the spectacular 1931 World singles champion, Szabados, who was the drawcard during the Australian tour. Generally regarded as the best doubles player in the World he had an impeccable record and in the year prior to the Australian visit was ranked second in the World behind the great Victor Barna. Szabados was also well educated being an engineer by profession. He had studied at Berlin University but transferred to Paris when the Nazis came to power in 1933.


Szabados, Barna and Laszlo Bellak were often called ‘The Three Musketeers’ as they grew up together in Hungary and started playing at the same time. Always great rivals, their main aim was to show the Wold that table tennis was both athletic and spectacular. In his memoirs Barna acknowledged that their remarkable success in this regard was largely due to the great sportsmanship of Szabados.

Szabados’s main weapon was a magnificent defence, coupled with an unfailing fighting spirit, though he brought his consistent and powerful forehand into play whenever he could. It was said at times he knew he ought to rely on his superb defence, but preferred instead to ‘open up’, thereby making his matches far more interesting and enjoyable from a spectator point of view. His favourite stroke was the half volley and this coupled with his consistent forehand and amazing court-craft made him a very attractive player to watch.

Barna won his first World singles crown in 1930, but the following year victory went to Szabados in straight  games. They were destined to clash in two more World finals  -  in 1932, when Barna just managed to win, and again in 1935 at Wembley Stadium when for the first time in the history of the sport, there were more than 10,000 spectators. In this dramatic final Barna just retained his title by the narrowest of margins. The match had to be stopped twice. In the second game Szabados crashed against the barrier and had to be given medical attention and later on Barna got cramp in the fingers and had to be massaged before play could resume.

In addition to his World singles win in 1931 (and he was losing finalist three times) Szabados won numerous doubles titles, and helped Hungary to win the Swaythling Cup on at least half a dozen occasions.


Szabados and Kelen left Melbourne for Tasmania on the Bass Strait passenger ferry ‘Taroona’ on 26 October, 1937, arriving in the North West Coast town of Burnie the following morning. The visitors were met by local officials and taken by automobile to Launceston, arriving at the Brisbane Hotel at noon. Launceston’s daily newspaper ‘The Examiner’ advertised ‘Extraordinary table tennis’ would be played at the Albert Hall that night. Tickets had sold well at Findlay’s Sports Store and the proprietor, Mr A P Findlay, lent a table for the exhibition. The best seats were two shillings and sixpence with door sales available at one shilling and sixpence.

Szabados and Kelen completely captivated the Launceston crowd. The visitors, wearing long grey trousers and dark short-sleeved shirts, gave a one game exhibition at the start of the program to whet the spectators’ appetites. Later in the evening they staged a well rehearsed, thrilling three game match in which Kelen fell in 28-26 in the third game. On occasions during the rallies, it was reported that the players ‘were several yards behind the table’. An innovation for the Launceston public was the inclusion of a doubles match. Each of the Hungarians was partnered by a Launceston player, but the locals being unused to doubles were inclined to poach. Local club players competing the matches were P Westbrook and G Wish (Franklin Village), W Morrison (St Ailbe’s) and K Johnstone (St Aidan’s). Of the local players Westbrook, a defensive player, did best keeping up with Szabados before losing 15-21.

A match was played between Miss S Gunn (St Leonards) and Miss V McHugh (Franklin Village), Launceston’s best women. Both had acquitted themselves well in the first North versus South match earlier that year in Hobart, Miss Gunn having scored a creditable win over Mrs L Hunter, the 1937 Tasmanian Ladies titleholder. Misses M and B Findlay also featured in the program playing off in a singles encounter. The referee for the matches was Mr S M Pontifex.

The following morning the conquering Hungarians left by aeroplane for Hobart.


On arrival at Cambridge Aerodrome on Thursday, 28 October, 1937, the visitors were met by Tasmanian Association officials after which they were Guests of Honour at a Government House reception given by the State Governor, Sir Ernest Clark. The visitors were overwhelmed with the hospitality they received. One hour later they were whisked away to a civic welcome by the Lord Mayor, Mr Joshua Wignall, at the Town Hall in Macquarie Street. At the Civic Reception the TTTA President, Mr Seager, formally welcomed the visitors on behalf of the table tennis enthusiasts of Hobart. The corpulent Lord Mayor, in welcoming the Hungarians, referred to the comparative infancy of the sport in Hobart, but said it had experienced an amazing growth in popularity and the visit of the champions had been eagerly awaited. In reply the diplomatic Kelen said he and Mr Szabados had wished to visit Tasmania since boyhood and were delighted that it had fulfilled their expectations.


The match at the City Hall in lower Macquarie Street that night was officially billed as a contest  between Hungary and Tasmania. Reserved seats were available from the OBM Bookshop in Elizabeth Street for three shillings, two shillings and fourpence, and one shilling and sixpence. Some may have considered the admission charges a little high,  however, the prices were on a par with those being charged for top live variety shows at the Theatre Royal.

The Tasmanian team selected to do battle with the champions comprised the reigning State champion, Harold Roberts-Thomson, the runner-up and Coronation Champion of that year, Sid Putman, and Vern Partridge who had paired with Roberts-Thomson to win the first State doubles title. The emergencies named were Ralph Wilcox, later to become Tasmania’s most successful male player, and Alan Brownell. Messrs Tas Jones and Stan Osborne were umpire and referee respectively.


It is interesting to note that unlike the mainland an Launceston matches, the tennis system of scoring was used for the Hobart contests. This system of scoring was then used in local pennant matches andd it must have irked the progressive Hungarians, keen promoters of the identity of table tennis, to have played under the tennis system. However, the Hobart officials must have been counselled by the visitors as the recognised scoring system was used in Hobart thereafter.

Play commenced at 8 pm before a ‘disappointing attendance’ with State champion, Roberts-Thomson matched against the formidable Szabados. After formal announcements were made, umpire Tas Jones took control, and the large hall soon echoed with the familiar sound of hard bat against celluloid ball. The beautiful timing and placement of the Hungarian had the local champion continually on the run. Szabados thrilled the spectators with his sweeping returns well back from the table and his clever use of spin puzzled Roberts-Thomson early in the match.

The Tasmanian frequently took games to deuce by dropping the ball close over the net while Szabados was back from the table. It was not until the ninth game that Roberts-Thomson secured his one game of the contest which ended 6-0, 6-1. The Tasmanian, now a Launceston doctor, has figured prominently in other sporting circles and this year won his eighth State billiards title.

In the next match, local hero, Sid Putman was drawn to play Kelen. Twenty-five year Putman, a natural sportsman, was also a prominent State cricketer. His cricketing career stretched from 1930 to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. As a slow leg spin bowler he took seven for102 against Victoria in 1935, and five for 87 against Gubby Allen’s touring English team earlier in 1937. He also proved to be a useful batsman, and the following year when captaining the Tasmanian team against Victoria, scored 92 runs.

The forceful left-handed play of Kelen puzzled Putman and he was frequently left standing. The Hungarian’s spectacular, wide angled smashes repeatedly drew applause from the spectators. Putman secured the fourth in the first set and in the second took the sixth. The score ended up 6-1, 6-1.

Putman would tragically die of cancer ten years later at the age of only 35 leaving much to contribute to Tasmanian sport.


At this stage of the proceedings the spectators were asked to stand for the arrival of the Official Party which included the Governor and Lady Clark, their private secretary, Miss J McLennan, ADC Captain J R Johnson, the Lord Mayor and Mrs Wignall and the TTTA President, P R Seager and Mrs Seager. All stood to attention for the playing of ‘God Save the King’. After the Official Party was seated, play continued with a match between the State doubles champions, Roberts-Thomson and Partridge, and the combined talents of the Hungarians.

The brilliant smashes of Kelen and the spectacular returns of Szabados gave the visitors the first set to love. In the first game of the next set, Kelen dropped his service and in the second, Partridge won his after a deuce game. These were the only games secured by the Tasmanians and the game ended 6-0, 6-2.


The grips used by the champions were of particular interest to the Hobart players who were in the main, push-happy penholders. Both visitors used variations of the now commonplace Western or shakehand grips. In 1937 their grips were considered so revolutionary that ‘The Mercury’ of 28 October, 1937, featured photographs of the grips of both players taken from each side of the bat. In the caption it was stated that neither player changed grips for forehand or backhand, but rather hit with a different face of the bat! Szabados placed two fingers on the backhand side of the blade, while the more aggressive Kelen held one finger on the blade.


The audience was then treated to a first class exhibition by Szabados and Kelen. Each lost his service in the first four games. Prolonged rallies, runs of deuces and the return of what appeared almost impossible shots on both sides kept the crowd at high pitch. The ‘ding-dong’ first set resulted in a 6-4 win to Szabados, but his opponent , after an unfavourable start, recovered in the second which he took 6-4. Szabados led 4-0 in the final set and ended up winning 6-2.

Putman had settled down and showed considerable improvement in his clash with Sabados and several of the games went to deuce. He lost the first set to love but serving in the first game of the next, secured it after going to advantage twice. In the next game there were some very spectacular rallies. Putman won no more games but the last of the match went to six deuces.

In the final contest Roberts-Thomson gave his best performance against Kelen and brought out some spectacular ‘side-line’ shots which passed his opponent. Kelen took the first two games and the Tasmanian took the third and fifth. The set ended up 6-2. Aces by Roberts-Thomson and many deuce games were a feature of the next, in which Kelen led 4-0 before Roberts-Thomson scored his only game of the set.

The Hobart crowd gave the victorious Hungarians a standing ovation and the visit was hailed by both organisers and spectators as an outstanding success. Szabados and Kelen had illustrated to the public the great possibilities the sport had to offer.


The next day Szabados and Kelen said their farewells to Hobart and journeyed to Burnie where they were officially welcomed by the table tennis association President, Mr Edward Shakespeare, a local bank official. The visitors repeated the successes achieved in Launceston and Hobart by enthralling a large crowd at the Burnie Town Hall that evening. The program included both exhibition matches and contests against he local players.

There had apparently been some friction between the Burnie Association and the Hobart dominated ‘State’ Association over financial aspects of the tour. It is interesting to note the BTTA had only one week earlier agreed to accept the tour and to ‘fall into line with Hobart and Launceston’ and ‘finally accept the terms offered by the Southern Association’.

The Hungarians left for Melbourne by the ‘Taroona’ on the evening of Saturday, 30 October, 1937, thus completing a memorable tour which dramatically changed the playing style of table tennis in Tasmania.

Szabados would later recall the Australian players encountered on the tour as ‘rather a scraggy lot with bad styles and of a low standard’. However, he and Kelen fell in love with Australia and its people and both eventually returned to settle in Sydney and become Australian citizens.

Szabados opened Australia’s first real Table Tennis Centre in Sydney in 1941, and also entered the field of entertainment, playing in over a hundred theatres throughout the country  … but that’s another story!