Wodonga, Victoria, 15 February 2024 | Courtney Walsh

A fortnight after Jannik Sinner capped a record-breaking Australian Open with his maiden Grand Slam title, the world’s largest grassroots celebration of tennis is underway in regional Victoria.

Country Week has become an annual pilgrimage for many, with 1320 tennis players ranging in age from 16 to 82 descending on the grass-court oasis of Albury-Wodonga this week.

The 221 teams are competing on 101 grass courts – 30 in Wodonga, 35 in Albury and a further 46 which have been marked out on a local cricket and soccer ground.

Contested in the second week of February each year, the teams event has rotated over the past decade between Swan Hill, Yarrawonga, Albury-Wodonga and Shepparton.

Tennis brings together families and friendship groups that cross generations and come from all corners of Victoria, across Australia and even around the world, in a celebration of community.

It is an event as traditional as enjoying a barbecue in summer, with the smell of freshly-cut grass permeating the air as players arrive each morning to find the lines freshly chalked.

Similarly to the Australian Open, where the outstanding tennis features as part of a broader festival experience, there is far more to Country Week than a decent first serve and volley.

The tennis is important, with teams split into 26 grades this year across the men’s and women’s competitions, but it is only part of the attraction of a true grassroots event.

From Sunday night at the Wodonga Tennis Club, where four new “Country Week Legends” were honoured for their service to the event and the sport, and throughout the week, the action is as thick, fast and furious on the social circuit as it is between the baselines.

Creativity is key and not just in regards to some of the home-crafted service actions on display.

Mastering a team name – for example –The Lecontes, Sledgends, The Miss Hits and The Mumms, and nailing a creative costume design add to the colour featuring players aged from their teens through to their 80s.

New Country Week legend Kerry White, who was inducted alongside Kieran Fitzgerald, Mary Dewis and David Kos, has played the event for more than 30 years.

Her Sunbury-based team wear eye-catching costumes each year and spend a significant amount of time planning their designs for each season’s tournament.

“You get back to just being yourself with your friends. For us, it is not just about the tennis,” White said.

“The camaraderie with the girls, the shenanigans we get up to, even the stupid things that happen when we are getting ready to go out for the night time, it is just so much fun.

“It probably takes me about a month to recover afterwards. It is a bit like a drug, I suppose. Once you have had a taste of it, you just keep wanting to come back for more.”

Kos has represented Mud Island, which sits in the middle of Port Phillip Bay and features players from the Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas, for decades and loves the event.

“Isn’t it funny that I’m getting rewarded for staying up late, talking to people and playing tennis all week, which are all the things I get in trouble for at home?” he said.

Different iterations of Country Week have been held around Australia for at least 70 years, with regional and state associations combining to hit balls and enjoy their thrills on the court.

For years the primary Victorian event was held at the Junction Oval in St Kilda. The 2024 edition has drawn teams from New Zealand to Tasmania, from Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour to Toorahweenah and Leongatha, and players from Australia and abroad.

Greg Maarschalk, who represents the Westernport Penguins, grew up in Zimbabwe, played college tennis in the United States against talents including John Isner and spent time competing in Canada and Perth before settling in Sydney about a decade ago.

He takes leave from work every summer to compete and said he has come across nothing like Country Week in his experience playing tennis all around the world.

“This is the type of event that makes tennis such a special sport,” Maarschalk said.

“The action on the courts is great. The main courts each year are incredible to play on and it is great to see so many people of all levels and ages having so much fun during the week.

“But there is so much more to Country Week than tennis. Being able to catch up with old friends, see familiar faces, exchange shots on the court and a few laughs off it is fantastic.

“It really is a festival of everything that is fun about a sport that so many of us love.”

The camaraderie is apparent on the court. But the fabric of the broader tennis family has so often been on display at Country Week during difficult times for participants and the state.

It is 15 years since the Black Saturday bushfires razed the state and the tennis community which contested a sombre week in Albury-Wodonga raised significant charity funds.

Similar efforts have unfolded to support towns affected by floods or droughts during the years in a nod to the country heartbeat that still pervades all aspects of the tournament.

Tennis Victoria’s Interim chief executive Tamatha Harding is mindful of the responsibility of ensuring the players are well catered to and is delighted by the broad response once again.

She touched on the economic impact Country Week has on the host region, noting recent editions have injected up to $3.3 million into the local economy each year.

“It is a pinnacle event on our calendar and also that of our players,” Harding said.