The Story Behind the ‘Tennis Girl’ by Martin Elliot, the 70s Picture That Made Tennis Interesting

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In September of 1976 aspiring photographer, Martin Elliot convinced, his then-girlfriend, Fiona Butler to pose for a series of cheeky pictures in hopes of creating the next big pinup poster. He took a couple of shots and sold this image to publishing giant Athena. The picture – called Tennis Girl – went on to sell more than two million copes in Athena shops and continued to sell millions after the firm went bust in the 1990s.

The photo was taken at the University of Birmingham’s tennis courts (formerly Edgbaston Lawn Tennis Club) in Edgbaston Park Road, Birmingham, England. The dress was hand-made by Butler’s friend Carol Knotts, from a Simplicity Pattern with added lace trim. Knotts also supplied the tennis racquet, with all of the borrowed items later returned by Butler to Knotts after the shoot with a box of chocolates. Butler borrowed the plimsolls from her father, whilst the tennis balls were those used as playthings by her family’s pet dog.

The image was first published as part of a calendar by Athena for the 1977 Silver Jubilee, the same year Virginia Wade achieved the Wimbledon ladies’ singles title. Athena then negotiated a licence to distribute the image as a poster, where from 1978 it achieved widespread distribution, selling over 2 million copies at £2 per poster. Although Athena went into administration in 1995, the picture remains a popular print to buy and can be found at other retailers like Amazon, AllPosters & King and McGaw.

The iconic Tennis Girl picture featuring Fiona Butler. (Photo by Martin Elliot)

Originally from Oldbury, Martin Elliot was in the Birmingham School of Photography program and after graduating had a successful career with a studio in Birmingham’s Jewelry Quarter; living in Stourbridge and Portishead.

“I can remember it was an afternoon in September at the end of the long hot summer,” he recalled in an interview. “It was over very quickly. I only took one roll of film, which is pretty feeble for a photographer and I just hoped I’d got the shot.”

In 1999 he retired and lived in Cornwall before losing a 10-year battle to cancer in April 2010.

Fiona Butler, who broke up with Elliot three years later, said in retrospect that she was not embarrassed about posing, nor bitter that she did not receive any royalties from the photo. Butler (now Walker) is a mother of three, who works as a freelance illustrator in Droitwich Spa, Worcestershire.

Speaking in 2007, she said that, despite not being paid, she was proud of her iconic status.

“I can remember the day quite clearly. When the picture got so popular I was quite amused that something taken that afternoon could get so big,” she said. “It became one of those pictures that everyone knows and everyone’s seen. I like the fact that it’s got a bit of an air of mystery about it. I think that’s what helped with its longevity, because people kept wondering if it was anyone famous.”

Fiona Walker, the model in the famous Athena poster (left) poses with an original copy at Christie’s (King Street, London) in March 2011. (Photo: The Barber Institute of Fine Arts)

“I remember going to a party with my husband and people were saying ‘is that the girl in the photograph?,’” she added. “They looked me up and down and said ‘I don’t think so’. My son’s headmaster once said to me that he used to have it on his wall at university. I’ve got no objections to it whatsoever.”

“My children have never been upset about it. It’s really nothing that anyone could be offended by. It’s just a bit of fun. I think it was banned in a couple of countries but really I don’t think there was anything to get upset about.

“It was just a picture of a very sort of ordinary girl and there’s something in that that appeals to people.”

Carol Knotts, now a barrister living in Gloucestershire, put the dress and racquet up for sale at an auction on 5 July 2014, the day of the 2014 Wimbledon Championships – Women’s Singles final.

“As I played tennis at the local club in Stourbridge, I bought a ‘Simplicity’ pattern and made my own dress, complete with lace trim. Fiona was a friend and one day asked if she could borrow my dress and racquet,” she said before the auction. “When she returned them, she gave me a big box of chocolates as a thank you.”

“I’ve had the dress tucked away in a cupboard for all those years,” she said. “It’s a little piece of tennis history and I hope someone might find it an interesting novelty item to buy.”

The Tennis Girl’s racquet and dress.

The dress was sold for £15,000, while the racquet went for between £1000-£2000. Athena Tennis Girl poster dress is now part of the Wimbledon Museum collection.

In February 2015, Peter Atkinson from Marsh Gate, Cornwall, came forward to insist the photo was actually of his ex-wife, producing in evidence two items, one showing the same image and the other a close variant (seemingly taken on the same occasion), both of which were dated 1974, two years before Fiona Butler’s photo shoot.

Peter Atkinson of Marsh Gate, Cornwall, with his collection of memorabilia of the famous ‘Tennis Girl’ photograph. He claims an old postcard and calendar cast doubt on whose behind is featured on the famous poster. (Photo: SWNS)

Over the years the picture has been parodied by various people as diverse as former tennis star Pat Cash, comedian Alan Carr and singer Kylie Minogue, with actor Keith Lemon featuring his parody in his 2012 calendar. It was also imitated in an advertisement for a tennis video game called Davis Cup World Tour for the Sega Genesis / Mega Drive.

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