Photographer’s iconic ‘Tennis Girl’ back in spotlight

July 3, 2014

Captured by Martin Elliott on a Birmingham University tennis court in 1976 – using a Nikon F1 camera and Kodak film – the image attained iconic status when it was made into an Athena poster, selling more than two million copies worldwide.

At the time, Martin was an unknown 29-year-old commercial photographer.

‘Tennis Girl’ features the photographer’s then girlfriend, Fiona Butler, though many others later claimed to be the girl in the picture, according to Martin, who died in 2010, aged 63.

The dress worn by Fiona – along with two posters and a tennis racquet – are due to go on sale at Fieldings Auctioneers in Stourbridge, West Midlands, on Saturday 5 July, timed to coincide with the Wimbledon ladies’ final.

‘There’s a generation of people who will remember this poster very well, so it’s a good time to put it up for auction,’ said Fieldings Auctioneers director Nick Davies.

Fiona – who had never played tennis before – borrowed the tennis outfit from her friend Carol Knotts, who made the dress.

‘Fiona was a friend and one day asked if she could borrow my dress and racquet,’ said Carol.

‘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. It’s a little piece of tennis history and I hope someone might find it an interesting novelty item buy.’

Speaking to Amateur Photographer, in 2007, Martin said: ‘Technically, it’s a good picture, but I had the luck of the devil with the way it turned out.

‘I was very pleased with the shot and offered it to Athena – who turned it down. So, I took it to a picture library, and gave them strict instructions that it shouldn’t be used as a poster.

‘A week or so later the library called me, apologising that they had sold it as a poster with a calendar printed on it – and to Athena. The deal was only for a year, but Athena printed the poster again the next year with the next year’s date on it.

‘They had already printed a warehouse full, but they didn’t have the rights. I had them over a barrel and was able to demand 10% royalties – which I got.

‘That original contract, for the first year, only paid £130, which I had to split with the library, but even the next year I didn’t trust the company to pay me properly. An ex-employee told me that Athena hated paying royalties!

‘Athena never owned the picture, though plenty of people still associate the company with it, so I still own it completely. It is still in demand too. I get at least one call a week about usage. In the summer, and during Wimbledon, I get a lot more.

‘It is strange how famous the picture has become – far more famous than me – and now it is one of the most reproduced photographs in the world.’

Though Martin said he did well financially from ‘Tennis Girl’, he admitted that it harmed his career for a while.

‘I didn’t want to come to London and companies in the Midlands thought I would be too expensive to hire, even though I wasn’t.’

The dress, racquet and posters are estimated to fetch £1,000-£2,000.