It’s remarkable and sometimes a little sad how unbelievable athletic stories slip through the cracks of time, neglected and forgotten. The unprecedented success of Canadians Eugenie Bouchard, Milos Raonic, and Vasek Pospisil at Wimbledon in 2014 opened that crack on a long-buried tennis story a little wider to the general public.

If you hadn’t heard of Robert ‘Bobby’ Powell before then, you weren’t alone.

The remarkable tale of one of Canada’s earliest tennis stars was known only by a scant few tennis aficionados and one man who resolutely championed Powell’s cause for years: Montreal’s Christopher Marks. Let us look back at the life of a true pioneer who paved the way for so many in Canadian tennis.

Born in Victoria in 1881, Bobby Powell’s family settled in BC in 1862, nine years before BC joined Confederation. His father, Israel Powell, was an influential doctor, politician, and for nearly two decades Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Powell Street in Vancouver and Powell River on Vancouver Island are named after him.

Young Bobby learned to play tennis on a grass court his father built beside their Victoria home. He began playing Victoria Tennis Club tournaments in his teens, learning the game from future Davis Cup teammate J. F. Foulkes.

Beginning at age 18, Powell served four years as private secretary to BC’s Lieutenant-Governor, but he never stopped playing tennis. He won the BC singles championship in 1901, 1903, and 1904, in the latter year adding both the Pacific Northwest singles and doubles titles. At the same time, he was largely responsible for the formation of the North Pacific International Lawn Tennis Association encompassing clubs from BC, Washington, and Oregon.

From 1904-06, Powell worked for the Governor of Fiji in the South Pacific. While there, he won the island’s singles championship on two occasions.

Later in England pursuing a law degree, Powell travelled extensively and won tennis tournaments and national titles in Austria, Germany, Scotland, France, Monaco, and South Africa. He captained Canada’s tennis team at the 1908 Olympics in London, finishing ninth in singles and seventh in doubles. That same year, he reached the semifinals at Wimbledon, unmatched by any Canadian male in singles until Raonic in 2014. The following two years at Wimbledon, Powell won the All England Plate and reached the final of the doubles competition.

In 1913, Powell captained Canada’s Davis Cup team that featured four Victoria-based players who defeated Belgium and South Africa before losing to the US in the zone final, marking Canada’s best-ever Davis Cup result before the 2013 Canadian team’s semifinal finish.

When the Great War broke out, Powell enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and served as an officer in the trenches of war-torn Europe. In the spring of 1917, Powell wrote a letter back to his mother in Victoria: “Darling Mother, please don’t worry and be anxious about me. If I fall, I should like you only to feel pride in the fact that I am trying to do my highest duty and never to mourn me. But I have confidence that God will help me to come through it. But the whole thing is Hell.”

Just weeks after writing this letter, Powell was killed in action at age 36 leading his platoon of fifty men in a charge across no man’s land at the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.