With Canadians seizing the spotlight at Wimbledon this week, some are recalling the man who was this country's first big tennis star.

In 1908, Bobby Powell made it all the way to the Wimbledon men's semi-finals before his tennis career ended with his death in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917.

'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.' - Bobby Powell's letter to his mother before falling at Vimy Ridge

Long before this current crop of young superstars wowed the crowds, there was Powell — Canada's first real international tennis star, according to Christopher Marks, who has researched his life.


Christopher Marks, who has studied Bobby Powell's life, says Powell was Canada's best tennis player for nearly a decade. (CBC)

"He was the star. He was Canada's best tennis player for eight or nine years and when he died his memory just faded."

In the 1900s, tennis was a sport for the rich and mostly the British. Bobby Powell's parents were West Coast pioneers. They moved to Victoria in 1862, before Confederation and before B.C.'s decision to join in 1871.

His father, Israel Powell was an accomplished doctor and an administrator. Dr. Powell built a family home at what is now the intersection of Vancouver and Burdett streets in Victoria and put in a rough tennis court near what is now a car park.

Powell learned to play tennis in Victoria

It's where young Bobby learned the game, says Jason Beck, who is with B.C.'s Sports Hall of Fame.


Tennis was a sport for the rich in the 1900's played mostly by the British. (CBC)

"He was really on the cusp of the establishment of the sport here. There were very few who played tennis here at that level and no one before him."

He ended up being the champion of B.C., the state of Washington and the state of Oregon.

Powell, who was in his early 20s, held a succession of increasingly important jobs working with B.C.'s Lieutenant Governor and Canada's Governor General.

Then, he decided to go to law school. The chance to study and play tennis in England transformed Powell's life.

In 1908 in London, he played on Canada's Olympic tennis squad and he made it to the semi-finals in singles at Wimbledon.


Bobby Powell grew up in Victoria where his father, a doctor, put in a court in their backyard. (CBC)

Later, he'd tour South Africa and win titles in France, Germany, Austria and Monte Carlo.

When the First World War started, he was in Chicago for a tournament, but left immediately to enlist with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. 

Powell was made an officer. He took the train from Vancouver Island to the East Coast and then it was back to England for basic training and onto the front lines.

He would never play competitive tennis again.

Final letter from the front is to his mother

In Feb 1917, while stationed in France, he wrote this letter home:


When war broke out, Bobby Powell immediately enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. He was made an officer. (CBC)

"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."

Weeks later, Bobby Powell was killed leading his platoon of 50 men in a charge across no-man's land in the battle of Vimy Ridge. He was 36 years old:

"It really is tragic," said Beck. "He was in his prime. He was a strong player. Who knows where he could have gone from then."

The story of Bobby Powell's tennis success has mostly been forgotten. But now, it's about to get permanent recognition.


Powell was killed leading a platoon of 50 soldiers in a charge across no-man's land in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in World War 1. (CBC)

Beck and the B.C. Sports of Hall of Fame are set to honour Powell as a pioneer in his sport — something long overdue. There will be an induction ceremony at the end of the summer.

"The surprising thing is that his story is very unknown," said Beck. "He probably should have been inducted decades ago, based on his accomplishments to our hall of fame. He kind of slipped through the cracks. I am glad that I found him now."

The sporting world may not remember much about Bobby Powell, but chances are a lot of people who live in, or have visited Vancouver, have spoken his family's name and not even realized who they were talking about.

There's a street in downtown Vancouver, one of the busiest in the city, that's named after his family — Powell Street. It's in recognition of his pioneering father, but could just as easily stand for Bobby Powell's own legacy.