How Australia's diplomatic secret weapon was almost turned into a vegetable patch

New York: When Joe Hockey arrived in Washington in January 2016 to begin his posting as Australia's ambassador to the US he was quickly stunned by the cut-throat nature of diplomacy in the American capital.

Australia may be one of America's most trusted allies, but that does not necessarily translate into easy access to the most influential policymakers.

"In Washington you are competing with hundreds of other countries for access – it is a diplomatic and cultural arms race," Hockey tells Fairfax Media in an interview in New York. "It is very hard for us to compete against the British, the Mexicans and Canadians because of their size and their proximity to the US."

Australia's ambassador to the US Joe Hockey says in "abnormal times" an abnormal approach to diplomacy is needed

Australia’s ambassador to the US Joe Hockey says in “abnormal times” an abnormal approach to diplomacy is needed

Then came Donald Trump – a transactional, unpredictable political outsider who puts more store in personal chemistry than traditional alliances. It's a lesson Theresa May in the UK, Angela Merkel in Germany, Justin Trudeau in Canada and South Korea's Moon Jae-in have all learnt the hard way.

"The President has less regard for precedent and history than his predecessors – you can't just rest on your laurels and claim to have a special relationship," Hockey says.

"These are abnormal times and you need to have an abnormal approach to engagement."

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In a bid to give Australia an advantage over its rivals, Hockey turned to an unconventional method of diplomatic influence: tennis.

The Australian ambassador's residence in Washington – known as White Oaks – is a Heritage-listed brick mansion built in 1923. It was once the home of George Patton, one of the most significant and controversial military figures in US history.

In the early 1990s, Ambassador Michael Cook added a lawn tennis court to the property, which proved an instant hit with the Washington elite. Members of the Kennedy and Bush political dynasties played on the court, as did former world number one tennis player Stanley Smith.

But grass courts are difficult and expensive to maintain, making them increasingly rare. By the time Hockey arrived in Washington, the court had fallen into disrepair.

"My predecessor [Kim Beazley] decided it wasn't worth the upkeep," Hockey says. "He intended to turn it into vegetable gardens.

"My kids were using it as a soccer pitch."

Westfield chief executive Peter Lowy played a crucial role in securing funding for the restoration of the lawn tennis court at the Australian ambassador's residence in Washington DC.

Westfield chief executive Peter Lowy played a crucial role in securing funding for the restoration of the lawn tennis court at the Australian ambassador’s residence in Washington DC.

Hockey thought this was a waste, since it's the only lawn tennis court in Washington and one of only a handful in the US north-east. Playing on grass is a dream of many tennis lovers.

One day Hockey mentioned the overgrown court to Westfield chief executive Peter Lowy, who took an instant interest in restoring it.

"He was indefatigable," Hockey says. "He kept at me about it, he wrote to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He saw it as the best tool of diplomacy in Washington."

After participating in a tender process, Westfield donated $US85,000 ($118,000) to renovate and maintain the court for five years.

"The lawn court is unique in Washington, and over the years has played a major role in allowing the opportunity for US and Australian leaders to interact in a relaxed environment, which is good for both countries," Peter Lowy says.

"It was a natural fit, and an appropriate gesture given the long friendship between the two nations."

The mansion was built in 1923 and became the resident of the Australian ambassador in 1940. The tennis court was installed in the 1990s.

The mansion was built in 1923 and became the resident of the Australian ambassador in 1940. The tennis court was installed in the 1990s.

The refurbishment was completed last year and the court will soon be officially re-opened at an event featuring 11-time grand slam champion Rod Laver and US Open winner Fred Stolle.

Hockey says the investment is already paying dividends.

Senior members of congress, military leaders and foreign diplomats have all played on the court over the past year. And during intense negotiations about new tariffs on steel and aluminium, Trump's commerce secretary Wilbur Ross visited Hockey's home simply to see it. Australia was among a select group of countries to win an exemption from the tariffs.

As well as tennis, Hockey has deployed other tactics to expand Australia's soft power in Washington. In April Hockey played nine holes of golf with Trump and his budget director at the Trump National Golf Club in Virginia, a rare level of one-on-one presidential access for a foreign diplomat.

He has also put works by some of Australia's most famous artists, including Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan and Margaret Olley, on display at his residence to showcase the country's cultural prowess.

"The art of diplomacy in Washington is to develop relationships outside of meetings," Hockey says.

"Administration officials are exhausted by meetings: they have a conga line of countries trying to figure out what is going on inside the White House.

"They are desperate for something outside the cocktail circuit, the daily grind of politics."

Hockey hopes the grass court at White Oaks remains in good condition long after his tenure as ambassador is over.

"This is a massive point of difference for us. It's about having our voice heard in the most powerful country in the world."

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