Uncovering the Davis Cup myth

By Robert J. Lake, Instructor, Sport Science 

On Aug. 16, 2018, the International Tennis Federation approved a massive overhaul of the Davis Cup, the men’s international tennis championship that dates back to 1900. A two-thirds majority among the 140 member nations approved the move to turn it from a competition involving several rounds of play throughout the calendar year into a season-ending 18-nation event. The change, which will come into effect in 2019, was made to enhance the competition’s prestige and value, and to ensure it attracts more of the world’s best

Rob Lake
Robert Lake

players, who too often skip certain Davis Cup matches to take a break and clear their timetable in what is a grueling almost 11-month schedule.

The news has brought renewed interest to the Davis Cup, but soon the International Tennis Federation will have yet another reason to check its Twitter feeds, as research findings from an article written by myself and Dr. Simon Eaves – my friend and colleague at Manchester Metropolitan University – for the Journal of Sport History will become public knowledge.

After spending a year or so gathering information about tournaments involving players of different nations that predated the Davis Cup, we came to realize that Dwight Davis, the wealthy Harvard graduate who is widely credited with coming up with the idea for the competition that bears his name almost 120 years earlier, actually played a very minor role in the competition’s incipient development.

Indeed, his involvement, beyond proffering the cup itself – a 217-ounce silver punchbowl – and paying to have it made, was negligible. But these findings go against decades of myth propagating by leading tennis officials and historians, who took Davis at his word after he repeatedly claimed that he devised the basic principle of international competition between teams of national players himself.

The story goes that, in the summer of 1899, Davis and his friends toured across America to challenge the best talent from the West Coast. On his way home, inspired by the tour’s success and the excitement generated by the upcoming America’s Cup (the international yachting event), it occurred to Davis, according to his published recollection from 1907, that “if team matches between different parts of the same country arose such great interest … would not similar international contests have even wider and far-reaching consequences?” According to Davis, “The idea came to me … that an international competition would be of the greatest possible benefit to the game throughout the whole United States and abroad.”

Upon returning to Boston, Davis met with James Dwight, president of the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (USNLTA), to present “his” idea for the International Lawn Tennis Challenge. The idea was approved and, according to Davis, “consequently I offered the International Lawn Tennis Challenge Cup.” So romantic is the story that no one would want to believe it was not true, but the fact is that his claims – which he went on to repeat in 1931 – do not stand up to scrutiny.

Simon and I discovered that competitions between teams of players representing England and Ireland took place as early as 1892, and, in 1895, between England and France. We also found  that British-U.S. relations in tennis, upon which the basis for the Davis Cup was predicated, had been developing slowly since the 1880s through the combined efforts Dwight and several leading American and British players, who embarked on transatlantic tours. By 1896, these had become a regular, annual occurrence, and in particular, the visit of Bill Larned to the British Isles that summer was significant. At the behest of Dwight and the USNLTA, Larned was on a semi-official recruiting mission, working with leading British player Harold Mahony, to secure the participation of Britain’s leading players for a series of competitions involving the best Americans the following summer. The trip in 1896 also coincided with a tournament in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., whereupon discussions between leading figures about the possibility of a regular Great-Britain-versus-the-United-States fixture was openly discussed and written about, and it is likely there that Davis, who was in attendance, got wind of the idea.

In 1897, a reciprocal British tour to the U.S. was duly staged, and given its success, an official USNLTA-sanctioned Britain-versus-the-U.S. match was scheduled for the following summer in Chicago. The proposed event, involving six of the best from each nation, received coverage in the Chicago Tribune, but due to several of the leading American players being predisposed with work and military commitments, the idea was scrapped just months beforehand.

From this evidence, what is abundantly clear is that Davis did not devise the idea for an international team-tennis competition, nor did he devise the format – as the mix of singles and doubles had been used since 1878 in an international tournament organized by James Dwight – or contribute anything to fostering the necessary preconditions for the establishment of British-U.S. tennis relations that officially commenced in the mid-1880s. Indeed, born in 1879, Davis was still only a child when all of this was going ahead.

Childish, he was though, indeed, when he proffered a cup to Dwight in return for grandfathering him into the USNLTA executive – a move made despite the obvious conflict of interest – and then claiming, but immediately rescinding as soon as he was elected, for him to remain anonymous as donor. The wealthy, good-looking, philanthropic war hero was perfect front-man material for the event and a seemingly immaculate figure upon which American tennis officials, and the nation itself, could be proud to call their own. The only trouble is, the true details of the facts present Davis as cunning, opportunistic, conceited, power-hungry and arrogant, knowingly propagating lies and unwilling to credit the efforts of, or share the glory with, others more deserving—Dwight, Larned and Mahony for a start. The facts behind the Davis Cup myth were just as interesting for me to discover as the man himself, and just as controversial.

Perhaps before overhauling the format of the Davis Cup next year, the International Tennis Federation might want to consider overhauling the information it continues to present on its website and marketing materials, which merely propagates the lies of a man whose values might come to be perceived as antithetical to the ethos of the very competition that bears his name.

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