On the 16th August this year, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) approved a complete overhaul of the Davis Cup, the men’s international tennis championship dating 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 major event. The change, which will come into effect in 2019, was made to enhance the competition’s prestige and commercial value, with the assumption that it will attract more of the world’s best players, who in the past have too often skipped certain Davis Cup matches to clear their respective timetables, in what is a gruelling almost 11-month season. It is somewhat ironic that the rationale for change reflects the story that Dwight Filley Davis proffered over a century ago, when he, allegedly, came up with the idea for this international competition, and subsequently donated the eponymous trophy, in his attempt to entice the best British players to compete against the American ‘cracks’.
However, research evidence recently published in the Journal of Sport History has questioned the extent of Davis’s contribution, and even argues that the wealthy Harvard graduate, who is widely credited with coming up with the idea, structure and rules for the international challenge, actually played a very minor role in the competition’s incipient development. Indeed, his involvement beyond paying for and proffering the cup itself – a 217-ounce silver punchbowl – was negligible, but these findings go against decades of myth propagating by leading tennis officials and historians, who took Davis’s word for it after he repeatedly claimed that he devised the basic principle of international competition between teams of national players. These findings make what could be called the “Davis Cup myth” probably the biggest lie in tennis history.
The following article (in two parts) seeks to expose this myth and to provide a more critical examination of the emergence of international lawn tennis in the late nineteenth century. It is argued that the fostering of international relationships, and Anglo-American cooperation between players, administrators and businessmen, was fundamental to developments that ultimately led to the inception of the Davis Cup; processes that Dwight Davis had, at best, minimal involvement in.
Dwight Davis’s Story
The story that Davis told, firstly in 1907, and again in 1931, when asked to contribute an article on the Davis Cup’s origins for a book released to celebrate the United States National Lawn Tennis Association’s (USNLTA) 50th anniversary, was thus.
In the summer of 1899, three Harvard undergraduates, Davis, Holcombe Ward and Malcolm Whitman, alongside their friend Beals Wright and his father, George, set off across America to challenge the Pacific-coast’s top tennis talent. On his way home, inspired by the tour’s success and the excitement generated by the upcoming America’s Cup, it apparently occurred to Davis: ‘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 Dr. James Dwight, president of the USNLTA, to present his idea for the “International Lawn Tennis Challenge”. The idea ‘was approved’, according to Davis, ‘and consequently I offered the International Lawn Tennis Challenge Cup’. At a meeting of the USNLTA executive committee in February 1900, the cup was accepted. Subsequently, Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) was contacted and the first competition was arranged at Boston’s Longwood Cricket Club that summer, which was won by the American team.
Despite Davis claiming in published work, twice, that he came up with the idea for the competition that bears his name, and devised the format for it (a mix of singles and doubles matches), the reality is that his involvement is limited to a single superficial act of purchasing and donating the competition’s trophy. So, questions that arise are: If Davis did not conceive the idea for this competition, then who did? Why was Davis allowed to peddle the myth that he devised the Cup’s basic premise, alongside its structure and rules? Where were the alternative voices, and why has the myth endured for so long?
Dwight Filley Davis, who was born in 1880, was by all accounts a model American in the mould of the new entrepreneurial class that emerged in the US during the latter half of the 19th century. He was a successful businessman from St. Louis, Missouri, a well-connected millionaire, a decorated war hero, and a philanthropist. He was also charming and handsome, making him perfect “front man” material for any worthy cause he attached his name to. He had a passion and aptitude for lawn tennis, and those within the USNLTA saw an opportunity to utilise Davis’s model-American image, and the handsome cup he donated, to entice the British to send a team to compete for it in 1900.
Americans Seek out the British
The British were understood to be, without question, the world’s best lawn tennis players throughout much of the 1880s and 90s, and, quite naturally, Dr James Dwight, USNLTA President (from 1882-84 & 1894-1911), was eager for his men to test their abilities, and subsequently improve their standards, against the world’s best players. He began seeking to establish formal competitive tennis-playing relations with the British since the 1880s, hosting events in the US involving British players overseas, sending various American players to the Wimbledon Championships and other British tournaments – effectively, as diplomats – to stimulate interest in transatlantic competitions, and writing directly to the LTA to establish formal relations. His efforts came to little avail, as the British repeatedly ignored American invitations, instead preferring to develop relations – and tennis competitions involving players representing national teams – with the Irish and French, who were not only geographically closer but also thought more worthy opponents.
Of particular note were the England-versus-Ireland matches, incepted in 1881, at Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Club. This was probably the first ever team international challenge, and comprised of three men’s pairs. Peter Aungier and Lieutenant Maul, the Wilson brothers, and Vere St. Leger and Darby represented Ireland, while the Renshaw brothers, Willie and Ernest, Herbert Lawford and Alfred Mullholland, and Richard Richardson and Otway Woodhouse completed the English sextet. While the fixture was repeated in subsequent years, it fell from favour after a few years, but re-emerged at the start of the 1890s, when the world’s best players competed in the annual international competition until 1897.
While James Dwight had failed in his efforts to establish transatlantic competition, ostensibly due to the intransigence of the LTA and their notion of British superiority, other Americans were attempting to incept an Anglo-American challenge. Most notable were the efforts of the businessman, Henry Ditson, who was also the business partner of George Wright. In an article in the American magazine, Outing, in August 1889, it was proffered that a ‘delegate of tennis men headed by Mr. H.A. Ditson, of Boston, who are now in England for the purpose of arranging an international series of matches have met with gratifying success thus far’. Ditson, who clearly had an eye on the commerical possibilities of international competition and the expansion of his sporting goods business, sought to entice British players to American shores. He even offered financial incentives, which was an approach strongly disapproved of by the amateur authorities. Ultimately, Ditson and his colleagues were unable to secure the consent of the top British amateurs, but did manage to convince the world’s best professional player, Irishman, George Kerr, to venture “across the pond” to play a challenge match against Tom Pettitt, America’s leading professional tennis exponent. The match had been long awaited, having been first mentioned in the English publication, Pastime, in 1886, when it was proclaimed that ‘“George”, the Fitzwilliam ground man … is certainly the best professional in the country, and if he could be matched to play Pettitt, the American professional, a very “sporting” contest would result’.
Kerr, ‘the Irish Ground-man’, defeated Pettitt, which acted to further highlight the gulf in standards between the Americans and their British counterparts, and accentuating the LTA’s entrenched view of British superiority on the lawn courts. However, it was an opinion not shared by many of the top British and American players.
In the second part of this article, we highlight how American and British players collaborated to develop the critical relationships necessary for development of Anglo-American competitions. Such important transatlantic alliances ultimately led to several contests between the top British and American players in the 1890s, several years prior to Dwight Davis’s apparent epiphany in 1899. Further to this, we argue that Davis had no role these early developments, and that he likely appropriated his idea for international competition from others.