Exposing the Davis Cup Myth: The Man, the Cup, and the Biggest Lie in Tennis History

By Robert J. Lake 

On the 16th August, 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.

The news brought renewed interest in the event, but soon the ITF will have yet another reason to check their Twitter feeds, as research findings from an article in the Journal of Sport History written by myself and Dr. Simon Eaves – my friend and colleague at Manchester Metropolitan University – 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 F. Davis, the wealthy Harvard graduate who is widely credited with coming up with the idea, structure and rules 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 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 story that Davis told 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 USNLTA’s 50th anniversary, was as follows. In the summer of 1899, three Harvard undergraduates, Davis, Holcombe Ward and Malcolm Whitman, alongside their friend Beals Wright and his father, 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.”[1] Upon returning to Boston, Davis met with Dr. 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,” according to Davis, “and consequently I offered the International Lawn Tennis Challenge Cup.”[2] 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.

Despite Davis claiming in published word, 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.

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 Wimbledon 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. In particular, the England-versus-Ireland matches played from 1892 onwards for over a decade were of considerable interest, and it was only in the mid-1890s when the leading American players advanced to such a degree that the British began to take notice.

It was not until 1894 until a highly-ranked British player crossed the Atlantic to compete in the US. Manliffe Goodbody reached the Challenge Round of the US National Championships (forerunner to the US Open) and upon his return promised to extend invitations to other top British/Irish players for the following year. Irishman Joshua Pim, who was the two-time and reigning Wimbledon singles champions, duly took up the offer and ventured west with his compatriot Harold Mahony. Both performed well against top American talent and after meeting with Dwight, it was agreed that Americans would venture east to compete in British tournaments the following summer. Ultimately, only one American, Boston’s Bill Larned, travelled, but he and Mahony struck up a friendship as they travelled together over a two-month period – including a sojourn to watch the annual England-versus-Ireland match – to compete in six British tournaments. That Larned’s venture had the full support of the USNLTA was obvious in the light of his election to its committee the following year, and it is clear now that he was sent as an unofficial envoy to stimulate interest in a US-versus-Britain match.

That same summer of 1896, at around the time that Larned was being hosted in Ireland and Britain, Dwight Davis and his friends were competing in the prestigious tournament at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, which had a reputation for being more “social” than competitive. Three men were reported to have had a casual conversation during the tournament, namely E.P. Fischer, editor of the tournament’s popular paper, The Lark, J. Parmly Paret, tennis writer, and Charles Voigt, a leading American lawn tennis devotee, about the possibility of Davis – being the well-connected, model-American millionaire that he was – getting more involved in the sport. Voigt proposed, rather auspiciously it would seem: “Why don’t you people get him to do something for the game? Put up some big prize or cup?” Voigt had in mind a series of international exchanges between the US and Britain, and was sure that if put correctly to the USNLTA and LTA, “the affair would in no doubt soon become a fait accompli.”[3] It is fairly likely that Davis got wind of this conversation, given Fischer’s position as editor of The Lark, which often included comical stories about Davis and his “playboy” reputation.

It is quite possible, therefore, that discussions about the creation of an international challenge-match (between the US and GB) were happening almost simultaneously on two different continents during the summer of 1896. Connections deepened still further, as over the coming months Larned and Fischer met several times, competing as opponents at tournaments in Norwood Park, NJ, and Newport, RI, and as teammates in the East-versus-West Challenge at Chicago’s Kenwood Country Club.[4] Subsequent reports claim that they both met with James Gardner, Secretary and Treasurer of the Western LTA, about the prospect of an “international tournament” scheduled for the summer of 1897 that would pit six of the best British players against six of the best Americans—three from the East and three from the West.[5] Several weeks earlier, moreover, the Chicago Tribune reported that another ;’international tournament’ had been proposed: “It is to be one more of the great international contests between America and England. … The tournament will practically be for the world’s championship.”[6] The ‘team championship’ held at Norwood Park, would be organized by the wealthy Harper family, of Harper publishing, and be officially recognized by Dwight’s USNLTA and “held under its auspices.”[7]

Sensing an opportunity, Dwight then approached the LTA with his idea for an international competition, but the particulars of Dwight’s offer – which included paying the travel expenses of the British players – offended the LTA on the grounds of pure amateurism. Subsequently, they declined. Nevertheless, three of Britain’s best ventured west as ‘unofficial’ representatives. Duly taking the bait were Harold Mahony alongside Wilberforce Eaves and Harold Nisbet, who welcomed the opportunity – more in the spirit of goodwill than competitive rivalry – to test themselves against the emerging American talent over a series of east-coast tournaments. Of this trip, only Eaves performed well – reaching the challenge round of the US Nationals – prompting the Americans to declare they had won the greatest contest in the history of sport and had not only reached par with the English but had outplayed them and could claim superiority. After years of complacency, it seemed the British had finally met their match against the Americans and could no longer deny them the opportunity of an official challenge match. Work then began for a reciprocal tour to Great Britain for 1898, which included a proposed US-versus-GB challenge-match to be held in Newcastle, involving Larned and the reigning and four-time US Nationals singles champion Bob Wrenn.[8]

Just days before their scheduled departure, however, pressing “business engagements” forced Larned and Wrenn to pull out, and owing to several other top Americans being called for duty in the National Guard, the proposed match was never played. The following summer, in 1899 – owing to wars in Cuba, the Philippines and South Africa – was equally problematic for the best players of both nations, but it was abundantly clear that by this stage, due to the work of Dwight, Goodbody, Mahony, Larned and company, the groundwork had been firmly laid for the establishment of an international competition between the US and GB. Crucially, Dwight Davis was not in any way involved in this process. Nevertheless, it was that summer when the young man toured the west coast and had his famous ‘epiphany’ about an international contest.

The story and the intrigue, however, do not end with Davis’s donation. His questionable character and apparent propensity to bend the odds in his favour, manipulate other people and situations to his advantage, and pass off the ideas of others as his own, are revealed in his subsequent actions involving the actual formal ‘acceptance’ of the Cup.

Just twelve days after Dwight was grandfathered onto the USNLTA executive committee in February of 1900, he supplied a crucial vote – on a committee of just five members – on whether or not to accept the donation of his own trophy. This represented a clear conflict of interest, but, as far as James Dwight was concerned, he circumvented this breach of ethics by proffering the cup ‘anonymously’; the cup’s donor apparently “desired his name withheld.”[9] With Dwight and Davis in support, the Cup needed only one more vote from the three remaining members, which it duly received, but the following day, Davis’s name was revealed in The New York Times as the competition immediately became referred to as: “The Davis International Tennis Cup”.[10]

Undoubtedly, if Davis was truly determined to remain anonymous he could have insisted the trophy not bear his name, and/or shared authority over the competition equally with his USNLTA committee colleagues, but he did neither. Not only did he overstate his own involvement, he also failed to credit the efforts of others, particularly in terms of establishing the necessary friendly Anglo-American relations. Moreover, he also demanded that he, as the donor, be consented on any proposed changes to the competition. The fact that he demanded this power of veto calls into question his apparent desires to remain anonymous, as does his stipulation that if no challenge was made for five years, the trophy must be returned to him. His philanthropy had caveats.

The actions of Davis, a well-connected and wealthy future politician, depict a conceited man of tremendous ambition and political capital. After publishing in 1907 his personal reflection on how the Davis Cup came to be, he then waited until 1931 before reiterating his original account. By this time, despite alternative versions of events being published – e.g. by Charles Voigt in 1912 – all those who may have refuted Davis’s claims were either dead or incapacitated. Dwight passed in 1917, Larned committed suicide in 1926 after a long battle with depression from acquiring spinal meningitis, Mahony died from a bicycling accident in 1905, Eaves passed in 1920 and Voigt in 1929; Fischer was sectioned in a mental asylum in 1920 after being embroiled in the infamous Wall Street bombing scandal. Davis was ‘home free’!

Davis’s involvement in the establishment of the Cup that bears his name was based on a single act. While he may have had a say in the competition’s developing structure of mixing singles and doubles matches – though these had been experimented in earlier team competitions – we know he also solicited the help of several others including James Dwight for this purpose. Most crucially, however, it is absolutely certain that Davis did not help establish relations with the British or invite them to compete for his trophy, nor did he conceive the original idea for international team-based competitions. Credit here goes to the efforts of several gentlemen, notably: Dwight and Larned, but also Voigt, Goodbody, Mahony and Fischer.

One may still ponder why others did not come forward with refutations of Davis’s efforts. A large part of the reason for that might be to do with the insecurity that many Americans felt about their nation relative to others, particularly Great Britain, at the time, and the potential value they saw in Davis as the face of the competition and as an embodiment of a particular national and class ideology. Davis’s wealth and lineage lent tennis credibility in the US, at a time when its officials and players played second fiddle to the British. He was a ‘model American’ and his achievements were lauded over those of other men, who were no match for the charming, handsome multi-millionaire: Dwight was too modest to claim ownership; Larned was not ‘front-man’ material either, due to his declining health; Voigt and Fischer were not sufficiently part of the ‘establishment’; and, Goodbody and Mahony were British.

The competition needed a figurehead of Davis’s background to draw British interest and the attentions of the American public and press. From a prominent family in St. Louis, Harvard-educated, prolific sportsman, decorated war-hero, philanthropist and later politician, Davis was the very image of what the WASP establishment wanted to express as quintessentially ‘American.’ However, the well-trod story of Dwight F. Davis, and the origins of the tennis competition that bears his name, is as charming as it is untrue. Davis did not invent the Davis Cup, nor did he conceive the original idea for it, and underneath the all-American facade, his actions and political manoeuvrings demonstrate ethically-questionable personal motives and traits that defy his positive image.

Robert J. Lake (PhD, Brunel University) is an Instructor in the Department of Sport Science at Douglas College, Canada. He has written on numerous socio-historical aspects of tennis including social class, gender, national identity, media, coaching and talent development policy, and has published in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, the International Journal of Sport CommunicationSport in History, the International Journal of the History of Sport, and the Journal of Sport History. His first book A Social History of Tennis in Britain (Routledge, 2015) won the Lord Aberdare Literary Prize in 2016 awarded by the British Society of Sports History.


Notes:

[1] ‘The Quest for the International Cup’, American Lawn Tennis, 18 April, 1907, 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Charles A. Voigt, ‘The Origins of the Davis Cup’, Lawn Tennis and Badminton, 11 July, 1912, 485.

[4]  ‘Larned in Fine Form’, New York Times, 5 August, 1896, 6; ‘Eastern and Western Tennis Experts to Play Tomorrow’, Chicago Tribune, 14, September, 1896, 5.

[5] ‘Tennis from Far Shores’, Chicago Tribune, 28 September 1896, 8.

[6] ‘Tennis of Two Nations’, Chicago Tribune, 3 September, 1896, 10.

[7] ‘Tennis of Two Nations’, Chicago Tribune, 3 September, 1896, 10.

[8] ‘American Players Abroad’, American Lawn Tennis 27 April, 1898, 89.

[9] ‘Minutes of the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the USNLTA’, Golf and Lawn Tennis, 1 March, 1900, 54.

[10] ‘International Tennis Trophy’, New York Times, 22 February, 1900, 4.

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