Dwight Davis: Cup Founder, Politician, Diplomat, and King of the Tennis Court

claudia celestial girlAnalyst IOctober 4, 2010

Dwight's Pot
Dwight's PotClive Brunskill/Getty Images

Let’s see, Secretary of War? Or famous tennis star?

Hmmm…Which career path to choose? How about...both?

Not many tennis stars go to college. John McEnroe, who is famously known for attending Stanford, only attended the university for a single semester. John Isner, a current tennis star, is the only one in the top 50 to obtain a degree (at the University of Georgia) before starting his ATP career.

Like Isner, Dwight Davis was a collegiate tennis singles champion. He played for Harvard University in 1899. The closest he came to a singles title was runner-up in the US Championships in 1898. A lefty, Davis made a name for himself in doubles. While at Harvard he also went out for baseball and played on the sophomore football team.

Quite a few US politicians were collegiate—or even professional—athletes before embarking on a life of public service. Among them: President Gerald R. Ford and Senator Jack Kemp. Dwight Davis can be counted among these public figures, as Davis served as the U.S. as Secretary of War from 1925-1929 under President Calvin Coolidge.

Being from an upper-class family, Davis would have seen his college career not as a stepping stone to sports immortality but as a nice hobby.

Nonetheless, in spite of his dearth of singles titles, Davis, like Frenchman Rene LaCoste 30 years later, was not only a winner but also a technical innovator. Davis became a key mover and creator in the sport.

At the turn of the 20th century, tennis was not only played in society clubs—it was also played in the street. To distinguish society tennis from that in the street, club tennis was known as "Lawn Tennis."

An iconoclastic visual of the times comes from the 1970s musical "Ragtime," which depicts turn-of the century upper-class types in the opening vignette as "fellows with tennis balls." In 1902, the visual would have included straw hats, slacks, and afternoon tea. Dwight Davis would have fit right in to this visual.

Harvard University was the Nick Bollettierri’s of the time, with 30 courts, and the top players in the U.S. practicing and innovating the sport.

Among Davis’ peers (with delightful, turn-of the century names): Holcombe Ward, Malcolm Whitman, Beals Wright, Leo Ware, and William Clothier (US singles champion in 1906). The period of 1898-1906 has been called the first golden age of American lawn tennis (the second golden age being 1915-1930 with Bill Tilden and Bill Johnson).

Innovations in the sport coming from these players included a special top-spin slice serve that, after bouncing, would break rightward in the direction of a right-hander’s backhand. The innovation was created by Davis and Holcombe Ward for the purpose of defeating Malcolm Whitman.

All three players would later serve as the original members of the US Davis Cup squad. The innovation was at first called the American Twist Serve, but now it is simply called a "kick" serve and used mostly on second serves.

Perhaps the most exquisite contribution Davis made to the sport grew from his willingness—and ability—to commit the financial resources for the creation of a competition. And one of the most formidable international competitions in any sport outside of the Olympic movement at that, known originally as the International Lawn Tennis Challenge but later renamed the Davis Cup in his honor.

Tennis has ancient origins—stretching some say back to the Egyptians—but the modern game began to take shape in France and England, as well as the US, in the time frame after the US Civil War. It was in this period (1877) that the first championships were held at Wimbledon.

The International Lawn Tennis Challenge (Davis Cup), issued in 1899 by four members of the Harvard tennis team, was conceived for the purpose of a single tennis squad (Harvard) to challenge the British to a tennis competition.

Davis designed the tournament format and commissioned from his own funds an exquisite solid sterling silver trophy (Dwight’s Pot) from Shreve, Crump & Low, a popular silver-casting outfit in Boston that still designs trophies to this day.  [The interested tennis fan can visit Shreve, Crump & Low to see a replica of the trophy in their shop!]

Ironically for someone who would go on to serve as Secretary of War, Davis was stalwart in his vision for the competition, and for the compelling international nature of tennis. As innovative and as deep in talent as they were at Harvard, Davis and his peers would read articles from London about the level of play in the United States.

Among the comments: America had good players, but they didn’t pay enough attention to the "fine points" of the game, and, besides, their backhands were weak. Davis and his contemporaries, eager to prove the manner in which their innovations had caused the sport to progress, issued a challenge to their British counterparts, devising the team format to illustrate the depth and breadth of any given country's skills at the sport.

Like the modern Olympics, which were re-conceived in the same time frame, the Davis Cup was seen as a unifying influence, one that fostered international cooperation and understanding by focusing on the technical achievements of sportsmen.

It was perhaps his prowess at doubles, where teamwork is key, that led Davis to experiment with the standard match format. In singles, a person’s technical skills are the linchpin individual success.

Davis devised a format that tests the depth of a team of players. In the Davis Cup, a team of four plays five matches (known by the incongruous term "rubbers"), including a doubles event. The suite of matches is known as a "tie." A nation is truly proficient when it can field a team of players to perform well for the entire tie.

The first Davis Cup competition was held Feb. 9, 1900. By 1904 the competition had expanded to include the French, and by 1906 the Australians. The list of participants, and the ends of the earth to which the players were willing to travel for competition, quickly multiplied. The desire on the part of some countries to capture the Davis Cup, and the lengths to which they went to win it, are now the stuff of legend and history (to be explored in another article in our series).

Davis remained dedicated to the principles of Davis Cup competition for his entire life. Davis is recorded as saying that his vision for the Cup must not be forgotten: “It is meant to travel. Its appearance in any country brings a flock of exterior implications very beneficial to sporting unity in the tennis world.”

Check back for more Kings of the Court with the next subject in the series: [Baron] Gottfried Von Crammgreat rival of Don Budge and Fred Perry. For more in the series, see the following:

And check out the companion series: Queens of the Court and Rod Laver and the Great Australians.