News | Monday, 17th September 2018

Myth-busting tennis’ Davis Cup: research questions accepted history

Sports academics challenge where the Davis Cup really began

Sports academics challenge where the Davis Cup really began
Sports academics challenge where the Davis Cup really began

Sport academics have busted the myth that much-lauded sports pioneer, Dwight Davis, single-handedly created and launched the Davis Cup international tennis competition that was eventually named after him.

Academics from Manchester Metropolitan University have delved into the archives to find that the men’s global knock-out tournament, last won by Great Britain in 2015, had been proposed long before Davis’ apparent epiphany 118 years ago.

They say Davis may have “appropriated the idea before claiming it as his own” and that “his input has been exaggerated”.

The competition, run by the International Tennis Federation, is contested annually by national teams in a  knock-out format and is often described as the "World Cup of Tennis". What started as a challenge between Great Britain and the United States now involves teams from around 135 countries.

The 16 best national teams are assigned to the World Group with other nations competing in one of three regional zones – America, Asia/Oceania, and Europe/Africa. Head-to-head matches are spread over four weekends during the year.

The others

Dr Simon J. Eaves, Senior Lecturer in Coaching and Performance Analysis, at Manchester Metropolitan and Dr Robert J. Lake, Visiting Researcher at the University and from the department of Sports Science department at Douglas College in Canada, have worked together through mutual frustration of the history, accepted by the sporting world, to put together evidence, published in the Journal of Sport History, that debunks the myth behind the history of the foundations of the Davis Cup.

Popular understanding says US politician and tennis player Dwight Davis first conceived the structure for the precursor to the tournament, the International Lawn Tennis Challenge, and that he donated a silver bowl as the winners’ trophy. He was a member of the US team that won the first two competitions in 1900 and 1902 and captained the 1900 team.

However, through looking at key sources of tennis history, the academics have found the names of numerous other well-known sportsmen, who envisioned and openly discussed ideas for international team-based competitions well before 1899. These include American players, Bill Larned, E. P. Fischer and James Dwight, who won the first recorded tournament in the U.S and American tennis tournament organiser and referee Charles Voigt.  British players included Irishmen, Manliffe Goodbody and Harold Mahony.

Dr Eaves said: “These highly ranked American and British players were making their own arrangements to compete against each other, either individually or as a team – the players and officials built a good bond and formed unofficial international competitions, that were played for around fifteen years prior to the Davis Cup – Davis was not one of those involved.”

The researchers found that James Dwight, an American tennis player, who was also the president of the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (USNLTA) – the national governing body for tennis in the United States at the time – championed the process of establishing relations between the two nations.  After a time the USNLTA, now known as the United States Tennis Association, also involved itself in order to organise institute “official” challenge matches and pay the travel expenses of British players.

Dwight hosted what he believed was the first known international competition, in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1878 and it is thought that this also pre-empted the initial Davis Cup format.

Davis’ story

Dr Eaves added: “While we don’t dispute that Davis proffered the cup itself as a winner’s trophy to the USNLTA in 1900, it is argued that this is where his involvement ended. Davis’ input has been exaggerated.

“At a meeting between the four executives of the USNLTA, Davis ‘slipped through the back door’ to become one of them – conveniently, it was later decided that they would accept his donated trophy.

“It would seem that the others were too modest to claim ownership. They had desired an official international competition with Britain for over fifteen years and must have felt confident that a handsome trophy would finally do the trick.

“The competitions pre-Davis Cup received wide press coverage, so it’s hard to believe that Davis remained unaware of their existence – therefore, he possibly appropriated the idea before claiming it as his own, and ignoring the crucial efforts of others who played key roles in the augmentation of international relations and in the actual facilitation of the event.

“His story of events relating to the Davis Cup’s emergence has become accepted as immutable fact among society and the tennis professionals. His wealthy background, political ambitions, and model-American image arguably helped smooth the process of his idea being officially accepted by the United States National Lawn Tennis Association.

“Davis was a perfect ‘front-man’ for American tennis at a time when the nation used sporting prowess to promote its identity, particularly in relation to the British, in international sporting competition.”

Dr Simon J. Eaves and Dr Lake’s article Dwight Davis and the Foundation of the Davis Cup in Tennis: Just another Doubleday Myth? appears in the Spring 2018 edition of the Journal of Sport History.

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