Dwight Davis: Tennis, War and Politics

At the beginning of 2014, Andy Murray led the British team to an unexpected victory over the USA in the World Group of the Davis Cup – the top tier competition of national teams in men’s tennis. It was during that dramatic tie my mum asked me a simple question: who was this Davis? To my shame I didn’t know. So I found out.

Dwight Davis

Dwight Filley Davis was born in St Louis, Missouri on 5 July 1879. As a young man he had some success on the tennis court, reaching the men’s singles final of US national championship (what is today the US Open) in both 1898 and 1899, peaking as the US No.2. With his long-running doubles partner Holcombe Ward, a five-set loss in the 1898 final was followed by wins for the next three years running. Their domination came to an end in 1902 when they lost both US and Wimbledon doubles finals to the British Doherty brothers. Although it was straight sets in America, it was not a short match. Without tie-breakers, the score was 11–9, 12–10, 6–4.

He won the 1899 American intercollegiate singles championship as a student at Harvard, where the daily newspaper, The Crimson, dubbed him the “Harvard cyclone”. He was also described in his youth as “tall, dark, and keen, without an ounce of superfluous flesh”. While he was said to be affable and earnest off-court, on-court he was either called brilliant or erratic depending on the result. But it’s as the founder of the Davis Cup, for which over 100 national teams compete today, that he’s best remembered. So how did that come about?

The story he told later in life (and the one featured on the official Davis Cup website) was of him playing a series of exhibition matches in Monterey, California in 1899. Seeing, shortly afterwards, the interest in Sailing aroused by the America’s Cup, he wondered what an international competition could do for his sport. However, Heiner Gillmeister’s Tennis: A Cultural History gives fellow American tennis player Charles Voigt’s alternative account. During a visit to a tournament in July 1896 at Niagara-on-the-Lake, near the Canadian border, Voigt said he’d seen a young man leaving the ballroom with a young lady and disappear into the woods. When he asked “Who is this young sport?” he was told “Why that’s our young millionaire, Dwight Davis, of St Louis”. In his excitement to hear of such a wealthy tennis player he responded “A millionaire, is he? If so, why don’t you get him to do something for the game? Put up some big prize, or cup?” Gillmeister reckons it “almost inevitable” Davis would have read this discussion recounted in the tournament newsletter, The Lark, which “notoriously spread the news of all goings-on during tournament including Davis’s evening strolls with his girl ‘in the shrubberies'”. He suggests it was the scandal of those romantic evening strolls that led him to skip the beginning of the story.

The inaugural Davis Cup match took place in 1900 at Longwood Cricket Club in Boston, between the USA and the British Isles. Davis received serve on the very first point in Davis Cup history, hitting it out. The home team went on to a 3-0 victory over their only competitor – when rain, rather than concession, put an end to play. At this point the only other nations with official tennis associations, and so eligible to compete, were Australia (including New Zealand), Canada, India and South Africa. Although a number of other European countries soon became eligible, for many years the only challengers were Australia, Britain, France and the USA – the hosts of today’s Grand Slams. Before their four tournaments were granted the status of ‘official championships’ in 1923, long before the professionalisation of the sport and the Open Era began in the late 1960s, it was the Davis Cup that led the way in tennis becoming what Professor Barry Smart has dubbed “the first global sport”.

However, the logic of an international competition in this slowly emerging global sport was not irresistible to everyone. The English Lawn Tennis Association (the LTA) had declined an invitation to play in the US three years earlier when an offer to cover the English players’ travel expenses (from another Dwight, leading American player Dr James Dwight) was seen as a threat to amateurism.

The competition for Dwight Davis’s $1,000 silver punchbowl was more successful. The tournament went from strength to strength, and the trophy had to be fitted onto a stand when there was no more room to scribe the winners’ names. Meanwhile, Davis himself returned home to Missouri, where he received a law degree from Washington University in 1903 and became involved in a range of civic activities. These included serving as public parks commissioner in his hometown of St Louis from 1911 until 1915, establishing the first municipal tennis courts in the USA.

Davis graduated from the officer training program at Plattsburg, New York, and went on to serve in the American Expeditionary Force in France with the 35th Division of the 138th Infantry Regiment, in the final phase of the First World War. He served alongside a future US President, then “an obscure artillery battery commander by the name of Captain Harry S Truman”. The final months of the war saw over one million Americans take part in the series of Allied attacks, known as the Hundred Days Offensive. Part of this, last 47 days of the war, was the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (sometimes called the Battle of Argonne Forest), where Lieutenant Colonel Dwight Davis earned both a Distinguished Service Cross and a Silver Star Citation for “extraordinary heroism in action”.  Medals: Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star Citation

“After exposure to severe shelling and machine-gun fire for three days, during which time he displayed rare courage and devotion to duty, Major Davis, then adjutant, 69th Infantry Brigade, voluntarily and in the face of intense enemy machinegun and artillery fire proceeded to various points in his brigade sector, assisted in reorganizing positions, and in replacing units of the brigade, this self-imposed duty necessitating continued exposure to concentrated enemy fire. On September 28, 1918, learning that a strong counterattack had been launched by the enemy against Baulny ridge and was progressing successfully, he voluntarily organized such special duty men as could be found and with them rushed forward to reinforce the line under attack, exposing himself with such coolness and great courage that his conduct inspired the troops in this crisis and enabled them to hold on in the face of vastly superior numbers.”

In addition to his military service, the war had led him to become a member of the Rockerfeller War Relief Committee before entering military service and thereafter to take up a role as director of the War Finance Corporation in Washington DC. Despite his failed run for the Senate in 1920 (when he failed to oust sitting Republican Senator for Missouri Seldon P Spencer in the primary), this work did see him take up high political office. In 1923 was appointed Assistant Secretary and then in 1925 Secretary of War – a cabinet post replaced in 1949 by the newly-created Secretary of Defense. At that time, the Secretary of War was third in line to the succession of the presidency (after the Vice President and the Secretary of State).

In his time at the War Department, there were fundamental tensions between efforts at international disarmament and concerns over war readiness, especially those voiced publicly over aviation by “Billy” Mitchell. In the same year as Davis was promoted to oversee military affairs, Mitchell – who had until recently been deputy director of the US Air Service – was court-martialed for insubordination after denouncing the “almost treasonable administration by the War and Navy departments” of investing in battleships over air power. Meanwhile, Davis oversaw a series of military-industrial developments, including reform to officer training, designed to ensure readiness for meeting the demands of another war. He moved on in 1929, amid threats of resignation over his decision to allow women to serve as civilian aides, with his successor immediately reversing the decision.

He wrote in the St Louis Law Review in 1926 on the value of military education: “Without a doubt one of the greatest benefits of military training is found in the opportunity it gives to the young men to develop a gift of leadership and to acquire a sense of responsibility. It can be truthfully said that no man can prepare himself to serve his country in war without making himself more valuable in civil life.”

After leaving the War Department, he spent the next four years as President Herbert Hoover’s Governor General of the Philippines. After this his retirement was spent primarily in Florida, although he still found time to serve as chairman of the board at influential policy think-tank the Brookings Institution in Washington DC and to get back on the court, winning the national veterans (over 45s) doubles title in 1936.

Shortly after he retired, Davis paid a visit to France:

In 1932, the American ambassador in Paris arranged for Dwight F. Davis to view a session of the Chamber of Deputies. Unfortunately, Davis was seated behind a pillar. His companion appealed to a French official for an upgrade: Davis, after all, had just retired as governor-general of the Philippines. Mais non came the response. But…since the visitor had also been secretary of war under President Coolidge? Another Gallic shrug. The emissary pressed on: This is Monsieur Davis, who gave le coupe Davis, the international tennis trophy the French had held since 1927. Ah, that’s different, said the official, and Davis soon had an excellent seat in front. Years later, when telling the story to a family member, he added, “Now you know what’s important in life.”

Soon after Dwight Davis died in Washington DC in 1945, the International Lawn Tennis Challenge was renamed the ‘Davis Cup’ in his honour. “If I had known of its coming significance,” he said in his later days, “it would have been cast in gold”.


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