Tennis: Dream that made the Davis Cup

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The Independent Online
ALTHOUGH THE first Davis Cup match was played in 1900, the centenary of the event has been brought forward a year, possibly to avoid clashing with other celebrations, such as those marking the 21st century and the millennium.

Starting in Australia next month, Dwight Davis's imposing trophy - the silver punchbowl with accompanying silver tray atop two huge wooden plinths (a third is in the making) with 30 engraved silver plaques - is going on a grand tour to honour the 100th anniversary of the moment in 1899 when Davis, a Harvard student from a rich family, was inspired to propose the event.

The trophy is due to appear at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena in April for the match between Britain and the United States in the first round of the World Group. The original Davis Cup match was between the United States and the British Isles in Boston in August 1900.

Davis's idea for an international team event for tennis occurred after he read newspaper coverage of the sailing of the America's Cup races. Davis and a group of fellow tennis players had just returned to the East Coast of the United States after a tour of the West Coast. "This trip resulted in great benefit to to the interests of lawn tennis in the west," Davis recounted, "and the idea came to me that an international competition would be of the greatest possible benefit to the game throughout the whole of the United States and abroad."

World-wide interest in the Davis Cup has continued to grow. Last year, 131 nations participated. But the United States Tennis Association is having a hard time persuading its top players, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, to take part.

The anomaly is addressed by John McEnroe, who, it may be remembered, gave the best and worst of himself to America's cause, in a foreword to the International Tennis Federation's centenary book, The Davis Cup (by Richard Evans, Ebury Press, pounds 14.99).

"Davis Cup has brought countries together through sporting contact, often in the face of political opposition," McEnroe writes. "And, in the early years, it gave them the incentive to make those long journeys which are so commonplace and easy for us now... The Davis Cup offered me more immediate pleasure than almost anything else I accomplished in my career. My parents had brought me up to believe that it was an honour to be asked to play for and represent your country, and that is why I find it so strange - and so disheartening - that some of my compatriots seem to find it a burden."

McEnroe made his Davis Cup singles debut in the last match between the United States and Britain, the 1978 final at the Mission Hills Country Club at Rancho Mirage, in the California desert. The turbulent left-hander contributed straight sets wins against John Lloyd (6-1, 6-2, 6-2) and Buster Mottram (6-2, 6-2, 6-1) as the Americans won, 4-1. "I've never been made to look an idiot on court before," Lloyd said. "Not by Borg, not by Connors, not by anyone until I played McEnroe today."

Also a brilliant and dedicated doubles player, usually partnered by Peter Fleming, McEnroe thrived on the special atmosphere of team play. And he was involved in the two longest singles matches in Davis Cup history, defeating Sweden's Mats Wilander in six hours and 22 minutes in St Louis in 1982 and losing to Boris Becker after six hours and 21 minutes in Hartford in 1987. "That, for all his behavioural shortcomings, spoke volumes for his commitment to the cause," Evans writes. The Davis Cup, in which Evans acknowledges the diligent research of other authors, past and present, does old Dwight proud.

A biography of the founder of the competition, Dwight Davis - the Man and the Cup, by Nancy Kriplen, is due to be published by Ebury Press in March.

Given the retrospective mood, I take the liberty of recommending an American study of the game published in 1995. Sporting Gentlemen - Men's Tennis from the Age of Honor to the Cult of the Superstar (by E Digby Baltzell, Simon and Schuster, available from Sportspages, pounds 20) is a revealing social history befitting its author, emeritus professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennslvania. "This book is the product of over half a century of playing and loving tennis and a decade spent in writing and research," Baltzell says. "As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., once put it, `A page of history is worth a volume of logic.'" The prologue sets the tone - "I began this book in 1984, the year Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe disgraced themselves and their country by their crude and rude behaviour in the course of losing to Sweden in the Davis Cup..."

The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Tennis - The Definitive Guide to World Tennis (by John Parsons, Carlton, pounds 19.99) is not as modest as the title suggests. A labour of love, the book presents a broad perspective on the sport's great personalities and locations. Parsons pops up again with the text for The Official Wimbledon Annual 1998 (Hazleton Publishing, pounds 20), illustrated by the Allsport photographic team of Gary M Prior, Mike Hewitt and Alex Livesey.

For the past eight years, Alan Little, the All England Club's honorary librarian, has produced what is regarded as the Wisden of Wimbledon. The 1998 Wimbledon Compendium (The All England Club, pounds 8) is essential for anyone interested every aspect of the championships since they began in 1877.

The ITF World of Tennis (edited by John Barrett, Collins Willow, pounds 12)celebrated its 30th edition this year. Good value, as ever.

John Roberts

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