Tennis: Resisting the lure of Davis Cup
Tennis: When America and Britain meet, the absence of the era's top players, for whatever reason, is nothing new
Sampras and Agassi have their own reasons for giving Birmingham a miss, and also for announcing that they will not be available for the official centenary match in Boston in July, whether the United States are involved in the quarter-finals or the qualifying round.
Multi-millionaire tennis players have a demanding schedule. Dwight Davis, the Harvard student from St Louis who donated the magnificent sterling silver trophy in 1899, and played in the early matches, would have understood that.
Wealthy to begin with, he led a busy life: developing the family business; setting unprecedented standards in public sports and recreational amenities as a park commissioner; serving as a major in the army in France in World War I, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism; strengthening America's military resources as President Coolidge's secretary of war; and earning respect as President Hoover's governor-general of the Philippines.
This is by no means the only occasion that prominent players have declined their services. It happened for the inaugural match in 1900 between the United States and the British Isles. The Doherty brothers, Reggie and Laurie, who between them held both the Wimbledon singles and doubles titles, did not play for the British Isles because they did not like ocean travel.
As the American author Nancy Kriplen points out in Dwight Davis: The Man and the Cup: "Several of the elements that had been factors in the outcome of the first Davis Cup competition would surface again and again in future cup challenges. Overconfidence, for instance, and dissatisfaction with the condition of the host country's courts, and possibly most important, the inability of a country (or its tennis association) to convince its leading players that they were needed and that patriotism outranked personal convenience."
The British Isles team for the first match comprised Arthur Wentworth Gore, 32, "a striking instance of lawn tennis longevity", who went on to win Wimbledon in 1901, 1908 and 1909; Herbert Roper Barrett, 26, a London solicitor, who was noted for doubles play; and Ernest Black, a 27-year-old Scot who was the champion of Scotland and Yorkshire. Gore, the captain, was ranked No 5 in England, Black No 6, and Barrett No 13.
It was later said that selection had been affected by Britain's involvement in the Boer War, although of their leading players, only Dr W V Eaves was serving in South Africa. (The Spanish-American War affected the careers of at least two experienced American players, Bill Larned and Bob Wrenn).
Before they left London, Gore, Black and Barrett had lunch with the Lawn Tennis Association and were presented with white satin caps embroidered with the Royal Standard. The three arrived in New York aboard the Campania on 4 August, four days before the match was due to start. The Americans expected them to go straight to Boston to practise. Instead the visitors took a trip to Niagara Falls. It has been suggested that they thought the match was due to start two days later than the actual schedule. It transpired that rain delayed the start for a day.
The venue, Longwood, had an ominous ring. The Longwood Cricket Club had taken its name from an estate in Brookline belonging to the Sears family. In 1840, David Sears, Boston's richest citizen, named his new country place Longwood after the dilapidated house where his hero, Napoleon Bonaparte, died on St Helena.
Temperatures touched 136F on court, and the visitors were bemused by the corkscrew twist serves perfected by two of the Americans, Dwight Davis and Holcombe Ward, not to mention Malcolm Whitman's "rattlesnake". Although Black took the first set against Davis, the father of the competition went on to win, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4. Gore was overwhelmed by Whitman, 6- 1, 6-3, 6-2.
As the "egg-shaped lump" left Whitman's strings, Gore swiftly switched his racket from one hand to the other. "Finally," the Boston Morning Journal reported, Gore "wound up by letting the ball escape him altogether". The next day, Davis and Ward beat Black and Roper 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. The two "dead" singles rubbers were abandoned because of a thunder storm.
"The grounds were abominable," Gore wrote. "Picture to yourself a court in England where the grass has been the longest you ever encountered; double the length of that grass and you have the courts at Longwood at that time.
"The net was a disgrace to civilised lawn tennis, held up guy ropes which were continually sagging... As for the balls... They were awful - soft and motherly - and when served with the American twist came at you like an animated egg-plum... We had never experienced this service before and it quite nonplussed us."
Gore did not find fault with everything, however. "The spectators were most impartial and the female portion thereof not at all unpleasant to gaze upon... The umpires, who sat on chairs perched on tables, and the linesmen discharged their duties most satisfactorily. Indeed, we had nothing to complain about in regard to American sportsmanship and hospitality...
"I was only in America a week, and I often laugh to myself over the fact that I journeyed some 6,800 miles to play 30 games. I still do not grumble.
"There was no one else to represent England and I felt I had to go despite the inconvenience and personal expense to which we were put.
"Whitman, let me conclude, was one of the finest singles players I ever saw."
All at sea figuratively in 1900, the Lawn Tennis Association persuaded the Doherty brothers to cross the Atlantic for the second Davis Cup challenge in 1902 (Dr Joshua Pim, 33, from Ireland, was the third member of the team).
The tie was played in New York, the Americans winning, 3-2. The Dohertys returned to take the trophy with a 4-1 victory in 1903, the Americans gaining their solitary point by default (Reggie Doherty was injured and the home team refused to allow Harold Mahony to replace him).
Britain have defeated the United States seven times in 17 meetings, four of the triumphs having been recorded in the 1930s, the Fred Perry era. The last British win against the Americans was in the 1935 Challenge Round, a 5-0 whitewash, on the Centre Court at Wimbledon. Herbert Roper Barrett was Britain's captain.
David Lloyd, the current captain, and his bother John, the coach, played in the last match between the two countries, the 1978 final at Mission Hills Country Club in Palm Springs, California. Buster Mottram saved a match point before defeating Brian Gottfried. Britain did not win a set in the other four matches. John McEnroe made his Davis Cup singles debut, beating John Lloyd and Mottram. "I've never been made to look an idiot on court before," John Lloyd said. "Not by Borg, not by Connors, not by anyone until I played McEnroe today."
US V GB
THE FIRST TIME (1900)
Dwight Davis bt Ernest Black (GB) 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4
Malcolm Whitman bt Arthur Gore (GB) 6-1, 6-3, 6-2
Davis and Holcombe Ward bt Black and Herbert Roper Barrett, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4
Davis led Gore, 9-7, 9-9 (unfinished).
US bt British Isles 3-0 (Boston, Mass)
THE LAST TIME (1978)
John McEnroe bt John Lloyd (GB) 6-1, 6-2, 6-2
Buster Mottram (GB) bt Brian Gottfried 4-6, 2-6, 10-8, 6-4, 6-3
Bob Lutz and Stan Smith bt David Lloyd and Mark Cox (GB) 6-2, 6-2, 6- 3
McEnroe bt Mottram 6-2, 6-2, 6-1
Gottfried bt John Lloyd 6-1 6-2, 6-4
US bt Britain 4-1 (Palm Springs, Ca)
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