Deep Tennis: Disrupting the Cup

by: Steve Tignor | December 06, 2007

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With the Davis Cup finished and nothing much on the horizon, here's a DC-based Deep Tennis, simulcast as always at No Mas.

“Steve, the U.S. win in Davis Cup was impressive, but I was surprised by how civilized it was. I remember Davis Cup being pretty volatile and political back in the day. What were some of the crazier things that happened?”

You’re right on both counts. The atmosphere for last weekend’s U.S.-Russia Cup final was completely apolitical. Andy Roddick said the only thing he remembered about the Cold War was Rocky vs. Drago, and when Dmitry Tursunov, a Russian who lives in California, was asked what the two countries had in common, he said they both “have owned Alaska.” What you probably remember were the Davis Cup’s angry glory years of the early 80s, when little Johnny McEnroe, just out of his teens, was providing the thrills and chills. He led the U.S. to the title in ’81 and ’82 while almost being defaulted by his own captain, Arthur Ashe, for his behavior during a doubles match in '81 (at the same stadium where the U.S. beat Russia last weekend, Portland’s Memorial Coliseum).

Those were wild times, but you wouldn’t say Mac was a political figure, exactly, unless you count the time he yelled at a linesman during a home tie, “Are you an American!!!???” It was in the years just before his arrival, the early-to-mid 1970s, when Davis Cup, like a lot of other sporting events, went current events on us. The background was the Cold War, but the far-reaching nature of the Cup—every tie is played on one country’s home soil; there are no neutral sites—put it in the crosshairs of local conflicts around the globe.

19leadvijayold1At the start of the 70s, the Cup’s format was also changing. For decades, the champion received a de facto bye into the following year’s final, called the Challenge Round. This helped the U.S. and Australia, the world’s two tennis super-powers, maintain a choke hold on the event (the two still own far more titles than any other nation). With the advent of Open tennis and the game’s continued spread to non-Anglo corners of the world, the champs’ free ride to the Challenge Round was abolished and pros were grudgingly allowed to participate, though not fully until 1973. (Davis Cup is run by tennis’ old-guard, amateur-era ruling body, the International Tennis Federation, which as of 1977 was still known as the International Lawn Tennis Association. A musty, traditional quality clings to the Cup even now—each round is known as a “tie” and individual matches are “rubbers”; the matches that don’t count end up with the coolest name of all: “dead rubbers.”)

At the same time, international politics was increasingly visible on the sports landscape. The most famous example was the kidnapping of Israeli weightlifters by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972, but tennis wasn’t far behind. A month later, the same terrorist group, Black September, issued death threats against two Jewish members of the U.S. Davis Cup team, Brian Gottfried and Harold Solomon, as they were getting ready to go to Romania to play the final. Gottfried said no one was overly bothered by it; the team had “played the whole year surrounded by guys in raincoats with machine guns.”

He was probably referring to a tie that the U.S. had played earlier that season in socialist Chile, a hotbed of anti-Americanism at the time. There the team’s captain, Dennis Ralston, had received his own death threat. A year later the U.S. government helped engineer the successful Pinochet coup in Chile, which brought a whole new round of political protests to the sports world. These peaked in Davis Cup three years later when Sweden, led by 19-year-old Bjorn Borg, hosted the Chileans in Bastad. Swedes protesting the Pinochet regime promised to disrupt the tie and even threatened to kill Jaime Fillol, a Chilean player. (Who knew the Swedes had it in them?) Chile tried to get the tie moved to a neutral site. They were denied and the tie was played “almost in private and under heavy guard on a court besieged by protesters,” as DC historian Alan Trengove put it. “Armed boats patrolled the harbor, aircraft hovered overhead, and huge nets around the stadium protected the players from projectiles hurled by demonstrators.” A thousand policeman were called in for protection.

There were many incidents in this vein around the world in Davis Cup. But it was South Africa and its apartheid government that would prove to be the most long-lasting problem, and lead to a particularly low moment for the competition. The country had been part of the Anglo tennis establishment for decades. They didn’t produce a dynasty, but they gave tennis one of its finest doubles teams, Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillan—they won a career Grand Slam together—as well as one of its quintessential characters, Cliff Drysdale. But at the start of the 70s, South Africa’s inclusion in both the new men’s tour and the Davis Cup were controversial. Arthur Ashe protested at a tour meeting, but Drysdale, the ATP's founder, said that his tennis federation shouldn’t be lumped in with his government. As for Davis Cup, the ITF had banned South Africa in 1970. Three years later, Ashe was invited to play a tournament in Johannesburg, in part because the country wanted to be considered for re-inclusion in the Cup. Ashe famously accepted and reached the final.

South Africa was readmitted to Davis Cup the following year; the ITF saw the country's tennis federation as a separate entity from its government. The sport's officials were trying, in their way, to keep politics out of the game. But they only succeeded in tying the two closer together, with dire consequences for the Davis Cup.

First, Argentina refused to play South Africa in the opening round in 1974 and defaulted. Then the Chileans wouldn’t play them on their home soil, forcing the tie to be moved to Colombia. South Africa, anchored by Drysdale and Hewitt and McMillan, won there and at home against Italy. Suddenly, the world pariah was in the Davis Cup final, where they were scheduled to play India, led by Vijay Amritraj (pictured above).

Except that the Indian government refused to let its team play. The South Africans had the home-court advantage but were willing to go anywhere. India’s tennis federation wanted to play, but the government, which said that an Indian ethnic minority was being oppressed in South Africa, was having none of it. So, as it says in the record books today, the 1974 Davis Cup champion was South Africa, in a walkover.

Bizarrely enough, the country remained in the competition until 1978. In ’75, Colombia and Mexico defaulted to them; the next year Mexico did the same again; and in 1977, a protester in California got into a violent on-court confrontation with U.S. captain Tony Trabert during a tie between the Americans and South Africans (the U.S. won 4-1). By the middle of '77, 15 countries had withdrawn from the competition in protest. Finally, in 1979, as the DC was reconsolidating itself into the World Group format that it uses today, South Africa was banished once again, this time until 1992 and the demise of apartheid.

Sports have their share of plagues now: steroids, potential match-fixing, multi-million dollar player salaries, and media overexposure, among others. You could say putting politics into the mix just made sports in the 70s even uglier, but it also made the games more honest—they couldn’t hide behind the “entertainment” façade. Looking back, the disruptions of Davis Cup in the 70s seem shockingly, even satisfyingly, weighty compared to the issues we blather on about today.

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