This weekend’s Davis Cup final between France and Switzerland has all the makings of a classic. It will have history: Roger Federer and the Swiss are going for their first Cup. It will have goose-bump moments: The deep French team will be cheered by more than 20,000 of its countrymen. And, in case all of this isn’t enough to pique the media’s interest, it will have a whiff of scandal, in the form of this past weekend’s Swiss family feud between Federer, his wife, Mirka, and his teammate, Stan Wawrinka.
It’s a moment to celebrate for the Davis Cup, an event whose death has been prematurely announced, and greatly exaggerated, for at least four decades now. In fact, when you look back 40 years, you realize that the bigger story is how far the Cup has come, and how well it has done to survive, over that time. It was exactly four decades ago, in November 1974, that it reached its low point. That year, the Cup really was empty.
This is how it felt, anyway, to the Indian and South African players who had reached the final, something had long been considered the ultimate goal in men’s tennis. One of those teams was guaranteed to break the 38-year stranglehold that the United States and Australia had on the event, and to become just the fifth country, after the U.S., Australia, Great Britain, and France, ever to win it. The honor would go to South Africa, but the way they won wouldn’t make them feel like champions. They never even had a chance to take the court.
That’s because the Indian government, in a decision apparently taken by prime minister Indira Gandhi, decided to boycott the tie, which was to be held in whites-only Ellis Park in Johannesburg, under South African’s apartheid regime. There the Indians would have been classified as “nonwhites,” and any Indian spectators would have been relegated to a tiny section of seats at the top of the stadium.
It wasn’t the first or last time a country would default to South Africa during that period; Argentina had done the same thing earlier in the same season, and Colombia and Mexico would follow suit in 1975. South Africa had been banned from the Davis Cup entirely from 1970 to ’73, and was kept out of the Olympics from 1964 until 1992. Still, the Indian tennis players, which included the Amritraj brothers, Vijay and Anand, as well as the country’s federation, wanted to play. The tennis world as a whole was horrified by the result and what it meant for one of its most treasured prizes.
“It was not an occasion for rejoicing at the fresh wind of change,” wrote British journalist Lance Tingay. “It was the saddest outcome in the history of the Davis Cup.”
“The events of 1974 would have appalled [Cup founder Dwight Davis],” wrote Australian journalist Alan Trengove. “His ideals were forgotten.”
“The only time we had an excellent chance of winning the Davis Cup, we gave it away,” a still-bitter Anand Amritraj told the New York Times 35 years later.
Cliff Drysdale, South Africa’s winningest Davis Cup player and a vocal opponent of apartheid, retired from the competition that year because he was fed up with feeling like a pariah. "We played a tie where 70 percent of the spectators were actually protesters," he recalled last year. As for his teammates, Frew McMillan, Ray Moore, and Bob Hewitt, it was obviously not the way they wanted to get their names on the Cup.
Even Arthur Ashe, who had made history the previous year when he became the first black man to play the South African Open, thought that the Indians should have played. There was a widespread divide in those years about whether engagement or disengagement with South Africa would have a greater effect on its government. Ashe had always come down on the side of engaging. As Eric Allen Hall writes in Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era, “Ashe added himself to the list of individuals heaping criticism on the Indians. Calling the decision a ‘poor strategic move,’ he viewed the default as a lost opportunity for nonwhites to compete equally against white South Africans in the land of apartheid.”
That’s exactly why Ashe had traveled to Ellis Park to play the previous year; to show South Africa's blacks that one of their own could compete with, and beat, whites. He was criticized by other black activists, who felt he was making the regime look more humane than it really was. But in hindsight, many, including Drysdale, see his 1973 trip as one of the starting points in the eventual demise of apartheid two decades later. Ashe had used sports, which is something close to a religion in South Africa, to open a door. As small as it may have been, it could never be closed again.
Yet at the time his critics had a point: South Africa used his trip to its own advantage as well. Specifically, to get itself readmitted into the Davis Cup. Starting in 1970, Ashe had applied for a visa each year to travel to South Africa; each year the government had rejected him. But on October 31st, 1973, just days before the ILTF was set to hear South Africa's case for reinstatement to the Cup, the government granted Ashe his visa.
“Gee, what a complete coincidence,” Ashe said after the country was readmitted. “The International Lawn Tennis Federation allowed South Africa back into the Davis Cup in 1973 to play in ’74. A more cynical man than I might think that I was a quid pro quo.”
Hall writes, “The South Africans used Ashe to mend their relationship with the ILTF, and he allowed this to happen. Ashe viewed the developments as a ‘trade.’ In exchange for his visa and the amended sports policy, South Africa received another chance to compete in the Davis Cup, as well as some positive international press.”
Whether it was engaging with South Africa or shunning it, tennis played a major and prolonged role in bringing worldwide attention to apartheid. In 1964, Alex Metreveli of the Soviet Union withdrew from Wimbledon rather than face Drysdale, and Hungary’s Istvan Gulyas did the same when he was slated to play South Africa’s Abe Segal. When Ashe was asked about the withdrawals, he said that while he loathed apartheid, he wouldn’t have a problem playing a South African. The remarks earned him heavy criticism in the African-American press.
The movement to make South Africa a pariah state had begun in the Soviet bloc, but by the 70s it had spread to the States, and Ashe himself had begun to take a harder line. While he remained friends with his fellow South African players (in his autobiography Days of Grace, he singled them out as the most sophisticated and intelligent of his colleagues), he also said he wouldn’t cross an NAACP picket line to play in the 1971 WCT event at the Longwood Cricket Club outside of Boston. During that tournament, NAACP members stood and jeered as Frew McMillan took the court. “Paint him black and send him back,” they chanted.
In retrospect, tennis’ mix of engagement, as exemplified by Ashe, and public shunning, as exemplified by the Indian Davis Cup team, combined to have an effect on South Africa. Even some of the players from that ill-fated '74 final came to believe that India did the right thing.
“At the end of the day, the Indian government was right,” Ray Moore told the Times in 2009. “If more countries had boycotted South Africa, maybe apartheid would have crashed sooner.”
“As a sportsman, I was disappointed,” Vijay Amritraj said, “but as an individual I took pride in the fact that my government made the right call.”
Does politics have a place in sports? The argument may never be settled. But it seems like more than a coincidence that at the same time that India was making headlines by refusing to play tennis in South Africa in '74, the U.N. was taking up a measure to encourage worldwide sanctions against the apartheid government.
Maybe the 1974 final wasn’t such a low moment for the Davis Cup, after all.