Hunt had the good sense to hire as his Executive Director none other than Mike Davies, who passed away a week ago at the age of 79. A man of many talents and a fellow who hurled himself into his business pursuits with every fiber of his being, Davies was the top ranked player in Great Britain as an amateur from 1957 to 1960, winning 24 of 37 Davis Cup contests from 1956 to 1960, joining countryman Bobby Wilson to reach the final of the men’s doubles at Wimbledon in 1960. Thereafter, he walked into the world of professional tennis, recording wins over Lew Hoad, Frank Sedgman and Barry MacKay in a modestly successful career.
Yet Davies would accomplish much more mightily as a prime mover at WCT 1968 to 1981 during the heyday of the organization, signing luminaries like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Ilie Nastase and Bjorn Borg to play on their circuit. WCT professionalized the game as it had never been done before. Their tournaments were first class across the board. The WCT Finals in Dallas became one of the sport’s premier championships, arguably more important in its time than the Australian and French Opens; the legendary Rosewall-Laver final at Dallas in 1972 was televised by NBC, boosting the popularity of the game immensely. And at the center of it all was Davies, promoting not only progressive tradition but also fundamental changes in the way tennis was presented to the public.
Davies would do other crucially important work for tennis, moving on to the ATP as Marketing Director and Executive Director. After working there in the 1980’s, he went to the International Tennis Federation as General Manager for the governing body of the game. Starting in the late 1990’s, Davies was CEO for the professional tournament played in New Haven, Connecticut. The range of his successes was so wide that Davies was inducted as a contributor at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2012.
The reason I found myself back in Newport last year was to host a discussion immediately after the WCT documentary was shown in the appealing theater at the Hall of Fame. I was asked to be the moderator for a discussion featuring Davies, former players and far reaching leaders Cliff Drysdale and Butch Buchholz, and Lamar Hunt, Jr. Everyone on that distinguished panel had a wealth of ideas, amusing stories and powerful memories to convey, but none more so than the earnest and forthright Davies.
“Hi, Steve,” he greeted me at the cocktail party preceding the event. Smiling freely, Davis added, “I hope you have some good questions ready. I am looking forward to this.”
I was as well. All of the panelists lauded the contributions of WCT to tennis. Drysdale and Buchholz were, of course, members of the esteemed “ Handsome Eight” that had launched WCT into pro tennis, joining Dennis Ralston, Tony Roche, John Newcombe, Pierre Barthes, Roger Taylor and Nikki Pilic in that noble endeavor. Davies had come along to take WCT into new and better places. He was probably the most informative person on that panel regarding the way WCT had gone about its business and the challenges they faced after the sport went Open in 1968.
I mentioned midway through the discussion up on the stage that for me, as a young reporter and a fan, there was no more exhilarating time for WCT than a golden 1974 campaign, when Davies and Hunt signed up 84 players to compete in three separate circuits on the road to Dallas, dividing the competitors into the Red, Blue and Green Groups, spreading the talent into different markets. In that 1974 season, WCT had Laver, Borg and Arthur Ashe in the Green Group, Newcombe and Stan Smith in the Blue Group, and Nastase, Drysdale, and Tom Okker in the Red Group. It was a joy to follow the three circuits within a circuit that year, as the players chased points and battled ferociously to qualify for Dallas. In 1975, the three different groups convened once more, but never again.
As we sat up there on the stage, I asked Davies, “Was that the pinnacle in many ways for WCT when you had so many great players competing in those different cities, with all of them joining the three different groups?” I figured Davies would tell me how psychically rewarding it was to be a part of that enterprise, but he was typically blunt in his response. “It was a nightmare,” he said, getting a good laugh from the audience. “It was logistically impossible. From a business standpoint, the three groups were too much. We had to stop going that.”
That was a fascinating response. From my perspective, the WCT venture was never fuller or richer than in 1974-75. But Davies was responsible for making three events work week after week as the day to day fellow in charge. He was the man who had to bring it all together. But, then again, he spent his entire administrative career seamlessly making things work. Through it all, he always had a clear vision about where tennis had been and where it should be going.
Drysdale perhaps understood the gifts of Davies better than anyone, and he admired the leadership skills of his friend immensely. He knew Davies in all phases and stages of his career. I asked him once what he felt was the most important work Davies had ever done. Drysdale responded, “He cut his teeth at WCT and probably was at his most innovative there, but he was pretty innovative when he was at the ITF as well. On a personal note, I would have to say that my entire television career happened not entirely but largely because of Mike Davies. I did a few syndicated shows for Mike in the early days of cable and thy were using a few different announcers but eventually Mike said, ‘He is good enough so let’s stay with him.’ And then WCT made the original deal with WCT when ESPN was first on the air and that is how my television career started. Mike’s interest was as much in television as anything he was involved in with tennis. He used to say to me, ‘If television was not an important component of WCT my interest quotient would be a lot lower.’”
I wanted Drysdale to put Davies into some kind of larger context, and he did that beautifully, explaining, “Mike was one of the few players who played professionally and parlayed his interest in the sport into a variety of other areas of the game that he could influence. His contributions were recognized by us all. He didn’t invent tennis on cable television, just as Vice President Gore did not invent the internet. But he was very much a part of the process that got tennis going in those early days of television. He was in the forefront of the emergence of tennis on [cable] television.”
Asked to reference other ways Davies shaped tennis during his WCT days and beyond, Drysdale asserted, “He was very far reaching. People forget that the players for a long time wore all white clothing on the court, but all of the colored clothing in the early days of WCT along with the scoring system experimentation was really significant and it was to a big degree because of Mike Davies. If there were more Mike Davies’s today, we would see more interesting formats for tennis. Golf has a dozen different formats while tennis has basically one. Mike was responsible for changing the scoring format, and the points race for the players on the road to Dallas. The tournaments would not just stand on their own, but be connected to that points system. That is what we have today on the ATP Tour but it began in those WCT days under Mike.”
Now Drysdale turned to the essence of Mike Davies as a man. “Mike was a rebel as a tennis player,” he affirmed. “But he was a rebel in the best sense. When he was given the chance to make innovations, he took the chance and thumbed his nose at tradition, but all for the good of the game. He rebelled against the ITF’s control of everything in the game but eventually joined the ITF and made them a lot of money, helping them tremendously. He was such a versatile human being. He was derisive of people who were not innovative like he was and not open to constructive change. He had no patience for unnecessary formality. He will be forever respected and very kindly thought of by all of those people who really know the history of the sport.”
Anne Person Worcester has been the longtime promoter for the WTA event in New Haven, held every year the week before the U.S. Open. In the latter years of Davies’s life, she worked more closely with him than anyone. That was why Davies asked her to be his presenter when he was inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2012. Worcester eloquently got to the heart of who Davies was and what he did to transform the sport and make it much more accessible to the masses among the sports population.
She lauded Davies as “a bold and brave man”, and then continued by saying, “He introduced concepts that are mainstays in today’s game…..Over his tennis career this one man created a masterpiece—one that forever changed how we view the sport. His fifty years in this sport have created a work of art that will hang forever in the Tennis Hall of Fame. His accomplishments and contributions will influence tennis for generations to come. He has left an indelible mark on the sport of tennis and his legacy will live on forever. Now that is a true Hall of Famer.”
When Davies accepted his honor following Worcester’s superb speech, he was typically self-deprecating. He spoke very little about his vast contributions to the game, choosing instead to salute others with whom he had been associated. His most moving remarks were about Lamar Hunt. “Lamar taught me many things,” said Davies. “One was that there are two words in ‘show business’ and most people forget the second word.’”
At the end of his dignified oration, Davies said, “I will close by accepting this award on behalf of all those professional players who were banned from playing Grand Slams for so many years but were instrumental in bringing about Open Tennis to our sport. Pancho Gonzales, Lew Hoad, Kurt Nielsen, Robert Haillet and Barry MacKay have passed on, but there are still some of us left to remember where we came from.”
Sadly, Davies is no longer among us. When I saw him last fall in Newport, he seemed full of vigor, younger than his years, and ready to barrel on with his unique brand of genial pugnacity. He was a man who stood up steadfastly for his beliefs. The morning after our forum in Newport, I ran into Davies and Buchholz in the lobby of the Viking Hotel. He was about to head home. We shared some laughs about the lively remarks everyone had made the evening before. I said goodbye, believing that it would only be a matter of time before our paths would cross again. In retrospect, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to listen to him speak about WCT one last time, to observe him so close to the top of his game, to examine the mastery of his mind.
As Drysdale told me, “Mike Davies thought about the big picture of tennis more than most of us did.” In the final analysis, he not only paid meticulous attention to that larger picture, but even more so the deep clarity of his thinking was what made him one of the essential, transformational and enduring figures in his trade.