Throwback Thursday: British Brothers Dominate the Davis Cup, Then and Now

A lot has changed since the Davis Cup first started, in 1900, but for tennis history buffs, Andy and Jamie Murray hoisting the sterling silver trophy this weekend might have a familiar ring to it.

by Danielle Elliot
Dec 3 2015, 9:02pm

Courtesy Wikimedia

Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from this week in sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.

"Brothers lead Great Britain to victory over Belgium in the Davis Cup Final"

The headline could have appeared four days or 111 years ago. The details differ slightly, but the final image is the same: the British tennis team hoisting the sterling silver Davis Cup trophy as the defeated Belgians look on.

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Last weekend, it was Andy Murray and his older brother Jamie leading Great Britain to its first Davis Cup title in 79 years. They played on a clay court built inside an industrial exhibition hall in Ghent, Belgium. Fans came clad in Union Jack suits and onesies; they played tubas and banged on plastic drums. They cheered raucously as the younger Murray won his first singles match on Friday and again when he and Jamie combined to win the doubles on Saturday. When Andy placed a lob just inside the line at match point Sunday, thereby clinching the win, the crowd erupted. His teammates lifted him on their shoulders. Andy later said that he felt more emotional in that moment than he had after any win in his career, including his 2012 Olympic gold and 2013 Wimbledon title.

Back in 1904, it was Lawrence and Reginald Doherty beating the Belgians on the grass courts at Worple Road to claim the country's second Davis trophy. They used wooden rackets and wore collared shirts and creased pants. Reggie held four Wimbledon titles; his younger brother Lawrence, or Little Do, was on his way to winning five. Together, they won eight Wimbledon doubles titles and were the pride of British tennis, much as Andy is today. But this was a different era. The tournament—and the entire international tennis scene—was still in its infancy. To see Andy hoist the trophy on Sunday was a throwback, but it was also a bit of a shock.

The Davis Cup. Photo by Julien Warnand/EPA

"It was officially announced here to-day that the International lawn tennis matches expected for the coming season are now practically certain," the New York Times reported on May 19, 1900. The idea for the challenge came from a group of Harvard undergraduates led by Dwight F. Davis, then the defending national doubles champion and considered one of the nation's top two singles players. He pitched the concept to the United States National Lawn Tennis Federation, which started discussions with its British counterpart.

Davis proposed that the teams play four singles matches and one doubles match. No more than four men would be named to each team, and each could compete in up to three matches. The winners would receive a sterling silver trophy, which Davis paid about $750 to create, and the right to host the competition the next year.

The U.S. would host first, at the Longwood Cricket Club in Boston, Massachusetts. The British Isles sent Ernest Black, Arthur Gore, and Herbert Roper-Barrett to face Davis, Malcolm Whitman, and Holcombe Ward. The newspapers couldn't agree on the name of the event, at times calling it the inaugural International Lawn Tennis Championships, the Dwight F. Davis Challenge Cup, the International Challenge Bowl, and the Davis Challenge Bowl. In a final preview, the Times noted that "followers of tennis on both sides of the ocean are confident of victory, and very close tennis is assured." Despite their journey, the British players appeared to be in "the pink of condition."

When play started on the rainy afternoon of August 7, Davis "played a dashing game, running to the net at every opportunity and placing balls hard and far into the corners." His effort was enough to beat Black in four sets. Whitman then won in three, and Davis and Ward paired to win the doubles match in straight sets in "one of the prettiest and pluckiest tennis contests ever seen in this country."

Those three wins clinched the title for the U.S. They also confirmed the entertainment value of international competition, which at the time was still limited in tennis. Wimbledon had yet to see a foreign champion. The French Open was reserved for French players; the Australian Open did not exist. The U.S. Championships had been around for 19 years, but it wasn't recognized as a major tournament.

Despite the rave reviews, the British Isles failed to send a team back the next year. They rectified the slight in 1902, this time sending the nation's best: the Dohertys and two-time Wimbledon champion Joshua Pim. The Times described the brothers as early versions of today's professionals, saying that they "practically do nothing but follow the sport throughout the year." This time, the Brits managed to take two wins, but the U.S. team, again led by Davis, prevailed.

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The Dohertys returned in 1903. This time, they wouldn't be stopped. They built a 2-1 lead in the first two days. More than 5,000 fans came for the final day, in which the two singles matches would be played simultaneously on adjoining courts. Those fans "probably saw the finest exhibition of tennis in the history of the game," the Times reported. "From the very start the excitement was intense, and after each match had been squared at the end of the four sets every one was fairly on tip toe, until H.L. Doherty won a long deuce set, his match, and the necessary three points to obtain possession of the cup."

Despite promising to do so, the U.S. federation didn't send a team to England to challenge for the trophy. So the tournament expanded to include more countries: Belgium and France, who would playoff for a chance to face the British Isles. Belgium prevailed, setting up its first showdown against the Brits in July 1904.

The final was never really a contest. Laurence Doherty and Frank Riseley each defeated William le Mair de Warzee and Paul de Borman in straight sets. The brothers then paired up to beat Le Mair de Warzee and De Borman in doubles. The second set of singles matches didn't matter: Britain had already successfully defended its title.

King Edward watched as the Brits won their third-straight title in 1905. Meanwhile, the international tennis scene continued to take shape. That was also the year of the inaugural Australasian Championships. To that point, the only major international events besides Wimbledon to be recognized by the International Lawn Tennis Federation were the World Hard Court Championships and the World Covered Court Championships. The Australasian Championships and U.S. Championships finally earned official status in 1924; the French Championships joined the next year, when the tournament organizers opened the event to international players. Even as the championships grew in number and popularity, they remained dominated by men from the four host countries. It took until 1934 for someone from another country to finally claim a major title, when Germany's Gottfried von Cramm won in Paris.

The Davis Cup continued expanding throughout these years, too, growing to a pool of more than 20 countries by 1920. The U.K. strung together another four titles from 1933-36, bringing its total to nine before the U.S. snapped the streak. The event was so important that in 1939, Australian officials sent their top players to the U.S. to prepare for the Davis Cup rather than sending them to Wimbledon, even though they could have played in both. The tournament went on hiatus during the Second World War, but its importance in the tennis world did not fade. Shortly before his death in 1945, Dwight Davis said of his sterling silver trophy, "If I had known of its coming significance, it would have been cast in gold."

Slightly more modern British tennis brothers. Photo by Laurent Dubrule/EPA

Davis would recognize the format and the rowdy fan support displayed today, but little else is the same. The event is now the largest international tournament in any sport, with 126 nations competing. It's billed as the World Cup of tennis. Every country is ranked based on the past four years of Davis Cup play, with recent years weighted more heavily. The top 16 are in the World Group; those ranked Nos. 9-24 play in a World Group Playoff. Eight advance, joining the top group for a four-round, single-elimination title race. Britain defeated the U.S., France, and Australia to reach the final this year; Belgium defeated Switzerland, Canada, and Argentina.

It was normal to see the Dohertys play in the Davis challenges in the early 1900s, when the event lasted just three days and players weren't following strict professional schedules. In 1968, the ITF started allowing professionals to enter the Davis Cup. Today, few of the top 10 players participate in it; if they do, it's for a year or two. To see Andy Murray playing an extra 11 matches this year—during his professional prime—is a rarity in modern tennis, but Andy has always been different.

Since his first doubles match against Israel in March 2005, Murray is 34-7 in Davis Cup matches, including 27-2 in singles. He played eight singles matches this season, going a perfect 8-0. He's only the third player to do that since the World Group format was introduced in 1981. He's also only the fourth to win 11 matches in a single Davis Cup season.

"He's just incredible," UK team captain Leon Smith said. "But he'll be the first to say that this is a team effort, and rightly so. What he's managed to do for this team is astonishing, to post that many wins in one year. He's put his whole body, his whole mind on the line every single time for the team."

When Andy chose to play in the ATP Championships the week prior to the Davis Cup Final, former members of Britain's team questioned his dedication. Andy brushed them off, and if any doubts remained by the time the team arrived in Belgium, he certainly answered them.

Andy was lights out in his opening singles match, defeating Ruben Bemelmans in straight sets. He carried the team through the doubles match when Jamie, who is a doubles specialist, started slow and struggled with his serve. Sunday afternoon he faced Belgium's greatest hope, world No. 16 David Goffin. Andy played one of the most impressive matches of his entire season, serving 12 aces and breaking Goffin's serve five times. As he hit that match-winning lob, he threw his hands in the air, and then fell to the clay court. He burst into tears and was soon lifted on his teammates' shoulders. He stayed on court celebrating with his teammates for 45 minutes, carrying the trophy in a victory lap and taking in the fireworks display.

"It's incredible that we managed to win this competition," Andy said later. "We'll all remember this year for the rest of our lives, regardless of what happens in the rest of any of our careers. Nothing may ever top this now."

No one from the 1904 team would've recognized the trophy ceremony and ensuing celebration on Sunday, but all would've known the scene: a British tennis star and his brother leading the Brits to the Davis Cup title.

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