Ever since he posted a comment on my blog page under the moniker “Mr. Tennis,” I have wanted to interview Wilbert (Bill) Davis, winner of 11 American Tennis Association national championships.
But it wasn’t so much his tennis accomplishments that caught my interest, as it were the principles he began to adopt that day in 1940 when a voice beckoned from the doorway of Harlem’s Cosmopolitan tennis club, asking if he wanted to fetch balls during an ATA tournament that was being held.
“Once inside, it was like Alice in Wonderland to me,” Davis wrote in his post. “They had a clubhouse, five red clay courts and a junior program. That’s the day I fell in love with the world of tennis…”
From that first day as a ball boy, Davis began to learn that “good competition and sportsmanship was not just about who won and who lost, but also had to do with the quality and determination of how each played the game. Did they give it their all and play near their full potential? Were their calls honest, even on important points? Did they learn something about themselves, as well as their game?”
While eavesdropping on the club’s members, he wrote, he learned “there were no shortcuts to success, either in tennis or in life.
“They talked of the importance of getting a good education if you wanted a job with a career…Respect for those who came before you also was essential, they said…I overheard them say that discipline came from hard work and diligence, and that with each act you perform you are putting your own signature on it. As I look back now, I realize that a blueprint for living was beginning to take shape in my mind.”
Several months had passed after Davis posted his comment, and I had yet to reach out to him. But seeing the statue of Althea Gibson just minutes after the unveiling ceremony on the first day of this year’s US Open rekindled my motivation.
Here was a bust of a black woman, who broke the color barrier in American tennis and went on to win five Grand Slam titles, standing at the entrance to the largest tennis venue in the world that is named after Arthur Ashe Jr., the first black man to win a Grand Slam title. And the person who had presided over the ceremony was Katrina Adams, the first black to lead the United States Tennis Association, the ruling body of tennis in America that for decades had denied blacks participation in its events.
As I stood there absorbing the historical significance of it all, I thought of Davis, who had hit balls with Althea “for hours on end” as her hitting partner and had been a mentor to Ashe.
I spoke with Davis by phone recently from his home in San Diego, where he has lived for the past 21 years after spending the first 65 years of his life in New York. Davis, who will turn 90 on Jan. 6, was remarkably humble and modest for a man who calls himself “Mr. Tennis.”
“Tennis has been my life,” he told me. “It gave me a strategy for how I should live my life. I learned from the black bourgeoisie. I would overhear their conversations, and in that was a teaching tool for me on what was important – get a good education and make a contribution in life.”
He shared how tennis had been key to all the major milestones of his life – from the scholarship to Tennessee State University to a job at IBM that he held for 27 years to his job with the New York City Parks Department under former Mayor David Dinkins to his marriage to a woman he met at a tennis tournament some 30 years before they hooked up.
At the Cosmopolitan Club, Davis honed his tennis game under the tutelage of legendary black coach Sydney Llewellyn, who guided Althea Gibson to five Grand Slam championships.
Davis toured with Gibson and the Harlem Globetrotters for a spell, and he played at Wimbledon, the German national championships and at Forest Hills, New York.
“I played in a number of countries,” he told me. “It was a great experience to meet players of different countries and different cultures.”
Davis won 11 ATA national tennis championships, including the men’s singles title five times (1958, 1959, 1963, 1966, 1967). In 1962, he won the ATA national doubles title with his younger brother, Bob.
Davis is among the early inductees into the Black Tennis Hall of Fame, created in 2007 by New York entrepreneur and tennis enthusiast Dale G. Caldwell to recognize players who excelled in tennis despite racial barriers.
“He was one of the forerunners, and one of my main mentors,” said black tennis historian Arthur Carrington, a 1973 ATA men’s national singles champion and 2015 BTHF inductee. “He had a big influence on me.”
Davis’s tennis success was remarkable, considering he had a serve “that couldn’t crack an egg.”
“He was grit,” Bob Davis said. “He never had a big game. He never had a big serve. In fact, his coach used to say he couldn’t crack an egg with that serve.
“But he was totally relentless and ruthless,” Davis continued. “Anyone who wins 11 national championships has to have something.”
Bob Davis, who is CEO of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame and a 2014 inductee, attributed his own development as a tennis player to his older brother. Bob said when Bill was drafted into the military in 1952, “he was worried about me, so he handed me off to Sydney Llewellyn.”
In his post, Davis said his strength on the tennis court was his will to win and unbreakable focus.
“A firecracker could go off next to the courts and it wouldn’t bother me,” he wrote.
While they say tennis is a sport for a lifetime, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to play to still enjoy the sport. Davis said these days he is a loyal spectator.
“I watch tennis every day,” he told me. “I’m a great tennis fan.
But he doesn’t play anymore.
“I leave that,” he said, “to my brother, Bobby.”
When I asked what he thought of Althea Gibson being honored with a statue, he said it was well-deserved. And the fact it was placed at the entrance to Ashe Stadium shows “we’ve come a long way. Our fortunes will still be evident in the future…We still got a lot of history to make.”