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Mike Davies (right) is inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July 2012.

Mike Davies: 1936-2015

Former British No. 1, pioneer of professional game passes away at 79

The tennis world has lost one of its true visionaries. Mike Davies, the former British No. 1 and self-described “tennis rebel” who helped pioneer the professional game as we know it today, passed away on November 3 at the age of 79.

“Today is a very sad day for men’s professional tennis,” said ATP Executive Chairman and President Chris Kermode. “Mike was a true pioneer and widely regarded as one of the sport’s most influential leaders. His contributions to the game will be felt for many years to come. Our thoughts are with his family and friends during this difficult time.”

Long before Andy Murray reached the 2012 Wimbledon final, ending a dry spell for his countrymen, Davies was excelling on the emerald lawns of the All England Club. In fact, you had to turn back the clock some 52 years, to 1960, to find the last time a British man had reached the Wimbledon final in singles or doubles. That was the year Davies and partner Bobby Wilson played their way into the doubles final, where they were edged by Dennis Ralston and Rafael Osuna 6-4, 3-6, 9-7, 7-5. But Britain’s top-ranked player in 1957, 1959 and 1960 will perhaps be best remembered for his contributions to the sport as a forward-thinking entrepreneur and administrator.      

“Mike Davies was one of the five most important people in history for the business of professional tennis and may be the least well known by outsiders, but he was well known by everyone on the inside of the game,” said Marshall Happer, a former player and administrator who headed the United States Tennis Association (USTA) in the early 1990s. “Every professional player and every professional tournament benefited from the innovations and leadership that Mike gave to the game.”

Michael Grenfell Davies was born on January 9, 1936 in Swansea, Wales. He took up tennis at the age of 11, and later caught the eye of three-time Wimbledon champion Fred Perry. He developed his game under the tutelage of the legendary Australian coach Harry Hopman, and represented Great Britain in Davis Cup play between 1956 and 1960, going 24-13 combined in singles and doubles.

In the days before Open tennis, he joined Jack Kramer’s barnstorming professional tour, playing among a group that included the likes of Pancho Gonzalez, Tony Trabert, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall and Pancho Segura. The move put him at odds with the sport’s governing body, and he was ruled ineligible to play the all-amateur Davis Cup or any of the four majors again. The ban would lead Davies to push for major changes in tennis over the coming decades.

“You had amateur players prevented from playing in professional tournaments and professional players prevented from playing in amateur ones,” Davies told Wales Online.

As the Executive Director at World Championship Tennis (WCT), Davies oversaw several important changes. Under his leadership, tennis went from a white ball to a yellow one, a move that made it easier for fans to follow on television. He also ushered in a new era of tennis fashion, as the apparel business moved away from the traditional tennis whites. He staged tournaments, and sold sponsorships and TV rights. He helped take professional tennis into major venues and cities. He introduced time limits between points, and the commercial-friendly 90-second changeover every two games. In 1970, Davies put together the plans for the first million-dollar tour: 20 tournaments with 32 players under contract, each receiving $50,000. He helped envision blockbuster TV contracts with NBC and ESPN, the groundbreaking 1972 World Championship Tennis final between Rosewall and Rod Laver drawing an estimated 21.3 million viewers. The late Jim McManus, a former touring pro and founding member of the ATP World Tour, would call the “World Championship of Tennis Series,” which culminated in the Dallas final, “probably the biggest accomplishment that was brought to the sport of tennis.”

“The Laver-Rosewall match — many people consider that the engine that drove all of the popularity of the sport, everything from fashion to indoor tennis,” said Butch Buchholz, himself a former player and administrator who shaped the sport. “It was an unbelievable match on network television. It caught the eye of the nation. It was the biggest thing in tennis.  Mike created that.” 

“Mike had a great way of getting people involved,” said Laver, who fell to Rosewall in that blockbuster match of ‘72 4–6, 6–0, 6–3, 6–7(3), 7–6(5). “Back in those years, everybody had to cooperate to make it work because it was just the beginning. To make all those changes work, you had to believe in the future of the game. With guys like Mike, Butch Buchholz and Barry MacKay, the thought was, ‘We’ve only just scratched the surface.' Look where it’s gone in the last 10, 15 years. Mike was instrumental in making that happen. He was able to pick the way tennis was going to go.

“The likes of Federer, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic — they’re all representatives of what Mike and others were envisioning within the framework of the game,” Laver added.

In 1981, Davies left the WCT to join Buchholz as Marketing Director of the Association of Tennis Professionals (today the ATP World Tour) and eventually took over as Executive Director. He joined the International Tennis Federation in 1987, holding positions as General Manager and Marketing Director. In 1990, he created the Grand Slam Cup, which was played in Munich from 1990 to 1999. Davies also served as CEO of the Pilot Pen International in New Haven.

“He was really an unsung hero in the pro tennis world,” said Donald Dell, the former player and sports marketing maverick. “He wasn’t a self-promoter. He didn’t go around talking about himself and what he accomplished. Mike Davies was really about 10 years ahead of his time. He was always about 10 years ahead of where the game was heading."

“Mike was always very creative,” said Buchholz. “He had a vision for what the sport needed to become. He so strongly believed in Open tennis and professional tennis. We’ve lost a pioneer. If you look at where the sport is today, he played a major role. There are so many things he touched.”

For his many contributions to the sport, Davies was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2012.

“Mike Davies was a special guy and he will be sorely missed as a both a leader in our sport and a great friend," said International Tennis Hall of Fame President Stan Smith, a former WCT player. "He was a visionary and a highly effective leader. He saw the potential that tennis could have to become a viable, successful professional sport. He worked creatively and steadfastly to make it happen in a way that was advantageous for players, promoters, sponsors, broadcasters, and fans alike. Our sport is what it is today because of Mike's leadership."