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Sunday, 22 April 2018 10:33 AM BST
From the archive: Owen Davidson
On the 50th anniversary of the Open era, remembers Owen Davidson, the first player to win a match after tennis went open... READ MORE

Owen Davidson occupies a significant place in the history of tennis. Not only does the 74-year-old Australian share the record for the most Wimbledon mixed doubles titles won by a man but he was also the very first player to win a match after the sport went open.

Sunday 22 April sees the 50th anniversary of the first event of the open era, the British Hard Court Championships at the West Hants Club in Bournemouth. Davidson won the very first match at the tournament, beating the British amateur, John Clifton, 6-2, 6-3, 4-6, 8-6.

Davidson had turned professional only the previous summer, but for several other players Bournemouth marked a return to the fold after many years in exile from all amateur events, including the four Grand Slam tournaments.

Ken Rosewall, who knocked out Davidson in the quarter-finals and went on to beat Rod Laver in the final, had last played in a Grand Slam tournament in 1956. Laver had joined the professional ranks six years previously, while Pancho Gonzales was returning to the mainstream after an absence of 19 years.

However, the first four female professionals of modern times - Billie Jean King, Ann Jones, Rosie Casals and Francoise Durr – boycotted Bournemouth in protest at the men receiving four times more prize money than the women. Virginia Wade beat Winnie Shaw in the final.

Although the men’s final was contested by two professionals, the biggest headlines of the week were made by a British amateur, Mark Cox, who beat both Gonzales and Roy Emerson before losing to Laver in the semi-finals.

“It was very exciting to see all the great professional players returning,” Davidson recalls. “Although I had played people like Rod Laver and Fred Stolle before they turned professional, I had never played Ken Rosewall or Lew Hoad.

“John Newcombe and I were boyhood friends from the age of 14. We used to hit against a garage wall imagining that we were playing against Hoad and Rosewall. We’d listen to them playing Davis Cup matches on radio. They were unbelievable idols.”

Later that summer Davidson had the “incredible thrill” of partnering Hoad in the gentlemen’s doubles at the first Championships of the Open era. In the first round they beat the No.7 seeds, Tom Okker and Marty Riessen, before losing to Ken Fletcher and Manolo Santana.

Davidson played in one gentlemen’s doubles final at The Championships, partnering Bill Bowrey in a four-sets defeat to Fletcher and Newcombe in 1966, but it was in mixed doubles that he excelled. Davidson and King won the Wimbledon title four times; Fletcher and Vic Seixas are the only other men to have won as many mixed titles at the All England Club.

“I think I lacked a little bit of self-confidence in singles,” Davidson admitted. “But when I played doubles or mixed, especially with great players like Billie Jean or John Newcombe, I gained a lot of confidence.”

We used to hit against a garage wall imagining that we were playing against Hoad and Rosewall

- Owen Davidson

King and Davidson, who together won a total of eight Grand Slam mixed doubles titles, were a formidable combination. King had a superb all-round game, loved to attack and was a fierce competitor, while Davidson had great volleys and a penetrating leftie serve.

“This might sound vain, but in those days there weren’t many girls who were left-handers, so they had a terrible time returning my serve, especially with Billie waiting at the net,” Davidson said. “In all the years I played with Billie she never, ever put in less than 100 per cent effort in mixed doubles. She considered doubles and mixed important.”

Davidson recalled King’s extraordinary efforts in 1973, when bad weather caused a logjam of matches in the closing stages at The Championships. On the last Saturday King won the final of both the ladies’ singles and the ladies’ doubles.

“By then it was 7pm and we hadn’t played our mixed quarter-final yet against Jan Kodes and Martina Navratilova,” Davidson recalled. “I just expected that Billie Jean would pull out of the mixed, but I got a call in the locker room. They said Billie Jean was waiting for me on the old No.2 Court.

“We went out and we – or perhaps I should say she – won the match. In those days they didn’t usually play on the Sunday, but to complete the programme we came back the following day, when they opened it up free to the public.”

Davidson and King came back from a set down to beat Alex Metreveli and Olga Morozova in the semi-finals and then beat Raul Ramirez and Janet Newberry 6-3, 6-2 in the final. “It was pretty unbelievable what Billie did,” Davidson said.

King and Davidson had won their first mixed title at The Championships in 1967, beating Fletcher and Maria Bueno 7-5, 6-2 in the final. They also won the French and US Nationals that year while Davidson, who had partnered Lesley Bowrey to victory in Australia, completed a mixed doubles Grand Slam.

In 1971 King and Davidson triumphed again at the All England Club, beating Riessen and Margaret Court 3-6, 6-2, 15-13 in the final. They won the last of their eight Grand Slam mixed doubles titles together when they beat the Britons Mark Farrell and Lesley Charles 6-3, 9-7 in the final at The Championships in 1974.

The closest Davidson came to playing in a Grand Slam singles final was at The Championships in 1966. Davidson beat Niki Pilic, Clarke Graebner and Tom Okker before meeting Emerson, the champion of the previous two years,  in the quarter-finals.

“You can never say that someone is an absolute certainty to win Wimbledon, but everybody thought there was nobody left in the tournament who could beat Roy Emerson that year,” Davidson said. “He was by far the best player in the world and was beating me – until he ran into the umpire’s chair and injured himself.”

Davidson beat a hobbling Emerson 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 to earn a semi-final meeting with Santana. A dramatic encounter with the Spaniard saw Davidson fight back from 5-1 down to 5-5 in the fifth set, only to lose the match 2-6, 6-4, 7-9, 6-3, 5-7.

“I choked like a dog,” Davidson admits. “For as long as I live I’ll never forget a forehand volley I missed on my serve at 5-5 in the fifth. That was a huge game. At that stage Santana was gone, but I played a terrible, terrible game and that was it.”

There was however, a major consolation for Davidson, who thinks that his performance played a part in Herman David and Major David Mills, chairman and secretary of the All England Club respectively, inviting him to lunch. They asked if he would be interested in becoming the AELTC’s professional.

Davidson, who won a total of 11 mixed doubles Grand Slam titles and two in men’s doubles, took up the post after The Championships 12 months later. He describes working for “the best club in the world” as “the best job I ever had”.

Becoming a professional meant that Davidson had to miss the next two Grand Slam tournaments, in the United States and Australia, but by the following spring the advent of open tennis saw him back competing with the very best.

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