Davis Cup protests, 1977

Davis Cup 1977: An unholy mess

From Tennis strangest matches by Peter Seddon:

Newport Beach, California, just south of Los Angeles, is a long way from the english lawns upon which tennis was first played. Perhaps that’s appropriate, as if ever there was an occasion when the vicarage garden party image of the game was irrevocably laid to rest it was at this West Coast resort on Sunday 17 April 1977.

This is the tale of the minister of the Church, the oil slick, the racket attack and the mass demonstration. it doesn’t sound like an everyday story of ordinary tennis folk but then it’s not everyday that the United States plays South Africa in the Davis Cup at the height of the apartheid debate.the tension had been mounting for over a decade.

The serious side to this strange affair had been a major problem for years. Official United Nations policy was to strongly discourage all sporting contact with ‘racist South African sports bodies’, but many nations purpotedly ‘put sport above politics’ and played on. Anti-apartheid activists said that such blind-eye attitudes simply condoned racism and there had been trouble almost everywhere South African representatives played, not simply directed against them but their hosts as well.

In 1968 the Sweden vs Rhodesia tie in Bastad had to be moved to Bandol in the South of France as a 1,500-strong rioting mob, some armed with iron bars, lumps of concrete and bottles, made play impossible.

A year later, but rather gentler, it was Great Britain‘s turn as bags of flour hurtled over the stands to bomb the court at the Redlands Club in Bristol. other nations, meanwhile, did refuse to play, none more nobly than India who passed up the chance of glory by declining to face South Africa in the 1974 final.
‘Dwight Davis must have turned in his grave,’ said Lawn Tennis magazine of the man who founded the competition back in 1900 in the spirit of friendly national rivalry. Hence the enhanced significance when South Africa travelled to ‘white supremacist’ United States in 1977.

Trouble they expected and trouble they got. Seven hundred demonstrators constantly chanted ‘South Africa go home’ outside the court arena but both sides refused to be deterred from simply playing tennis. Police ejected early court invaders and amongst the real fans a spirit of ‘the match must go on’ began to build.

It was after America had built a 2 rubbers to 0 lead that a church minister decided on more direct action. Home pairing Stan Smith and Bob Lutz were already 2 sets to 0 ahead against Frew McMillan and Byron Bertram when 29-year-old black activist Reverend Roland Dortsch rushed wildly on to the United States end of the court and emptied a plastic bottle of motor oil over the green surface. His colleague Deacon Alexander had his on bottle snatched before he could add to the spreading slick.

But as the American party saw red, the Reverend got more than he bargained for. Team captain Tony Trabert, heroic veteran of many Davis Cup matches during the much calmer 1950s, flailed at him with a racket backed by the cheering 6,000 crowd.
It took 41 minutes to clean the court and just a little longer for America to clinch the tie with a 7-5 6-1 3-6 6-3 victory. ‘UNITED STATES CLEAN UP’, said the Times.

Scenes very foreign to the game of lawn tennis they certainly were but Trabert was unrepentant:

“I brought a good old graphite racket along as a weapon and just hit them a couple of times,” he explained later.

The South African captain backed him all the way:

“I was very happy with the genuine crowd and the police have been wonderful,” he told reporters. “What Trabert did to the court invaders really makes you feel good.”

Strange demonstrations, strange retaliations and strange reactions. Who could blame Dwight Davis if he’s still turning today?

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