Home Global News Owen Davidson, Australian master of doubles tennis, dies at 79

Owen Davidson, Australian master of doubles tennis, dies at 79

Owen Davidson, Australian master of doubles tennis, dies at 79

Owen Davidson, an Australian tennis player who won 13 Grand Slam doubles titles, including eight with Billie Jean King, while establishing himself among the most accomplished mixed doubles players in history, died May 12 at a care center in Conroe, Texas. He was 79.

The cause was cancer, said Isabel Suliga, his longtime friend and caretaker. Mr. Davidson lived nearby in the Woodlands, a planned community north of Houston.

Equipped with a graceful volley, powerful overhand and devastating left-handed serve, Mr. Davidson emerged as one of the most dominant doubles players of the 1960s and early ’70s. While he never advanced past the semifinals of a major singles tournament, he won two Grand Slam titles in men’s doubles and 11 in mixed doubles, more than any player but Doris Hart (who had 15 major titles in mixed doubles) and Margaret Court (who notched 21).

Mr. Davidson, who was known as “Davo,” was part of a generation of powerhouse Australian players that included fellow Hall of Famers Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Ken Rosewall and Fred Stolle.

But he remained best known for his partnership with an American, King, who won 39 major titles and became a pioneer for gender equality in tennis. In her 2021 autobiography, “All In,” King recalled that she traveled to Australia to play with Mr. Davidson and his countrymen in part because they “were open-minded about female accomplishment and didn’t mind training with me,” unlike most American men.

When they first started training together, practicing in Melbourne in 1964 in a two-on-one drill with Emerson, Mr. Davidson “sent me around the court like a pinball,” she wrote. “After five minutes I thought I was going to collapse — and that was just the first day.

“I’ve always said the Australian men made me No. 1,” she continued, “and those sessions were an important part of it.”

Mr. Davidson and King were virtually unstoppable, losing in the finals of a Grand Slam tournament only once, against Françoise Dürr and Jean-Claude Barclay at the 1968 French Open.

In all, they won one French championship, three U.S. titles and four trophies at Wimbledon, where their title victories included an epic 1971 triumph over Court and Riessen, 3-6, 6-2, 15-13.

“We’d been out there a long time,” King recalled in an interview with the International Tennis Hall of Fame, “and at 13-all, I said to him, ‘Owen, let’s get out of here.’ And so we did,” winning the next two games.

“How we got out of that one I’ll never know,” Tennis magazine quoted Mr. Davidson as saying.

In 1967, Mr. Davidson became only the third player to ever win a calendar-year Grand Slam in mixed doubles. He took the Australian title with Lesley Turner, a fellow Aussie, before partnering with King to sweep the French, Wimbledon and U.S. championships.

The thought of a calendar-year Slam never crossed his mind, he said, until tennis journalist Bud Collins walked up to him before the U.S. final at Forest Hills and told him he needed just one more match. “I got a little nervous,” Mr. Davidson recalled decades later, telling the Houston Chronicle that he didn’t talk to King about the achievement until they finished dispatching Rosie Casals and Stan Smith, 6-3, 6-2.

On a drizzly April day in 1968, Mr. Davidson was written into the tennis history books one more time when he defeated John Clifton, a British amateur, in the opening round of the British Hard Court Championships at the West Hants Club in Bournemouth. It was the first match of the Open Era, in which professionals are allowed to compete alongside amateurs, and inaugurated a new age for the sport that Mr. Davidson had played ever since he was 10, joining his father on trips to tennis courts near their home in Melbourne.

“I was kind of hanging around,” he recalled, “and when they weren’t playing, I would wander onto the courts and start hitting balls around. It turned out to be my sport.”

The older of two sons, Owen Keir Davidson was born in Melbourne on Oct. 4, 1943. He honed his game while working with Mervyn Rose and Harry Hopman, the longtime coach of Australia’s Davis Cup team, and won his first major championship in 1965, when he and Robyn Ebbern shared the Australian mixed doubles title with Newcombe and Court in a year that the final wasn’t played.

In 1966, he partnered with Donna Floyd Fales to win the mixed doubles title at the U.S. Championships. At Wimbledon, he upset the two-time defending champion Emerson, who slipped on the court and tore ligaments in his shoulder, to set up a semifinals match against Manuel Santana, the eventual champion.

Mr. Davidson was self-deprecating about his success in the tournament, noting that it came against an injured opponent. When a radio interviewer asked him before the semifinals, “Just who is Owen Davidson?,” he replied, “Certainly nobody special.” Then he took Santana to five sets, playing what he described at the time as “the best competitive tennis of my life.”

In 1972, he won his first Grand Slam title in men’s doubles, partnering with Rosewall at the Australian Open, and nearly won his second before he and Newcombe fell in the finals of the U.S. Open against Cliff Drysdale and Roger Taylor. Mr. Davidson and Newcombe broke through the next year, winning a dramatic U.S. Open final over Laver and Rosewall, their boyhood idols, 7-5, 2-6, 7-5, 7-5.

Mr. Davidson also played on Australia’s Davis Cup team, coached the British team from 1967 to 1970 and worked as the head pro at Wimbledon. In 1972 he moved to Texas, where he became the head pro at the Houston Racquet Club and worked at venues including the Woodlands Country Club and the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch. He also coached pros including teenage prodigy Andrea Jaeger and Houston native Sammy Giammalva Jr.

In 2010, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

His first marriage, to Angie Davidson, ended in divorce. In 1983, he married Arlene Covey. She died in 2014. Survivors include a son from his first marriage, Cameron Davidson; and a brother.

Mr. Davidson was still giving lessons three months before his death, according to his friend Suliga, and competed in doubles tournaments long after he gave up on singles in the mid-1970s. “I don’t last as long I used to last,” he told the Chronicle in 2010, “but I can still hang in there with the kids pretty good.”

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