2022 Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame: Billy Davis
Billy Davis will be inducted into the Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame at the 35th Annual Eastern Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, to be held Friday, August 26, 2022. Proceeds from the event—including ticket sales—will benefit the Junior Tennis Foundation (JTF), which helps provide scholarships to junior and adaptive players across the Eastern Section. You can purchase tickets to the event here. Learn more about the ceremony and the JTF here.
One day in 1940, Wilbert “Billy” Davis was wandering around his Harlem neighborhood when he passed by the Cosmopolitan Club, a local tennis facility built to serve Black players in an era of segregation. An individual came out of the building and stopped him on the street. A ball boy was needed for a match—would he be interested in helping out? Just 10 years old, Davis knew little about the sport and hadn’t to that point shown much interest in it. But he agreed.
“That was when his love of the game was launched,” says Davis’s younger brother, Bob.
Walking into the club, Billy was instantly enamored with everything happening around him—with the energy, with the clientele and especially with the sport itself. He desperately needed to be a part of this world. Before long, he began taking lessons at Cosmopolitan.
Billy would go on to attend Tennessee State University on a tennis scholarship, compete at both the U.S. National Championships and Wimbledon, and serve as a mentor for many of the Black athletes in his orbit, including both Grand Slam champions (and 1988 Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame inductees) Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson. Astoundingly, he captured 11 American Tennis Association (ATA) national titles over a 33-year period, beginning with the boys’ 16 national junior championship in 1945 (in both singles and doubles) all the way through the Men’s 45 national championship in 1978 (in singles). Over that timeframe, he also collected five men’s singles titles: in 1958, 1959, 1963, 1966 and 1967. With Bob—who was 14 years his junior—he captured the men’s doubles title in 1962.
“He had an incredible tennis IQ,” Bob says of what made his brother such a tough competitor. “He was always aware of where people were on the court. He did not have a big serve, but he was lethal off the ground in terms of picking his spots, putting the ball on a dime. And he was unbelievably focused and determined on winning. That made him difficult to beat.”
Billy refined that game style under the guidance of Sydney Llewellyn, a pro at Cosmopolitan who also coached Gibson as she captured her five Grand Slam singles titles. As training partners, Gibson and Billy shared a close yet competitive friendship, says Bob. When Gibson toured the country in the late 1950s (as an opening act for the Harlem Globetrotters) after all her success at the highest levels of the sport, Billy joined her as her road manager.
“They would compete at everything,” Bob recalls. “Even singing. They would get in the car and put on the radio, and he’d start singing a song. And she’d say, ‘Well, let me show you how it should be done.’ And then she’d start singing. Singing, chess, tennis. You name it, they would compete at it. And Billy could still beat her in tennis! Even when she was champion of the world, he could still junkball her to death.”
That was another component of Billy’s potent game: He could be ruthless on the court. He’d determine an opponent’s weakness and exploit it mercilessly. And he spared no one. Not Gibson. Not even his younger brother—in practice.
“When we practiced together, he would drop shot me,” Bob says. “And as I’d rush in to get the ball, he’d started laughing as he hit a lob volley to the baseline. He made it so personal by laughing. It made me want to beat him so badly and I just couldn’t.”
Perhaps in similar fashion, Billy also defeated a teenaged Ashe as the latter careened toward international stardom and three Grand Slam titles. (Even though there was a sizable age gap between the two when they faced off against each other, Bob believes it was one of his brother’s proudest moments in the sport.) Outside of competition, as he often did with so many younger players, Billy took Ashe under his wing, and the two remained lifelong friends.
“Off a tennis court, my brother was calm and thoughtful and generous,” Bob says. “You would never hear my brother—and I say this with all humility because I don’t have the same quality—say a bad word about anybody. I admire that quality, and I wish I possessed it. He was a kind, gentle, forgiving soul.”
He also understood the enrichments that tennis had provided him, and he wanted others in his community to receive the same gifts. As president of both the ATA and the Harlem Junior Tennis & Education Program later in life, he worked to help young players see the opportunities the sport could offer.
“He realized what tennis had done for him and me and for so many juniors,” Bob says. “Look at all the kids who have benefitted from tennis: People who went on to run their own academies, to own their own businesses, to go to college and just succeed. He wanted to impart that to children. This is going to change your life forever as it did for all of us.”
While Billy passed away in December 2021 at the age of 91, his incredible journey in tennis—from a child in Harlem to national champion to benevolent, kind emissary of the game—will live on through those who knew him, and no doubt, anyone who has heard his incredible story. “I miss him today,” Bob says. “He was a wonderful guy. And I don’t think you’ll find two people on this planet who would say anything different about that. [But] that’s the legacy he left for me. Try to aspire to be like Bill.”
Read more 2022 Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame profiles: