How Walter Pate Made Tennis History

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Updated: February 11, 2016

Walter Lacey Pate, class of 1899, was the captain of the 1937 and ’38 American Davis Cup teams that won it all. The Davis Cup is the biggest competition in international tennis, steeped in tradition. Pate would captain the team again, in 1946, and watched his team pry the Cup away from Australia. Being a captain of that team inscribed his name in tennis history.

However, there is one question that remains a mystery hidden in these facts: why was Pate the captain in the first place? Pate graduated Cornell with a law degree, having never even played competitive tennis before, and lived on the famous New York Wall Street for years. Despite all of his contributions to tennis, there is very little written about Pate. He’s just a footnote in the sport’s history.

In the book, “As Tom Goes By: A Tennis Memoir” by Lee Tyler, Pate was described thusly, “Walter Pate, our non-playing captain, past middle age and a Wall St. lawyer by profession, didn’t know beans about tennis. He felt out of his element deciding who would play for the Cup. He told the six of us [already on the team] to make the selections ourselves.” So clearly, Pate wasn’t exactly a key cog in the Unites States Davis Cup triumph over Australia.

So how did the lawyer get the captaincy?

Pate’s interest in tennis soon became a lasting impact in the sport. Pate, a Brooklyn native, did not play tennis at Cornell, although he kept busy as the coxswain for the crew team and a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. After graduating, he became consumed by the sport and played as much as he could in the big city. Pate helped grow the sport in Kings County, and participated in the 1906 metropolitan championship. He would play regularly until 1920, when he injured himself. While on the mend, he managed to commit himself further to the sport that he loved, as Pate would return to action and win senior doubles titles in 1924 and ’26 with partner Sam Hardy.

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Pate used his legal prowess to inflate the world of tennis, which quickly became his favorite hobby. After leaving the law firm of Noble & Camp, Pate was partner at the firm of Cook, Brown, & Pate. He first began his work with the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) as part of the ranking committee in 1912, which rated top players before the days of computers and standing points.

Pate soon became chairman of the USLTA’s division of Tennis Supplies Committee. As chairman, he brought about uniformity to tennis by spearheading a movement to standardize the use of the same tennis balls, which became number three in the rules of lawn tennis. For years, tennis balls made in Great Britain were softer than the American counterpart, which contributed to the development of the prototypical American power based game, while the Brits were more interested in finesse. Pate served as chairman for 30 years and was especially interested in testing tennis balls for the US Championships. For all else he would accomplish in his adopted sport, Pate remained most proud of standardizing the use of the tennis ball.

Pate became entrenched in the USLTA and head of several of its divisions. By 1935, the year he was named Davis Cup captain by Holcombe Ward, Pate was already a key figure in the association. It’s not hard to imagine Pate as captain – a man more or less obsessed with tennis with more than two decades of service to the USLTA. Pate also did have his senior playing experience to draw upon.

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The 1937 Davis Cup famously featured Don Budge defeating Baron von Cramm in Wimbledon, England in a decisive game five, which was considered one of the greatest matches of all time. Budge would go down two sets to none and fight back to force a final set. Budge, down 4-1 in the final set, told Pate, “Don’t worry Cap, I won’t let you down.” His guarantee would go down in history as he triumphed 6-8, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 8-6. The American triumph especially pleased Pate since Adolf Hitler was still in power and reportedly called up von Cramm before the match to demand victory. Pate would later call Budge the best player he’d ever seen.

The following year, Pate also lead the Americans to victory, this time over Australia and the much more well known Davis Cup captain, Harry Hopman. In 1939, The Aussies would take down the Americans in the final, which proved to be the last Davis Cup until the end of World War II.

When the Davis Cup resumed in 1946, Pate was again selected to captain the team. The Americans would rebound with a vengeance, sweeping the Aussies 5-0 in historic Kooyong Stadium in Melbourne, a fitting end to Pate’s Davis Cup career.

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Pate gave further to tennis by taking it upon himself to preserve his sport’s history. He created what was likely the first video archive of great players, filming them playing and hitting their strokes. Pate would bring these videos to schools, tennis clubs, and universities, including Cornell, to help grow the sport and nourish young players.

Pate was ahead of his time in some areas. He defended the temperament of his players, saying in 1961 to the New York Herald Tribune that he failed to see why players acting out “should cause an international furore,” pointing out the double standard of decorum between tennis players and other stars of sports like hockey and basketball. By the ‘60s, Pate would be referred to in a write up almost exclusively as “Cap,” a testament to how the former lawyer entrenched himself in tennis.

Pate lived at the Cornell Club in New York City and was active throughout his 80s. Pate, throughout his years, gave generously to his alma mater. He moved south late in life to live with his daughter and eventually died in Louisville, Kentucky at age 94. Pate’s legacy might be strange and winding, but it is clear – he gave most of his life to the sport of tennis.

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