June 20, 1963: The day the USA won the first Fed Cup final
- 20 Jun 2020
What happened exactly on that day
On this day, June 20, 1963, the United States team defeated Australia in the final of the first edition of the Federation Cup, known as the Fed Cup since 1995. With the presence of great players like Billie Jean King and Margaret Court, despite the absence of prize money, it was the best possible start for this new competition, which was launched for the 50th birthday of the International Tennis Federation.
Margaret Smith, who would later be known as Margaret Court, was born in 1942. In June 1963, the Australian had already claimed six Grand Slam titles. She triumphed four times in a row at the Australian Open (1960-1963), and in 1962, she added Roland-Garros and the US Open to her list of achievements, becoming the best women’s player in the world. Her long reach and great athletic ability made her serve and volley game lethal in those days. Her strength was a main asset, as it allowed her to produce very effective overheads. Her team-mate, Lesley Turner, was born in the same year, 1942. She had just achieved her best major feat by winning the 1963 French Open title in singles and doubles.
In 1963, Billie Jean King was still playing under the name of Moffitt, as she had yet to marry Larry King. Born in 1943 in Long Beach, California, she had made her Grand Slam debut in 1959. Quickly spotted by the pundits as one the most promising young players in the world, she won her first tournament in Philadelphia, in 1960. In singles, her best Grand Slam result so far had been reaching the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, where she beat world No 1 Margaret Smith in the second round. In doubles, the American had already claimed two Grand Slam crowns at Wimbledon, in 1961 and 1962. Her team-mate was Darlene Hard, born in 1936, who won three major singles titles (the French Open in 1960 and the US Nationals in 1960 and 1961), and 13 Grand Slam doubles titles.
The first Federation Cup was held in London, at Queen’s Club. Founded in 1886, it was the first multi-sport complex ever built. Its main activity was tennis and it was owned by the British Lawn Tennis Association, whose offices had been there since 1953. Every year since 1890, in early June, the venue held the Queen’s Club Championships, which in those days featured a woman’s event, won by Smith in 1961.
In 1963, for its 50th birthday, the International Lawn Tennis Federation decided to start a new team competition to promote women’s tennis. The idea of a feminine equivalent to the Davis Cup had been discussed since the 1920s, but in 1962, Nell Hopman, wife of the famous player and coach Harry Hopman, took up the idea. A dossier made by Mary Hardwick Hare persuaded the International Lawn Tennis Federation (which later became the ITF) to launch a team championship in 1963, open to all nations, played over one week in a different venue each year.
The first edition was held at Queen’s Club, just after the yearly Queen’s Club Championships. Featuring 16 nations, it was a success, as almost all the best players of each nation participated in the event. In the final between the USA and Australia, the four competing players had won numerous Grand Slam tournaments in the past, in singles or doubles.
In the opener, Margaret Smith overpowered Hard, 6-3 6-0. Due to rain, the match was played indoors, on wood, where Smith’s powerful serve and volley game proved to be unstoppable. The second match offered a great contrast in styles, Moffitt constantly attacking the net while Lesley Turner played mostly from the baseline. In the first set, Moffitt was betrayed by her nerves and lost 7-5 after leading 5-4. She increased her level in the second set and outclassed her Australian opponent in the next sets, 6-0 6-3.
In the final doubles match, the same four players came back on court to decide the first Federation Cup champion. In the first set, Moffitt, not as sharp at the net as she had been in singles, lost her service twice, and the Australian team took the first set 6-3. In the second set, the USA fought desperately, being on the verge of defeat several times, but eventually managed to break Turner’s serve to seal the second set 13-11 (there was no tiebreak at the time). Seizing the momentum, Moffitt and Hard won the third set 6-3 and the USA claimed the first Federation Cup title in tennis history.
The USA would become the most successful Fed Cup nation with no fewer than 17 titles, the most recent one coming in 2017.
Australia, defeated in the 1963 final, would become the prominent nation in the first decade of the Federation Cup, seizing the title seven times between 1964 and 1974. Though it has not won it since, Australia remains third in the list of nations to win the Fed Cup.
The Federation Cup, which originally saw 16 teams competing, would grow into a much bigger format, thanks to the growth of sponsorship, and by 1994, more than 70 teams would compete in different world class divisions.
In 1995, the tournament’s name would be shortened to the Fed Cup, and a new home-and-away format would be adopted, which would survive until 2020, when it would be changed back to a format close to the original one.
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