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Vernal Davis (1943-2023): ‘people’s champion’ of Bermuda tennis

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Studied, aggressive and strategic: Vernal Davis, a top Bermuda tennis player who hated to lose a game - but gladly shared the secrets of his technique (File photograph)

A tennis champion, top of the game in Bermuda during the 1970s and 1980s, distinguished himself on the courts at a time when racial divides in the sport were coming down.

Vernal Davis was hailed in the Bermuda Sports Journal for his work to “break down barriers for future Black players to participate in the sport”.

The July 2020 publication credited Mr Davis for “laying the foundation through his gentleman-like conduct, which influenced tennis to become the diverse sport all can enjoy”.

Mr Davis won awards and remained prominent in the sport for decades, enjoying a reputation as a canny and tenacious player.

After dominating the men’s championships, the famously competitive Mr Davis, known as “the people’s champion” among peers, went on to coach a string of young players.

Generous with his time: Vernal Davis, whose coaching brought a host of new players into Bermuda tennis (File photo by Akil Simmons)

His daughters, Kimber-Lee Bean and Onika Mendes, said their father was self-taught at a sport that he took deeply seriously, but always spoke of as “something fun”.

Ms Bean added: “Our dad took joy in giving my sister and me lessons, and his grandchildren.”

Ms Mendes said their father’s sole regret about the game was the lack of resources available on the island for him to take his career to the pro level he desired.

Growing up in the Hermitage Road area in Devonshire and Smith’s, Mr Davis’s reputation for calming arguments and breaking up fights left him with the lifelong nickname of “peacemaker”.

He worked as an orderly in King Edward VII Memorial Hospital where responsibilities included the morgue and directing staff.

“He was in charge of EMTs – quite a few older people come to us to this day to say that he gave them their first job,” Ms Bean said.

But tennis took over, with Mr Davis distinguishing himself for an aggressive serve and volley style known as first strike tennis.

David Lambert, a former president of the Bermuda Lawn Tennis Association, said Mr Davis was called “the people’s champion” in tennis circles because he could hold his own and beat formidable overseas players in the island’s invitational tournaments.

“They played very well – until they came up against Vernal Davis,” Mr Lambert said, calling his style “studied, aggressive and strategic”.

“He was attacking his opponent right from the start. You learnt that if you didn’t do something special with the ball, he was going to punish you. It’s one reason he won so many titles.”

Mr Lambert played competitively against Mr Davis but also practised with him.

“He was very generous with his time, and spent a lot of years at WER Joell Tennis Stadium offering advice, offering his technique, which was very kind of him.

“Through that, a lot of people who maybe couldn’t have afforded lessons got help developing in the game.

“Vernal was friendly, very open and accommodating, and that flowed into his style of play. He was always known as being very fair as a player.”

He highlighted Mr Davis’s reluctance to call a ball as out when it hit close to the line.

“He knew he had more than enough game to get the results,” Mr Lambert added.

When he trained with Mr Davis, Mr Lambert said their friendly bet was that every time the coach won, he would have to buy him a fish sandwich.

“I bought a lot of them. If you didn’t bring your A-plus game, you didn’t have a great day.”

Coleridge Place, another tennis veteran and champion player, recalled rising in the junior ranks when Mr Davis was already in top form.

“He was very helpful and encouraging,” Mr Place said.

“When we had a league team, he was instrumental in that. He was competitive and tough. When he used to play against Bruce Sims, another top player, they used to electrify the place.

“In his coaching at the tennis stadium, he brought a lot of players into the game and inspired people to play, including myself – all the tips he gave were really appreciated.”

Mr Place also remembered Mr Davis from his hospital career before tennis.

“He was one of the top people there,” he said. “After he finished teaching tennis, he gave his services at seniors’ homes. He had a kind heart.”

Michael Wolfe, president of the BLTA, said Mr Davis’s exploits defined “a different era” in the game.

“I offer condolences on behalf of the BLTA to his family, friends and the tennis community for this very well respected figure.”

According to family, Mr Davis’s healthcare work included the Mid-Atlantic Wellness Centre and providing home care to the elderly.

Fond of church music and dance, Mr Davis gave freely of his views on sport, from Cup Match to the America’s Cup, and kept fit through swimming and walking.

He enjoyed tennis lessons with grandsons Enrique Mendes and the late Damore Bean, as well as granddaughters Kimora-Lee and Lanziah Bean.

Ms Bean added: “Our dad was a giving person and loved his family. He was always proud of his daughters and grandchildren.

“We give special thanks to everyone for their love and support – we are very grateful for the outpouring we have received. They recognise his achievements and legacy.

“My dad was always proud of us – but we are so proud of him.”

A homegoing service for Mr Davis is planned for 1pm on March 9 at the Southampton Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

• Vernal Llewellyn Davis, a top Bermudian tennis player, was born on April 22, 1943. He died in February 2023, aged 79.

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Published March 03, 2023 at 8:01 am (Updated March 23, 2023 at 1:44 pm)

Vernal Davis (1943-2023): ‘people’s champion’ of Bermuda tennis

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