As one of sport's most coveted beauties, the Davis Cup, draws closer to her 100th birthday, so too does an ardent suitor named Johnny Van Ryn. Like a patient stage-door Johnny, Van Ryn waited years for the leading lady of numerous tennis dramas to be his. Oh, how close he came to embracing the Davis Cup in jubilant conquest and sipping champagne from her sterling lips. She was but 32 then, and—oo-la-la—they were in Paris.
"But," Van Ryn says 65 years later, his pale gray eyes dancing, "the French stole the Cup from us. In broad daylight."
John William Van Ryn, who turned 92 on June 30, is five years younger than the prize that eluded him and other U.S. Hall of Famers such as Bill Tilden, Ellsworth Vines, Wilmer Allison and George Lott for eight years. From 1929 through 1936, the U.S. Davis Cup team reached the final four times. Now Van Ryn, the lone survivor of those squads, sits beside the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Beach, Fla., recalling the Great Cup Robbery of '32.
In 1927, the renowned Four Musketeers of France—Jean Borotra, Ren� Lacoste, Henri Cochet and Jacques Brugnon—broke the U.S.'s seven-year stranglehold on the Davis Cup. They then launched their own five-year reign of fuzzy-ball terror. "In those days," Van Ryn recalls, "there was a Challenge Round final. The team that won the Cup had to play only once the following year, at home, to defend it. That was a big advantage. The French had built Stade Roland Garros in '28 specifically for the Challenge Rounds, and they made sure those slow clay courts were even slower—watered 'em down like a swamp—when we Americans came to town. But in '32 we figured we had 'em. The Crocodile, who never beat himself, had retired." The Crocodile, of course, was Lacoste, the toothy, cerebral engineer and inventor who was known for keeping a book on every possible foe and would later be known for designing and producing the first comfortable short-sleeved cotton tennis shirt.
"We had the Number 1 guy in the world, Elly Vines, and, we thought, the best doubles team, Allison and me," Van Ryn continues. "But the first day was a disaster. Borotra upset Vines, and Cochet beat Allison. We're down 2-0, and if Wilmer and I don't win the doubles, it's all over."
Although Van Ryn twice ranked in the world's top 10 in singles and owned a pair of wins over Tilden, his room and board in those amateur days was doubles. Seemingly slight at 5'10" and 150 pounds, he was a discomfitting returner in the right-hand court and a slick volleyer. He and Allison won 14 Cup matches, a U.S. mark that has stood since 1936 and was tied in the 1980s by the doubles team of John McEnroe and Peter Fleming. Van Ryn is the only U.S. man to have won the Wimbledon doubles championship three years running—once with Lott and twice with Allison. Van Ryn and Allison also won the U.S. Doubles title in 1931 and '35 and were finalists six times between '30 and '36.
"So it was us or nothing that second day in Paris," Van Ryn says. "The whole team felt Wilmer and I could start a comeback. Mr. Davis [ Dwight F. Davis, who donated the Cup and was player-captain of the original U.S. side, in 1901] was very encouraging. It was a battle. Five back-and-forth sets. The French wanted to avoid a third-day showdown as much as we wanted to force one, but we nosed out Cochet and Brugnon [6-3, 11-13, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4].
"When Wilmer and I won, everybody on our side felt great. We were confident Vines could beat Cochet in his singles match, and he did. Wilmer was sure he'd wrap it up against Borotra, which he did—except they didn't let him win. They robbed him. And us." Van Ryn shakes his well-groomed, thinly thatched head. "Still unbelievable," he says, chuckling over what, in the official record, stands as a victory for Borotra and France, 1-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, 7-5.
Every seat, aisle and cranny of Roland Garros was filled for the match. France's president, Albert Lebrun, sat in the first row, and hundreds who couldn't get into the stadium stood outside and cheered or pouted as scores were relayed to them.
"The place is pretty quiet as Wilmer wins the first two sets," Van Ryn says, drifting back over the decades. "But it turns into a madhouse when Borotra wins the next two, and Borotra, the showman in his beret, is urging 10,000 Frenchmen on. He's tired and stalling, changes shoes three times during play when his shoes come apart. But Wilmer shuts 'em up again by going up 5-3 in the fifth. He has some match points [three] but can't hold serve. In the next game, though, he has another match point, at ad out. Borotra's serving, nervous. He faults, into the net. Then his second serve is way long. Clearly. Maybe a foot. It's our match...but...but....