Dwight Davis: The Man and The Cup
Ebury Press, $29.95
In this year, the 100th anniversary of the Davis Cup, Kriplen's impeccably researched biography is a fitting tribute to both Dwight Davis and the competition he founded. A century ago, Davis, then a tennis player at Harvard, was gripped by inspiration as he followed the America's Cup yacht race in the newspapers. Why, he mused, couldn't his sport hold a similar international competition? Before graduating in 1900, he arranged for a team from Britain to compete against a U.S. consortium made up of his Harvard chums. He then forked over about $1,000—serious beer money for a college kid, even by today's standards—to a Boston jeweler for an ornate silver punch bowl and created the International Lawn Tennis Challenge Trophy.
In the inaugural "tie," held in Brookline, Mass., at the old Longwood Cricket Club (the U.S. and Australia will do battle July 16-18 at Longwood, now in Chestnut Hill, Mass.), Davis won his matches in both singles and doubles as the U.S. team crushed Great Britain 3-0. The Brits bemoaned everything from a "continually sagging" net to "abominable" grounds to round balls that became "eggified" balls to serves by the Americans with so much twist as to make them virtually unreturnable. From those modest origins was spawned the annual competition that, having taken Davis's name, now includes 129 nations and has been played on surfaces that include not only the original grass but also wood and cow dung.
Davis's legacy endures through tennis, but his accomplishments, Kriplen illustrates in convincing detail, went well beyond those of a fuzzy, bouncing ball. Davis was an exemplar of noblesse oblige, a man of patrician upbringing who devoted himself to public service. In addition to earning a Distinguished Service Cross for heroism while serving in the Army in World War I, Davis served as President Coolidge's Secretary of War and was President Hoover's governor-general in the Philippines.
Meanwhile, the worldwide tennis event he fashioned grew steadily in prestige. The Cup he purchased as an undergraduate became such a coveted trophy that Hitler was reported to have telephoned German Davis Cup players and to have bid them luck before they took the court. As Davis remarked before he died in 1945 at age 66, "If I had known of [the Cup's] coming significance, it would have been cast in gold."
Though Kriplen's book commits a few unforced errors—it begs, for instance, for more on-court anecdotes from the Davis Cup's textured history—it ultimately succeeds as both a piece of sportswriting and a rich biography. Moreover, the author provides a thorough history of the silver chalice itself, including a play-by-play account of the design and manufacture, down to the engraving, and her work is eminently readable. That, if you'll pardon the pun, might be the book's most sterling achievement.