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A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Playedby Marshall Jon Fisher
Synopses & Reviews
Before Federer versus Nadal, before Borg versus McEnroe, the greatest tennis match ever played pitted the dominant Don Budge against the seductively handsome Baron Gottfried von Cramm. This deciding 1937 Davis Cup match, played on the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon, was a battle of titans: the world's number one tennis player against the number two; America against Germany; democracy against fascism. For five superhuman sets, the duos brilliant shotmaking kept the Centre Court crowd-and the world-spellbound.
But the matchs significance extended well beyond the immaculate grass courts of Wimbledon. Against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the brink of World War II, one man played for the pride of his country while the other played for his life. Budge, the humble hard-working American who would soon become the first man to win all four Grand Slam titles in the same year, vied to keep the Davis Cup out of the hands of the Nazi regime. On the other side of the net, the immensely popular and elegant von Cramm fought Budge point for point knowing that a loss might precipitate his descent into the living hell being constructed behind barbed wire back home.
Born into an aristocratic family, von Cramm was admired for his devastating good looks as well as his unparalleled sportsmanship. But he harbored a dark secret, one that put him under increasing Gestapo surveillance. And his situation was made even more perilous by his refusal to join the Nazi Party or defend Hitler. Desperately relying on his athletic achievements and the global spotlight to keep him out of the Gestapos clutches, his strategy was to keep traveling and keep winning. A Davis Cup victory would make him the toast of Germany. A loss might be catastrophic.
Watching the mesmerizingly intense match from the stands was von Cramms mentor and all-time tennis superstar Bill Tilden-a consummate showman whose double life would run in ironic counterpoint to that of his German pupil.
Set at a time when sports and politics were inextricably linked, A Terrible Splendor gives readers a courtside seat on that fateful day, moving gracefully between the tennis match for the ages and the dramatic events leading Germany, Britain, and America into global war. A book like no other in its weaving of social significance and athletic spectacle, this soul-stirring account is ultimately a tribute to the strength of the human spirit.
Well, tennis was a different game in those days. The balls were white. The rackets were wooden. The women wore stockings, and the men wore flannel trousers. It was a sport for gentlemen and ladies, but not necessarily for the faint of heart. Exhibit A: the match that took place July 20, 1937, on Wimbledon's Centre Court. The occasion was the Davis Cup Interzone Final between the United... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) States and Germany. On one side of the net was Don Budge, a lanky redhead from Oakland, Calif., with a bludgeoning serve and a fabled backhand. On the other side, Baron Gottfried von Cramm, "the very embodiment of style, grace, and sportsmanship," with a counterpunching game that was likened to chamber music. Cramm took the first two sets; Budge swept the next two; and as the combatants played on into the London twilight, the crowd of 14,000 realized that something extraordinary was happening. "The two white figures began to set the rhythms of something that looked more like ballet than a game where you hit a ball," wrote radio journalist Alistair Cooke. "People stopped asking other people to sit down. The umpire gave up stopping the game to beg for silence during rallies." Each player hit twice as many winners as errors — an ungodly percentage — and the match was concluded by a spectacular running passing shot that the winning player, stumbling as he hit it, never saw land. Whereupon "a British crowd forgot its nature," Cooke reported. "It stood on benches" and made the "deep kind of roar" that "does not belong on any tennis court." The U.S. team captain later said, "No man, living or dead, could have beaten either man that day." Indeed, the question of who ultimately prevailed — I won't spoil it by telling you here — is almost irrelevant. Tennis has seen plenty of great matches since — last year's Federer-Nadal contest at Wimbledon stands especially tall — but none with the extra-athletic significance of the Budge-Cramm affair, which played out in the lengthening shadows of war. Just three years later, Nazi bombs were splintering off pieces of Wimbledon's Royal Box, and pigs grazed on Centre Court. And in due time, Germans and Americans were quarreling in deadly earnest — with the outcome every bit as uncertain as that titanic tennis match. Marshall Jon Fisher has gotten hold of some mighty themes in "A Terrible Splendor": war and peace, love and death, sports and savagery. He's also taken on one hell of a tricky story. Even as he shows us Budge and Cramm battling away — and he describes the on-court action wonderfully well — he has to keep cutting away to show us the geopolitical forces gathering round them. That background is forever in danger of swamping the foreground, and it probably doesn't help that Fisher's renderings of his subjects' mental states veer toward awkwardness and that his prose is marred in places by forced regional correctness (Cramm, being German, is overcome by "a wave of Gemutlichkeit") and bizarre analogies (a player covers the court "like a paranoid squirrel"). Still, as the match enters its final set, all the narrative pieces lock together, and "A Terrible Splendor" becomes as engrossing as the contest it portrays. Fisher has the good sense to triangulate the two lead players with tennis great Bill Tilden. Big Bill had been a mentor to Cramm and, having burned bridges with the U.S. tennis establishment, was now coach for the German team. He had a gift for antagonizing his countrymen. In the years to follow, he struggled to find a place in the game he loved and to accommodate the sexuality he had taken such pains to hide. Tilden's sad final years have been ably chronicled by the likes of Frank Deford, and as for Budge, evidence suggests he was a great athlete and an easygoing fella and not too much more. By default, then, a reader's interest shifts to the lesser-known Cramm, whose life is a movie development deal waiting to happen. Raised in a castle in the foothills of the Seven Mountains, Cramm inherited the aristocratic disdain for Hitler's parvenus, and he steadfastly refused to join the Nazi party. To make his situation more delicate, he was an unapologetic homosexual who had fallen in love with a young Jewish actor. The Third Reich would overlook such transgressions only so long as he kept winning. As he confessed to Tilden, "I'm playing for my life." And he was right. Less than a year after the match, the Nazi regime tossed Cramm in prison for "moral delinquency." He was sent to the Russian front, where he contracted frostbite in both legs. After the war, he revived his tennis career and then settled down to a cotton importing business and a brief marriage to Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. Through every turn, Cramm's charm and sangfroid carried through unscathed. Until November 1976, when his car, en route from Alexandria to Cairo, was struck by a military truck. "Gottfried, whom no one could remember ever being ill, hated hospitals," writes Fisher, "and had sworn he would never die in one. He did not, passing away in the ambulance on the way." Should we be surprised that Budge, a quarter century later, died of injuries from a car wreck, too? Or that, to the very end, he savored the memory of that July meeting on Centre Court? "I never played better," he liked to say, "and I never played anyone as good as Cramm that day." Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer. His most recent book is "The Black Tower." Reviewed by Louis Bayard, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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About the Author
MARSHALL JON FISHERs work has appeared in The Atlantic, Harpers, and other magazines. His essay "Memoria ex Machina" was featured in Best American Essays 2003. He has written several books with his father, David E. Fisher, including Tube: The Invention of Television. Marshall lives in the Berkshires with his wife
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