Book Review: 'A Terrible Splendor' by Marshall Jon Fisher

Review by Louis Bayard
Sunday, May 3, 2009


Three Extraordinary Men . . . and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever . . .

By Marshall Jon Fisher. Crown. 321 pp. $25

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 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 Gem├╝tlichkeit") 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."

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