A TERRIBLE SPLENDOR
Marshall Jon Fisher
Crown, $25, 321 pages, illus.
Reviewed by John M. Taylor
Few areas of writing have improved so much in the past half-century as sports. Gone is the high-flown prose in which fair Harvard gives its all in the shadow of the goal posts. Players for the home team no longer embody all the manly virtues.
In the new tradition of solidly researched sports writing comes Marshall Jon Fisher’s “A Terrible Splendor,” a fine book whose ill-chosen title gives no clue that it is about tennis in the decade leading up to World War II. The focus is on one of the most famous matches in Davis Cup history.
Tennis in the 1930s was very different from tennis today. Virtually everything was white — the balls, the clothing, the players. Major tournaments were limited to “amateurs,” but the top players were able to earn a respectable living from appearance fees and inflated charges for expenses. Except for the French championships, the four “grand slam” national tournaments were played on grass courts, with the grass kept as short as three-sixteenths of an inch. Tennis shorts were unknown until 1931; the gentlemen played in slacks.
Equal in prestige to the grand slams was competition for the Davis Cup, the international trophy in men’s tennis. England held the cup in the early 1930s, thanks to the efforts of its superstar, Fred Perry. When Perry turned professional in 1936, it became apparent that the cup would be won by either Germany or the United States, each of which had its own star.
America’s Don Budge was embarking on two years in which he would be the best player in the world. Germany’s Baron Gottfried von Cramm was a wizard on the court who had twice won the French championship. Having beaten Cramm in straight sets at Wimbledon just weeks before, Budge entered the match a strong favorite.
At first glance, the Davis Cup “tie” appeared to be a contest between good and evil - America the Beautiful vs. Nazi Germany. But it was not quite so simple. Budge, to be sure, was the all-American boy. A lanky redhead from California, he had a cannonball serve and the most graceful, powerful backhand anyone had ever seen. Cramm was a more complex figure. Noted for his all-around game and his sportsmanship, Cramm was a gay man who despised the Nazis. Already there were rumors that Cramm was living on borrowed time — that unless he delivered the Davis Cup, he would be subject to prosecution at home.
Looming over the crucial match was the great Bill Tilden. Despite the stars of recent decades — Rod Laver, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, to name just a few — there are those who consider Tilden the greatest player ever. By 1938, at age 45, he could still hold his own with all but the best. He had offered to coach the American Davis Cup team but had been turned down by the American association, for Tilden was “controversial.” Like Cramm, Tilden was gay, but unlike Cramm, he flouted his lifestyle, traveling with an entourage of personal “ball boys.” As Mr. Fisher writes, Tilden “stayed at the finest hotels, at the best restaurants, and picked up the check for everyone with him.”
So one of the ironies of the great Budge-Cramm match was that the incomparable Bill Tilden had coached the German team and was rooting for Cramm. In the crucial tie at Wimbledon, the Americans and Germans split the first four matches, making the final singles match, between Budge and Cramm, the decider. Cramm, the underdog, came out playing the best tennis of his life. Hitting close to the lines, Cramm won the first set 8-6 and the second 7-5. Budge came back in the third set, however, winning 6-4. The fourth set also went to the American as Cramm appeared to save himself for the final set.
The last set went to 8-6, and it would be wrong to tell you, dear reader, who won. Suffice it to say that the winner neither kissed the court nor writhed on the turf in the current fashion. The loser neither cursed nor threw his racket. Instead, the loser told the winner, “This is absolutely the finest match I have ever played in my life.”
The following year, Budge would win all four grand slams in a single year, a feat only Rod Laver has been able to match. But after World War II, Budge met his match in the likes of Bobby Riggs and Jack Kramer. Cramm’s lot was harder. He was convicted for homosexuality in May 1938 and spent five months in prison. He served in the German army in World War II, resumed tennis afterward, and died in a road accident in 1976. Mr. Fisher has found a remarkable story and has told it well.
John M. Taylor is a biographer and historian and lives in McLean.