When I was 40, my doctor advised me that a man in his 40s shouldn’t play tennis. I heeded his advice carefully and could hardly wait until I reached 50 to start again… Hugo Black

This book is in too many ways a valediction for Bill Tilden and a panegyric for Baron Gottfried von Cramm at the expense of Don Budge so we are going to focus our prefatory comments on him.


Budge was in many ways the All-American. The son of immigrants with a scholarship at the University of California, Berkeley he left – in 1933 during the depression – to play tennis for his country’s Davis Cup team.  In 1937  he swept Wimbledon, winning the singles, the men’s doubles title and the mixed doubles. He then went on to win the U. S. National singles and the mixed doubles. That year, in his match against Gottfried von Cramm in the Davis Cup inter-zone finals against Germany, trailing 1–4 in the final set, he came back to win 8–6. This allowed the United States to advance and to then win the Davis Cup for the first time in 12 years – this while still an amateur.


Then, unlike so many other celebrities,  at the outbreak of World War II he joined the United States Army Air Force and,  at the beginning of 1943,  in an obstacle course,  he tore a muscle in his shoulder that impaired his ability on the court for the rest of his life.  In spite of the nagging injury he continued to play after the war recording his last  great victory in 1954 during a North American tour in 1954 over Pancho Gonzales.  As late as 1973 he and fellow champion Frank Sedgman teamed up to win the Veteran’s doubles championship at Wimbledon before a crowd that appreciated the sport played by gentlemen.


Fisher’s book has its point – prejudice is a terrible thing – but in order to be a great book he needed to realize that the sportsman who is also a patriot, the sportsman who is mentioned more often on the sports page than the gossip column and more often for his accomplishments than his peccadilloes is the natural protagonist of such a work. That he has wasted so much paper and ink on von Cramm or Tilden is unfortunate, that he has attempted to equate their misfortunes with the tragedy of the holocaust is obscene.

A terrible splendor : three extraordinary men, a world poised for war, and the greatest tennis match ever played New York : Crown Publishers, c 2009      Marshall Jon Fisher Tennis Tournaments History Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. 321 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [272]-312) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Before Federer versus Nadal, before Borg versus McEnroe, the greatest tennis match ever played pitted the dominant Don Budge against 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 duo’s brilliant shotmaking kept the Centre Court crowd spellbound.

But the match’s 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 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 good looks as well as his 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 Gestapo’s 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 intense match from the stands was von Cramm’s mentor and tennis player Bill Tilden – a flamboyant 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 court side 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.


Comments Off on When I was 40, my doctor advised me that a man in his 40s shouldn’t play tennis. I heeded his advice carefully and could hardly wait until I reached 50 to start again… Hugo Black

Filed under Book Reviews

Comments are closed.