This is one of those unbelievable true stories that you hear and think, “why didn’t I know about this, before?”
The public radio show, “The World” had an absolutely fascinating interview with Marshall Jon Fisher, author of the new book A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever.
No, this isn’t about Federer vs. Nadal in the 2008 Wimbledon final (that book is coming out soon!). It’s about another match that was played on Wimbledon’s Centre Court: the decisive fifth rubber of the 1937 Davis Cup semifinals between the American Don Budge and Germany’s Gottfried von Cramm.
The author makes this comparison between these two famous matches:
“Last year there was an incredible tennis final, the Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal. And for pure tennis, it was just as good (as Budge vs. von Cramm). But what was it? It was a couple of millionaires playing for their own glory. The stakes weren’t nearly as high.
So let’s get to the stakes:
In 1937, Davis Cup was an international sensation, and the match, on the eve of World War II, was said to “slow down Wall Street” when it was broadcast over radio. Don Budge was the World No. 1 player, he’d beat von Cramm in both the Wimbledon (see above photo) and U.S. Open finals that year. Von Cramm was considered the most popular tennis player in the world, a handsome, blonde gentleman with two French Open titles. This match was such a big deal that Hitler supposedly called von Cramm moments before the match for a last minute pep talk.
Budge later described von Cramm’s reaction to that call: “(He) came out pale and serious and played as if his life depended on every point.”
Maybe because it did. Von Cramm was gay, and he knew that bringing glory to his Fuehrer was the only way he’d be tolerated.
Von Cramm played well enough to win the first two sets against Budge, and was up 4-1 in the fifth set. But the World No. 1 made a come back, winning the match 6-8, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 8-6 and securing the tie for the U.S.A. For Don Budge it was a legendary victory, but for von Cramm it was much more than a tough loss. The Gestapo imprisoned him in 1938.
Oh, and the third extraordinary man referenced in the book’s title is Big Bill Tilden. The all-time great acted as the German team’s unofficial coach that year. He was also a homosexual.
As Cramm and I were leaving the locker room, the telephone rang and Cramm was called back, and it was Hitler calling him to wish him good luck, in this particular match. Of course it was quite exciting because the fellow who had charge of getting the players out on the court on time had both of us by the arm, he wouldn’t let Cramm go, and Cram was saying, “Yes Mein Fuehrer,” this and that, and it got to be quite a tense moment. However, we finally did get out on the court. And I managed to win the 3rd and 4th, and right away I was down 4-1 in the 5th set. I decided I had to get the net position away from him in the worst way. So with this in mind I made up my mind I would try to return his serve and go in behind it. Well as luck had it I did manage to get my returns in, get in to the net and make some winning volleys. I broke his serve and from there on it went to 6-all. Finally at 7-6 I broke his serve, and after 6 match points, finally won the thing, after a great struggle–falling down on the ground on my last point–but making the shot nonetheless. But as we shook hands at the net, I’ll never forget what Cram said, he said, “Don,” he said, “I’m very happy that I played so well against you, whom I like so much, and it was the best tennis I’ve every played in my life, so congratulations to the best man on this particular occasion.”
But guess what – the book’s author has reason to believe that Don Budge was fibbing. Von Cramm (who survived his time in jail) said later that the phone call never happened, and no other evidence exists to support Budge’s recollection. Just another intriguing and strange anecdote from this amazing story. . .
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I’ve embedded the audio from The World’s interview with Fisher above. But I urge you to click here to visit the show’s website. Besides the interview, it has a wonderful audio slide show featuring photographs of both the players (Gottfried was the era’s Feliciano Lopez) and the times they played in.
Click below to order the book A Terrible Splendor from Amazon.
And big thanks to Alice Marble (the GTT commenter, not Budge’s mixed doubles partner!) for forwarding this story to me.
Photos from Jon Marshall Fisher via The World website.