A Terrible Splendor

By MARSHALL JON FISHER

Tennis superstars Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal may play for great stakes in their quest for Grand Slam glory, but even their epic battles can’t compare to the pressure felt by America’s Don Budge and Germany’s Gottfried von Cramm in their 1937 Davis Cup match, the subject of Marshall Jon Fisher’s absorbing new book. With World War II looming, their match found sports and politics intersecting on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, but for the anti-Nazi von Cramm, the stakes were even higher: “I’m playing for my life? won’t touch me as long as I’m winning.” Borrowing a technique from John McPhee’s acclaimed Levels of the Game, Fisher weaves biographical information with both the ongoing drama of the match and the ever-darkening world political scene. The handsome, polished, homosexual von Cramm, an impeccable sportsman born to an aristocratic and wealthy German family, emerges as the most compelling figure in the book. Disdainful of the Nazis (he called Hitler “a housepainter”), he refused to join the Nazi party, no matter how intense the pressure. And intense it was. As the Nazi stranglehold on Germany crushed all dissent, the Gestapo monitored his activities, the tennis ace keeping out of jail only as long as he won matches. Shortly after his heroic loss to Budge at 8-6 in the fifth set, von Cramm was arrested, thrown into prison for a year, and sent to the Eastern Front. Despite winning the Iron Cross for bravery, von Cramm was dishonorably discharged because of his arrest by the Nazis on charges of immoral behavior. Solidly written and researched, Fisher’s book is not without faults; repetition of tennis trivia and a plethora of speculative phrases diminish the solid underpinnings. Nonetheless Fisher’s achievement is a substantial one, bringing alive a legendary match and, in von Cramm, a player of uncommon grace who, sensing his fate, could ironically only find peace and safety in the spotlight of Centre Court.