A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Match Ever Played (2009), by Marshall Jon Fischer


As an old-timer and longtime tennis lover, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a young author has written an ambitious history of the fabled 1937 Davis Cup match at Wimbledon between American Don Budge and German Gottfried von Cramm. The third of the “three extraordinary men” is Bill Tilden. I put aside the book I was reading and drove to the nearest Barnes and Noble for A Terrible Splendor.

Why this book now? I imagine–I have no supporting facts–that the book proposal and ensuing discussions highlighted: (i) the new public interest in tennis from the sublime Nadal-Federer Wimbledon final last July and itself frequently acclaimed as the greatest match ever (though it has insistent rivals such as Borg-McEnroe in the 1980 Wimbledon final, McEnroe-Connors in the 1984 Wimbledon final, a couple of Sampras-Agassi matches, and Tilden-Johnston in the 1924 Forest Hills final, to mention but a few and to show that thrillingly close matches as well as sublime routs seem to have qualified down the decades as “greatest”); (ii) the marketer’s ploy of the attention-getting defiant contrarian claim that “you naifs should have seen the even better one in 1937 (long before Nadal-Federer and when you were still wet behind the ears)”; (iii) the revelation of the persecution and brutalizing of the aristocratic and handsome German tennis great Cramm by the Nazis for being gay and an uncooperative Aryan paragon and refusnik to the Nazis and which began before the classic 1937 match and horrifically intensified after it, the dubious impression perhaps gaining in some that personal fear of a disappointed Hitler and his Nazis alone must have driven Cramm to his most wonderful tennis in a thrilling five-set loss to Budge; (iv) the superb tennis that day in 1937, along with the backdrop political drama, surely merits greatness for that long-ago match, one in which the play was indeed magnificent (the astonishing winners-to-errors ratio one of the main reasons for the match being hailed as supreme); and (v) the sense that somehow the great tennis star Budge wasn’t quite an interesting enough personality to balance Cramm’s appeal so that Tilden, unquestionably an unforgettable person (a tennis “Monarch” according to one prominent sports writer and arguably the greatest American gay male athlete), should be given equal billing in this drama even though here, his prime behind him, his was the peripheral if controversial non-playing role of coaching the German team against the American team which, in fact, should have made him a supporting actor in Fisher’s drama.

I have mixed feelings about A Terrible Splendor after reading it. It’s good that one of the great events in tennis history, already well-known to tennis fanatics, has been resurrected in print for general readers, especially young ones. The Tilden story, wonderfully told by the great Frank DeFord (Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and the Tragedy) way back in the 1970s (“way back” for these soundbite times of the Almighty Moment), should be retold and known to more people than presently: Tilden, an artist of beautiful tennis (“divine” in Nabokov’s words) in wooden racket times long before the modern game of high-tech rackets, big-money tournaments and players, and obsessively trained and dedicated giants of the court, was simply splendid, if insufferable, in many dramatic and sublime tennis ways. It’s important to dramatize the persecution and brutalization of gays and lesbians, especially by the atrocious totalitarians of the dreadful twentieth century. And, despite Deford’s helping Budge with Budge’s autobiographical A Tennis Memoir, Budge can, I think, use (and certainly deserves) some more historical recall. Probably above all, it’s good–the best thing about Fisher’s book–that for those of us not specialists in tennis history, we learn much about one of the greats of the wooden racket era, the estimable and sad Cramm of whom the famous Australian coach Harry Hopman said: “Gottfried was the most fluent and best looking stroke maker I have seen in my fifty years of international tennis.” And, as it must always be, it’s a good thing when a historian can write well:

“July the twentieth, 1937, and Baron Gottfried von Cramm tosses a new white Slazenger tennis ball three feet above his head. It seems to hang there suspended for the slightest of moments, a distant frozen moon, before his wooden racket plucks it out of the electrified air of Wimbledon’s Centre Court, rocketing a service winner past J. Donald Budge.”

Maybe “plucked” and “electrified” might be rethought, but a nice passage by the talented Fisher.

But for knowledgeable tennis lovers, there is little new here and mostly it seems derived from better accounts. Fisher’s Tilden story has already been told much better by DeFord, with some notable elaboration by Ray Bowers and Bobby Riggs, the latter in his biased but indispensable Tennis Is My Racket. Fisher’s attempt at a point-by-point telling of the Budge-Cramm match falls far short of the best of these I’ve read: Larry Engelmann’s superb account of the fabled Lenglen-Wills showdown in Cannes in 1926 in Engelmann’s gift to tennis, The Goddess And The American Girl: The Story Of Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills. Also better in match-calling than what Fisher gives us are, I think, Budge’s own account (with help from DeFord) of the famous 1937 match in his A Tennis Memoir; DeFord’s wonderful passage in his Tilden biography about the style of match play in the wooden racket era and how it differs from that of today; Bowers’s accounts in Between the Lines, his history of early professional tennis, of players, personalities and styles; and Nabokov’s truly marvelous account of what tennis looked like in the “lawn tennis” era in his magnificent description of Lolita playing against another youngster after lessons from “Ned Litam” (backwards, Ma Tilden). What it means to be a gay athlete has been better captured by Patricia Nell Warren in The Lavender Locker Room, which includes essays on Tilden and Navratilova, than by Fisher.

And Budge boring? Budge, I think, was a most interesting personality. Just one anecdote: In McEnroe’s book, You Cannot Be Serious, he reports that when Lendl was hammering McEnroe in match after match, Budge cryptically told McEnroe what to do: Chip deep down the center of the court, close to the net fast, and you’ll solve the riddle of Lendl by taking the angles away from him. Now: If you get out a piece of paper and a pencil, and draw a court, you’ll quickly understand that Lendl has less power to feed off in passing the chipping McEnroe and that the geometry of passing lanes has become most disfavorable for Lendl, especially against a volley prodigy like McEnroe. McEnroe reports that Budge’s tactic worked well–McEnroe won a succession of matches against Lendl. Besides, I found Budge’s story as a star who rose on the public courts, was a lover of the Dorsey bands and the swing era, and got along well with Olivia DeHavilland, formerly of Los Gatos, good reading. As they say, Budge was a player, tennis and beyond.

Fisher chooses to spread out the five sets of the Cramm-Budge match through the book, interrupting after each set to digress on the political background and other facets. It doesn’t work. It is like being forced to watch a great match with long interruptions in play. There is much to be discovered about Cramm, but the general history of the Nazis as it pertains here derives from several seminal sources well-known to many readers, you’d have to believe. However, I’ve lost any editorial urges, Monday morning structural recommendations, after the jarring trek through A Terrible Splendor.

Finally, I don’t think it was fear that drove Cramm to his great tennis that afternoon in 1937. Ditto Budge. Ditto probably nearly all great players. My sense is that we know the answer here, have known it, from a long time ago. Probably Nabokov says it as well as anyone. He has Humbert Humbert tell the dead Lolita in that sometimes tennis-haunted novel extolling beauty, that beautiful art is a “refuge,” “the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.” Sublime tennis–the playing of it–has always been about artistic beauty in a set space. It’s a sort of refuge in any times, I think, including those when dark clouds gather. Poor Cramm was deadly terrified of the rising Nazi goons. But he got away from all that for a superb while in a refuge out there on impeccable Wimbledon grass against the great Budge.

Tilden once said that hitting a winning shot in the sweet spot of the racket was his top experience. I think Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), the pool hustler in a great old movie now somewhat forgotten, said it best: “When I’m goin’, when I’m really goin’, I feel like a…like a jockey must feel when he’s sittin’ on his horse, he’s got all that speed and power underneath him, he’s coming into the stretch, the pressure’s on him–and he knows. He just feels when to let it go and how much. ‘Cause he’s got everything working for him–timing, touch. It’s a great feeling, boy–it’s a real great feeling–when you’re right and you know you’re right. Like all of a sudden, I got oil on my arm. Pool cue’s part of me. You know, it’s a pool cue, it’s got nerves in it. You can feel the roll of those balls…. You don’t have to look. You just know. You make shots nobody’s ever made before, and you play that game the way nobody’s ever played it before.”

My sense: This is what it’s all about. You have to look for it between some of the lines in A Terrible Splendor. I’m glad, though, that Fisher has given us this book. As it is, those old black-and-white pictures from 1937 and before show the players as the ghosts they now are. A lot of old beauty is fading. Somehow apropos: Fisher doesn’t distinguish sharply enough, it seems to me, between the old time wooden racket times and the modern game. You can’t really compare them. But who would want to regress? To borrow shamelessly from a great poet, and to talk about tennis, the centre has held as play changed. We’re lucky it has. I wouldn’t trade today’s power tennis for yesterday’s finesse tennis, and both are precious. I’m grateful to Fisher for his rescue mission. Most commendable and worthwhile. If you’re a tennis fan, you’ll want to read it, I feel sure.

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