04 June 2009

"A Terrible Splendor" by Marshall Jon Fisher

On a sweltering afternoon in July of 1937 the lives of three of the greatest tennis players of the 20s and 30s intersected on Center Court of Wimbledon in the final match of the Davis Cup semifinal, a match called by many, as the subtitle says, the greatest tennis match ever played. Don Budge, who had won the Championships on the same court a couple of weeks earlier, clinching the world number one ranking, played for the American squad in this decisive match. His opponent in this match was Baron Gottfried von Cramm, the world number two, whom Budge had easily dispatched in that Wimbledon final. In the stands was the greatest player in the history of the sport, Big Bill Tilden, who had been perennially snubbed by the American Lawn Tennis Association as a coach and who sought a measure of revenge by unofficially coaching Cramm.

The details of the match are well-known. Cramm, jumping out to a two-set lead, was defeated by a resurgent Budge, cementing the latter's position as the greatest player of the 30s. What is less well-known is how the storylines of these three players reflect so well the political stories of the time. Budge, the red-headed hope of American tennis, is playing for honor and glory. Cramm, a homosexual, is playing to keep the Gestapo at bay just a little bit longer. Tilden, also gay, is trying to stay in the game.

Fisher writes dynamically about the match and about the events in the lives of the players and the lives of all the world leading up to it. Even knowing the outcome, he manages to generate tension on the page. The reader is kept in the moment by the use of the present tense in match descriptions, shifting to the past for background. He skilfully breaks the background information down and interweaves it around breathless descriptions of pivotal moments in the game. The result is a book of nonfiction that reads like a novel.

Despite a typo here and there, "A Terrible Splendor" is a remarkable book. For the tennis fan, there is a glimpse into the state of the sport before the Open era, when the lines between amateur and professional were sharply delineated. For the history buff, there is a look into the intersection of sports and politics, especially in the Third Reich. This has been done before, but most commonly around the 1936 Olympics and the Schmelling/ Louis boxing matches. Finally, for the general reader of nonfiction, there is a riveting story well-told. "A Terrible Splendor" is the best sports book I have ever read, and certainly among the best nonfiction I have read this year.

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