1909-07-07

One of the greatest tennis players in history, BARON GOTTFRIED VON CRAMM, was born today (d. 1976). Never heard of the German tennis champion? Well his life is so unbelievable that it would make a great movie. It is surprising someone hasn’t already.

Aside for his being known for his gentlemanly conduct and fair play, he was one of the most winning tennis players in history. In 1932 he won the Davis Cup for Germany on his first attempt, the following year he won the mixed doubles title at Wimbeldon with Hilde Krahwinkel.

Two years later he earned his first individual Grand Slam title, winning the French Open.

Gottfried von Cramm is most remembered for his match against Don Budge during the 1937 Davis Cup. Considered won of the greatest matches in tennis history, von Cramm and Budge played in Wimbeldon’s center court to a crowd of 14,000 people mesmerized by these two champion players. Alistair Cooke, who covered the match as a radio journalist, wrote that the two players “set the rhythms of something that looked more like ballet than a game where you hit a ball. … People stopped asking other people to sit down. The umpire gave up stopping the game to beg for silence during rallies.” They played on into twilight and finally the match ended with a passing shot whose landing was never seen by Budge, who fell to the ground as soon as the ball was hit.

When it was over the British crowd in Cooke’s words “forgot its nature. … It stood on benches” and emitted a “deep kind of roar.” Later the captain of the U.S. team was quoted as saying, “No man, living or dead, could have beaten either man that day.” [for more on the match and on von Cramm and Tilden check out the recent book A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men . . . and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever by Marshall Jon Fisher] In an interview after the match, Budge told a reporter that von Cramm had received a phone call from Hitler minutes before the match started and came out pale and serious and had played each point as though his life depended on winning.

Budge was more right then he knew. Von Cramm in fact once confessed to his coach, the American tennis legend Bill Tilden (himself quite closeted), that he was “playing for my life.” Less than a year after the match, the Nazis would move against him. But why? His winning ways made him a hero in his native Germany. Certainly the handsome, blond athlete fit the “Aryan-race” image of the Nazis. But von Cramm refused to join the party. He detested them.

Figures, as von Cramm was madly in love with the Galician Jewish actor and singer MANASSE HERBST. In 1938 he was found guilty of having a “homosexual relationship” with Herbst and sentenced to a year in prison. Later von Cramm was sent to the Russian front. After the war he returned to tennis, settled down with a Woolworth heiress (later divorcing) and went into the cotton exporting business. He died in Egypt in 1976 when the car he was riding in collided with a truck. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island in 1977.