Tennis may be a joy to play and a pleasure to watch, but it’s not a sport that lends itself easily to literary endeavor. The average tennis match has a few hundred largely indistinguishable points, and the scoring system reads like something out of a high school calculus book. An entire library devoted to the sport might be reduced a handful of volumes and one classic work of nonfiction, John McPhee’s Levels of the Game, published forty years ago.
That book is constructed around a single match, a 1968 US Open semifinal between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. In McPhee’s hands, the otherwise forgotten contest becomes an engrossing story of two men from different worlds engaged in mental, moral, and physical combat. With A Terrible Splendor, Marshall Jon Fisher has taken McPhee’s model and applied it to another match, a 1937 contest between American Don Budge and Baron Gottfried von Cramm, playing for Nazi Germany. The winner would deliver his nation into the final of the Davis Cup, the international team tournament then considered on par with the four Grand Slam events. A weak British team waited in the final, so the Budge-Cramm match would essentially determine the world championship.
It’s not giving too much away to report that Budge, the jug-eared son of a California truck driver, ended up with a dramatic five-set victory. He was, unquestionably, the superior talent. His cannonball serve was the fastest in the game, and he hit the ball with a great white truncheon of a racket—“the ghost,” he called it. Just seventeen days before their Davis Cup battle, Budge had beaten Cramm in straight sets for the Wimbledon crown, and he was in the midst of a run that would bring him ninety-two consecutive victories and tennis’s first Grand Slam.
Yet for all Budge’s athletic brilliance, it is the elegant Cramm, a model gentleman on and off the court, who becomes the unlikely hero. His unrivaled mental game was developed under the tutelage of Daniel Prenn, a Russian-born Jew and German tennis champion who would later be forced to escape the Nazis. Cramm’s backhand was learned from another mentor, Bill Tilden, an American tennis icon and the third man mentioned in Fisher’s title. Besides tennis, Cramm and Tilden had something else in common: homosexuality.
Tilden’s passion for underage company landed him in prison and led to his ruin, a descent Fisher chronicles vividly. But the book’s true drama is driven by Cramm, who had become a propaganda tool for a Nazi government he found repugnant. By the time he and Budge met, the Gestapo was well aware of his sexuality and made it clear that his continued freedom rested on his ability to bring victories home for the Reich.
While compelling, Cramm’s story can be difficult to follow in Fisher’s telling, which jumps back and forth in time, exacerbating the natural tendency of tennis matches to blur together. More vexing are Fisher’s reliance on quotations to do his narrative work for him and his occasional attempts to channel the voices of his characters. “Is it his imagination, or is Gottfried a bit edgy?” Fisher imagines Budge thinking to himself at a crucial point in the titular match. “You need some luck, but you’ve got to make yourself lucky!” That doesn’t sound like the ruthlessness one expects of a champion in flagrante.
For all that, Fisher has written a spirited telling of a great match. Whether it was the “greatest match ever played” is a matter of opinion. Tilden thought so, but he never lived to see the likes of McEnroe-Borg or Federer-Nadal. Perhaps we might be satisfied with the opinion of Alastair Cooke, who claimed the two contestants achieved such grace that their performance “looked more like ballet than a game where you hit a ball.”