One was a German aristocrat, the epitome of elegance and sportsmanship. The other was a homely American raised on public tennis courts. Between them stood the net at Center Court in Wimbledon and a web of international tension.
"A Terrible Splendor" recounts the 1937 Davis Cup match between the German, Baron Gottfried von Cramm, and the American, Don Budge, set against the gravitational pull of World War II.
Again, an international sporting event would be a proxy for political struggle. The United States was slogging through the Great Depression. Germany was free-falling into fascism. In the Davis Cup, tennis' biggest trophy in the early 20th century, the world's top players faced off as national teams.
Marshall Jon Fisher's deeply researched story puts readers on the scene at Wimbledon Stadium, the host venue, with the swastika flying overhead. Great Britain would face the winner in the finals, but the real contest was the semifinal match between the world's two best players, Budge and Cramm.
For Budge, national pride was on the line. For Cramm, much more. His refusal to join the Nazi party had made him untrustworthy. Worse, the Nazis were persecuting homosexuals and they knew his secret.
Fisher braids the life stories of Budge and Cramm together with the tale of former world champion "Big Bill" Tilden. An American with a big ego and a problematic private life, Tilden was snubbed by U.S. tennis authorities, so he coached the Germans instead.
Weaving those three large strands together with the gay bar scene in Weimar Berlin, the rise of Nazi Germany and a litany of worldwide tennis matches would be a challenge for any writer, and Fisher winds up in a tangle in several places. But he makes up for it in the climactic chapter.
Cramm had taken the first two sets. Budge battled back to take the next two. In the final set, the champions pushed each other to five match points. With the sun setting on Center Court, with Queen Mary, Hollywood celebrities and German Jewish expatriates looking on, the hopes of nations collided in the greatest tennis match ever played.
Fisher writes that "Budge and Cramm turned journalists into poets." In the final scenes of this book, they had the same effect on him.
Maureen McCarthy is a team leader for the Star Tribune.