High Life | 5 September 2009

Gentlemen players

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My Davis Cup partner Nicky Kalogeropoulos won both the Wimbledon and Roland Garros junior titles in 1963, and the following year, at four–all, 30–all in the fifth set against the French champion Pierre Darmon, signalled his opponent’s ball good after the umpire had called it out giving Nicky a breakpoint. He lost the match but has been known ever since for his sportsmanship.

As I write, the US Open is at full tilt, and Nicky rang from Costa Rica to wish me a happy birthday. I didn’t bother to tell him he was three weeks late. We talked instead about a new book with the unfortunate title, A Terrible Splendor. It’s about the greatest tennis match ever played, the fifth and deciding rubber of the 1937 Davis Cup between Germany and the US, played by the number one in the world Donald Budge and Baron Gottfried von Cramm, the world’s number two. I knew both men, having been trained by Budge for one year in 1956 and befriended by Gottfried in the Sudan in 1958. The baron and I would hit every morning before the heat set in, and in 1959 I won the Sudan championship with Gottfried in the stands cheering me on. Ironically, I beat a German in the final. (I joked in a letter that my opponent had died of heat stroke following the match and a Greek newspaper called my victory a hollow one.)

Von Cramm was born into a very ancient aristocratic German family, and his devastating good looks, as well as his unparalleled sportsmanship, made him an idol both in Germany and Britain. He reached the final at Wimbledon three times, losing all three matches (although in his second final he had pulled a muscle and should have defaulted but gallantly refused to do so). Gottfried won the French Championships twice in a row, the slow clay being perfect for his beautiful flat strokes and devastating second spin serve. Cramm was known for never, ever glancing at a linesman after a bad call — or disputing a call, for that matter. In the Davis Cup Interzone 1935 final against the Americans, during the crucial doubles match, Cramm had performed miracles, carrying his much weaker partner, Kai Lund, against the formidable Wimbledon winners Wilmer Allison and Johnny Van Ryn. The papers called it ‘the greatest one-man doubles match ever’. On the fifth match point, Gottfried served a bullet that Allison barely got back. It was a set-up at the net and Lund muffed it. He collapsed on the grass but Cramm’s expression never changed. Instead, he served another bullet which, after an exchange, Lund finally put away for the match. But not quite. The baron, the soul of chivalry, walked over to the umpire and calmly informed him that the ball had grazed his racket before his partner had put it away. Neither his opponents nor the referee had noticed. The point went to the Americans and they eventually won the match and the rubber the next day.

In the locker room afterwards, a German official had a nervous breakdown. He reminded Gottfried that Germany had never come as close to winning the cup — far more prestigious than any championship back then — and charged von Cramm with letting down the side. Here’s the baron’s reply: ‘Tennis is a gentleman’s game, and that’s the way I’ve played it ever since I picked up a racket. Do you think that I would sleep tonight knowing that the ball had touched my racket without my saying so? On the contrary, I don’t think I’m letting down the German people. I think I’m doing them credit.’ All this in a calm, composed and elegant manner. The listening Americans were dumbfounded. Then they cheered.

After his defeat against Budge in the Wimbledon final of 1938, the baron, who was married to the beautiful Lisa von Dobeneck, was charged by the Nazis with homosexuality and was sent to a concentration camp for a year. Von Cramm was homosexual but one would never have known it by his behaviour, which was that of an impeccable gentleman. In 1939, with Cramm the hot favourite finally to win the Wimbledon final (he had beaten the eventual winner Bobby Riggs 6-0, 6-1 at Queens the week before), he was refused entry by the cowardly All England club because of moral turpitude, a Nazi invention as no one had ever come forward to accuse Cramm of anything resembling public lewdness. Worse, Cramm was refused entry by the United States until his death in 1976 because of a Nazi charge.

Two of Gottfried’s brothers were killed on the Russian front, where he served and won the military cross for valour. He played Wimbledon well into his forties, as well as the Davis Cup, and was killed in a car crash in Cairo in 1976. His widow was Barbara Hutton, the original poor little rich girl.

In today’s barbarian sport culture, where overpaid, steroid-sodden freaks perform like trained seals, Gottfried’s aristocratic looks, brilliant strokes and impeccable sportsmanship may look almost counterproductive, but the opposite is true. Both Budge and he died in car accidents, but their 1937 match will live for ever for its brilliance as well as for its drama. ‘Thank you, Don, for making me play the best tennis of my life,’ said Cramm as he went to the net to congratulate Budge. Some loser. Hitler is still turning over about that one.