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Hitler, the German aristocrat and 'the greatest match in history'

By Paul Gittings, CNN
  • 1937 Davis Cup match between Donald Budge and Gottfried von Cramm remembered
  • Marshall Jon Fisher wrote A Terrible Splendor about the match and its significance
  • Budge beat von Cramm in five thrilling sets at Wimbledon to clinch the tie
  • Von Cramm was arrested by the Nazis but later served on the Russian Front

(CNN) -- It has been called the "greatest match in the history of the world", the subject of an award-winning best-selling book -- called "A Terrible Splendor" -- and is a tale of triumph over adversity that echoes down the years.

The deciding singles rubber in the 1937 Davis Cup Challenge Round match at Wimbledon pitted American powerhouse Donald Budge, the world number one, against Germany's golden boy Baron Gottfried von Cramm.

At stake was a place in the final of the competition against the holders Britain, at a time when the Davis Cup was the most prestigious event in tennis, bar none, including grand slams.

Marshall Jon Fisher, who wrote "A Terrible Splendor" told CNN that the U.S. captain Walter Pate had been worried that Budge, by playing at Wimbledon, which he won by beating von Cramm in the final, might affect his preparation for the Davis Cup.

So back in 1937, the ultimate in tennis glory was at stake, but Fisher said the significance of the clash went far beyond a mere sporting encounter.

The author, a keen tennis fan, grew up in the 1970's and from the accounts he had heard, always believed it was the greatest tennis match ever played.

The impact of clashes such as Bjorn Borg vs John McEnroe or Rafael Nadal vs Roger Federer at Wimbledon led him to have some doubts about this claim, but having researched for his book, he became convinced it was indeed the case.

"It was not just the quality of the tennis, but the whole story behind it and the political situation at the time. They are all factors," said Fisher.

While one man, Budge, was playing for the honor of his country, the other, von Cramm was battling for his very life against the threat of Nazi persecution.

Budge may have won the match after coming from two sets down to take it 8-6 in the fifth, but it is widely acknowledged that von Cramm was the real hero that July afternoon.

That was absolutely the best match I played in my life. And I'm very happy to have played it against you, who I like very much
--Gottfried von Cramm
  • Tennis
  • Davis Cup
  • Wimbledon

Aryan in looks, von Cramm was a German aristocrat who refused to join the Nazi party, was friends with Jews, and harbored a secret about his sexuality.

Von Cramm's strategy was to keep on the road and keep winning, relying on his immense popularity as a shield against arrest and detention by the increasingly powerful Nazis.

In an ironic twist, von Cramm and the German team were coached by American Bill Tilden, a former 10-time grand slam singles champion, friend of Hollywood stars such as Charlie Chaplin, and himself a homosexual.

Budge later claimed that von Cramm received a phone call from Hitler just five minutes before they were due to go on court.

This claim has been open to dispute and Fisher said that Budge took 30 years to reveal the fact in an autobiography.

But there is little doubt that whatever the motivation, von Cramm played like a man possessed at the start of the match.

He had been easily beaten by Budge in the final of Wimbledon on the same court a few weeks previously but won the two opening sets 8-6 7-5.

Budge later told his doubles partner Gene Mako that this had come as no surprise because he knew what was at stake for the German.

But the American was a dogged character and hit back to take the next two by margins of 6-4 and 6-2. "He was a great tennis player, a champion in every sense of the meaning," said Fisher.

The broadcast of the match on NBC and BBC Radio kept many away from their work that day and the New York Stock Exchange came to a halt as traders stopped to listen. It was headed for a dramatic finale.

He was a great tennis player, a champion in every sense of the meaning
--Jon Marshall Fisher on Donald Budge

Von Cramm, a fifth-set specialist, broke out for a 4-1 lead, but the canny Budge changed tactics and hit back to level.

In a little over two years, Britain would be at war with Germany, but most of the crowd were now fimly rooting for von Cramm.

Part of the reason for this Fisher said is that without Fred Perry, who had turned professional, Britain were a much weakened team and Germany were felt the easier task.

But the other was the sheer popularity of von Cramm, who had lost the last three Wimbledon finals in a row, but always with impeccable sportsmanship.

Unpeturbed Budge did not waiver. He eventually carved out his sixth match-point at 6-7 on the von Cramm service and almost on a dive conjured up an incredible passing shot to win the match after two-and-a-half hours of gripping action.

The crowd reacted with a stunned silence until the two men shook hands at the net.

Eyewitness accounts said fans were still on Centre Court an hour later, totally transfixed by what they had witnessed.

At the moment of defeat, with impeccable manners as ever, von Cramm told Budge: "That was absolutely the best match I played in my life. And I'm very happy to have played it against you, who I like very much."

America, with Budge dominant, went on to beat Britain 4-1 to win the Davis Cup, but within a year von Cramm had been arrested for "immoral behavior" with his lover, a young Jewish man.

Under international pressure, the Nazis released him but he was drafted into the German army to serve on the Russian Front, effectively a death sentence for many.

Von Cramm survived to earn the Iron Cross, and played Davis Cup tennis again after the war when Germany's international ban was lifted, and scored some notable victories, belying his advancing years.

Despite his sexual prediliction, he had been married in the 1930s, and still attracted the attention of women with his film star looks.

Just a remarkable figure and an incredible human being, a magnetic individual
--Jon Marshall Fisher on Gottfried von Cramm

In 1953 von Cramm wed for the second time to Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, the richest woman in the world.

They divorced in 1959, and he was to lose his life in a car crash in Cairo in 1976, aged 67 after being widely honored for his tennis exploits, including two French Open victories.

He was much mourned: "Just a remarkable figure and an incredible human being, a magnetic individual," said Fisher.

Budge went on to become the first player to win the tennis grand slam of all four majors in a season, in 1938, before turning professional the following year.

An accident in basic training during the war shortened his career and Fisher said the win over Von Cramm was undoubtedly the "peak"' of his career.

He died in 2000, aged 84.

Outside of the world of tennis, the story is perhaps little known, but may be about to get the recognition it deserves.

A Hollywood studio has taken an option on Fisher's book so both Budge and von Cramm may end up immortalized on the silver screen.