Summer reading – tennis’ (and humanity’s) ‘Terrible Splendor’

Tennis is a game of doubles. In the Hitchcock thriller “Strangers on a Train,” the tennis star must confront and overcome his murderous doppelgänger. In Woody Allen’s “Match Point,” the tennis pro is his murderous doppelgänger.

In Nijinsky’s ballet “Jeux,” the male tennis player is involved with two women.

Marshall Jon Fisher’s juicy 2009 book “A Terrible Splendor” (Three Rivers Press) offers a very different pas de trois. It’s the story of American Don Budge, the first man to win the Grand Slam, his friendly German rival, Gottfried von Cramm, and Cramm’s coach, the legendary American player Bill Tilden, locked in a Davis Cup match that was more than a mere game at Wimbledon in the summer before the dark – the eve of World War II.

What’s impressive is the way Fisher couches their stories in multiple histories (past tense), weaving those stories together as the match unfolds like a thriller seemingly in real time (present tense). There’s a literary quality to this nonfiction work from the “First Set” (or first chapter), in which he describes the elegant Von Cramm  tossing “a new white Slazenger tennis ball three feet above his head. It seems to hang there suspended for the slightest moments, a distant frozen moon….”

This is no black hat-white hat story, despite the Nazi versus American framework in the summer of 1937 and despite the fact that Budge, a red-haired Californian, might just as well have stepped out of Central Casting for the part of the American naïf abroad. But Von Cramm could not have been cast as a Nazi villain. He had no love for Hitler for many reasons not the least of which was that he was gay. (That the German Davis Cup team was being coached by Tilden, who was also gay, is one of the book’s many ironies.)

Von Cramm, however, could not refuse to play Davis Cup for the Nazis. To do so would have been to expose a sexuality that was already being plumbed by the Gestapo and endanger his wife and his family. Fisher does a terrific job of explaining the horrific brutality that gays were subjected to in concentration camps. (As it was, Von Cramm, who went to prison for being gay, narrowly missed the death camps.) In the summer of 1937, he was literally playing for his life.

But in the days before open tennis, when “amateurs” alone were allowed to compete in the big tournaments, Davis Cup was as much about the prestige of nations as it was the glory of individual players. Here Fisher achieves what I tried to do in my debut novel “Water Music,” illuminating the enormous price athletes play when sports become entwined with politics – as they inevitably do in international competition.

I’m not going to tell you what happens in the match – though I think you can guess – because Fisher is a master of building suspense and presenting complex characters, perhaps none more so than Tilden, a man haunted by familial tragedy and his attraction to teenage boys, for which he, too, would go to prison.

So it’s a bit disconcerting to hear Fisher describe the tennis champ Alice Marble, who survived rape as a teenager and being shot by the Nazis as an OSS agent, as “an attractive but powerful-looking blonde.” Why not “an attractive, powerful-looking blonde”? Why must attractiveness stand in opposition to power?

Then five pages later, we get this about Wimbledon champ Budge taking part in the traditional dance with the women’s champ at the Wimbledon ball:

“Budge’s luck held out, for he was able to spin around the floor with the relatively svelte Dorothy Round, who had only narrowly squeaked by the tanklike Polish star, Jadwiga Jedrzejowska.”

Yes, God forbid a man should have to dance with a “battle-axe.” Such sentences are unworthy of a writer (and his editors), particularly one who is able to conjure the “terrible splendor” that is humanity.