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Ron Fimrite
July 05, 1993
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July 05, 1993

Baron Of The Court


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That dialogue is one not likely to be repeated anytime soon. But if Von Cramm's concern for the feelings of a tennis official seems incomprehensible today, what he did later that year in a Davis Cup tie between Germany and the U.S. would strike a modern player, weaned on the manners of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, as sheer lunacy. Actually, that was the way it struck the captain of the German team, Heinrich Kleinschroth. But Von Cramm had his own code, and he lived by it.

The situation was this: The German and U.S. teams were even after the opening-day singles competition, Budge having defeated Henner Henkel in a marathon, 7-5, 11-9, 6-8, 6-1, and Von Cramm having beaten Wilmer Allison in straight sets. In the doubles the next day Allison and John Van Ryn faced Von Cramm and Kai Lund, and the match went to five sets. At match point for the Germans, Von Cramm and Lund both lunged for a shot hit down the middle of the court. The baron fell short, but Lund got to the ball and drove it home for an apparent winner.

"Game, set and match to Germany," the umpire called.

But no. The baron lifted his hand in protest. The ball had ticked his racket before Lund had hit his shot, he told the astonished official. Therefore, the point should go to the Americans. It was one of five match points the Germans would lose en route to a disheartening 8-6 defeat in the final set. The U.S. would go on to win the tie four matches to one and then lose to Great Britain in the Challenge Round.

Kleinschroth was apoplectic after the doubles defeat. Germany had never won the Davis Cup, and Von Cramm's sportsmanship had cost the fatherland a golden opportunity. The baron had disgraced both his country and his teammates, Kleinschroth sputtered. The normally affable Von Cramm leveled his captain with a frigid stare.

"When I chose tennis as a young man," the baron said, "I chose it because it was a gentleman's game, and that's the way I've played it ever since I picked up my first racket. Do you think that I would sleep tonight knowing that the ball had touched my racket without my saying so? Never, because I would be violating every principle I think this game stands for. On the contrary, I don't think I'm letting the German people down. As a matter of fact, I think I'm doing them credit."

However, the Germany of 1935 was not the country Von Cramm and his kind had grown up believing in, and in his heart he knew it, which makes his stand all the more impressive. This was a Germany controlled not by Prussian aristocrats but by an Austrian demagogue whose idea of fair play was to murder political opponents, persecute ethnic groups and bully neighboring countries. The baron found himself on increasingly shaky ground. He had already angered the Nazi regime by protesting the banishment from Davis Cup play of his former teammate Daniel Prenn, a Jew. And he had refused to join the Nazi party, despite repeated invitations from Field Marshal Hermann Göring. In one of his pleas Göring had ostentatiously torn to shreds all the mortgages held on Von Cramm castles by Jewish bankers. "Now," the portly field marshal announced, "you are free."

The baron stared at the shredded documents and said icily, "All the more reason for me not to join your party."

Nonetheless, Von Cramm remained above censure, because among German athletes only the former heavyweight champion Max Schmeling could rival him as a national hero. And unlike Schmeling, who was unfairly regarded abroad as a Nazi standard-bearer (he was not, in fact, a party member), Von Cramm was perceived worldwide as a figure superior to and apart from the deeds of the Third Reich, a white knight among barbarians. He was often called "Germany's best ambassador."

At home the baron was obliged to play under the swastika flag and to observe the idiotic Nazi saluting rituals, for to do otherwise would cost him his tennis career. He was a proud German, but he was really more a citizen of the world who played under the red-and-white colors of his tennis club, the Rot-Weiss of Berlin. He also made no secret of his disdain for the Nazi government, once being quoted in a British newspaper as calling the Führer "a housepainter."

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